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Mental Health

Inside My Head – Overthinking and Perfectionism

Overthinking and perfectionism are two things that, while not the same, can usually go hand in hand when it comes to my mental health. One can cause the other or make the other worse, and it can take wrestling with both of them to calm down and stop panicking.



Overthinking for me is when my brain starts going a mile a minute, jumping from one negative possibility to the next. I take what is usually a very simple thing – having a meeting with someone, talking on the phone, doing an assignment – and turn it into a life-or-death anxiety inducing situation.


A big example of this is tied to my social anxiety when I may feel uncomfortable or awkward in a situation around people. After the interaction is over my head immediately starts building an elaborate fiction in which I made a fool of myself: the person involved hated me, or worse, thought I was stupid, and I would never be able to make a friend again and I’d die alone. Obviously, a huge leap from “I don’t know if that meeting went so well”, but that’s what overthinking does.


The only way I soothed my overthinking is to write everything down, whether in a journal, on my phone, or on a random scrap of paper I’ll throw out later. Writing something down and reading it back and let you look at a situation from a more logical point of view. It takes the overthinking and quantifies it into one thought. Talking to someone when you catch yourself overthinking helps for the same reason, at least for me. I find combating overthinking with organization and objectivity, whether from reading it on paper or hearing a response from a friend, helps to untangle your thoughts.


Perfectionism is similar in the fact that it’s all about your inner expectations and ideas versus logic or realism. A lot of people refer to perfectionism as a great thing, something driving someone to do their best work! People will describe others as a perfectionist if they always work hard to make something ‘perfect’, pay attention to detail, or always need everything to be right. That can be perfectionism, but my experience hasn’t been like that a majority of the time.


My perfectionism is a need to be perfect all the time. It doesn’t just affect my schoolwork but my life in general. I have a very heavy connection in my head between my personal self-worth and whether or not I’m doing absolutely everything “right”. For school this means if I get less than a perfect grade, anywhere below a 95, I feel like a failure. I need to work harder to do better, my mind tells me as I pass every class with flying colors. In life, this means I don’t do things if I’m not completely sure that I can do it right the first time. I often avoid new activities not because I’m afraid of them, but I’m afraid of doing one little thing wrong and proving I’m actually bad at everything I try.


Perfectionism also goes hand in hand with procrastination for me. Starting projects can be tough for me for fear of ruining it or failing, so I just never start personal things. When I do get a personal project to start, I rarely finish it to completion, afraid that when I get far enough along any mistake of mine will be a complete failure. It’s the thing that notices every mistake in my art so even when people tell me it’s amazing and I accept the compliment, a small part of my mind goes “But didn’t you see? It isn’t good. It’s bad because it isn’t perfect. There’s so much more I need to do”.


The best way I’ve found to beat perfectionism has been to plow right through it and ignore it. But don’t think you need to immediately start new projects and not doing things because of your perfectionism. It takes a lot of work to get to the point where you feel comfortable, say, putting less than 110% into things and letting some assignments or projects fall by the wayside. For me, it started with allowing myself to make mistakes and come to terms with what I thought of as ‘failure’. Allowing yourself to start and finish a project is important, too – one of the first things that helped start my overcoming perfectionism was doing a drawing a day art challenge called Inktober. It forced me to finish a drawing every day, regardless of if I thought it was any good or not, and taught me that something not being ‘perfect’ was still doing something, and that was better than sitting around wanting to do something but being to scared of failing to.


Do you struggle with overthinking and perfectionism? Did this help you? Do you have different ways of coping that I didn’t mention? Let me know down in the comments, and keep your eye out for part three!

Sarah is a freshman studying Theatrical Design and Production at Carnegie Mellon University. One day she hopes to design costumes for Star Wars and Marvel films or television programs, but for now you can find her in her free time hanging out in her dorm drawing or watching TV, trying out a new mug cake recipe, or reading her latest National Geographic issue. You can follow her on Instagram at @theocqueen to see all her latest doodles and sketches.
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