Why Do I Have to Be the Perfect Student?

In honor of mental health awareness month, I want to talk about a concept that negatively affects so many college students’ mental health: perfectionism. We’ve all had that friend who’s complaining about their stress about a grade, and we’re sitting there assuring them that they’ll do fine and that one essay grade doesn’t matter in the long run. Yet, we won’t offer the same compassion to ourselves. We receive a bad grade, and maybe we convince ourselves that we’re in the wrong major, or worse, at the wrong college.  While a lot of people who exhibit perfectionist behaviors may just be efficient and detail-oriented, the effects of perfectionism on individuals can be much more sinister than we give credit.


While everyone has their own standards and values that they would like to live up to, the problem with perfectionism is that it is a mythical belief that the individual needs to strive for perfection. Anything less than perfection, and the individual is not satisfied. They may be anywhere from upset to extremely downtrodden by their perceived “failure”. The problem here is that perfection doesn’t exist, so even if someone has done their personal best, they do not feel pride or a sense of accomplishment. It is easy to see why perfectionism often correlates with anxiety and depression, eating disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and other mental illnesses. However, perfectionism definitely occurs outside of mental illness, as our culture has enabled perfectionism to infiltrate almost all aspects of our lives, and especially the lives of those in higher education.


Like a lot of people, suffering from perfectionism started way before my college career. Good grades came relatively easy for me in elementary school, and like most kids, I expected this to continue for the rest of my life. This came to a head in sixth grade, when I transferred from public school to a college prep secondary school. The new phrase plastered everywhere was “Strive for Excellence”, and it seemed like the expectation was to graduate and go to an Ivy League College. Suddenly, my “excellence” became the average. Heading on to high school, I became a master at procrastination--not because I didn’t care about my schoolwork, but because I knew that no matter what I did, I wouldn’t be happy with it, and I’d be worried about getting a bad grade. I’ve written about this before, but it got to the point where I felt paralyzed when it came to big assignments; my perfectionism had gone so far one way that my grades actually suffered, and it was an unfortunate case of a self-fulfilling prophecy.


Fast forward to college, and for the first time, I reached a 4.0 GPA on my report card. Of course, I was super pleased to do so well, and it didn’t hurt that my parents were also very proud. But that was Fall Quarter. Last Winter Quarter, an A- brought down my GPA to 3.9 (side note: why are we punishing students for getting As? It seems pretty ridiculous, especially if a higher A grade does not warrant a plus). I was still on the President’s list, I was still doing well. I’m telling you this not to brag, but for you to understand that even though I am doing well, I was so disappointed that I only got a 3.9. Any and all effort that I put into that quarter was dwarfed by this feeling of failure that I had not upheld a 4.0. At least when my GPA was lower, I focused on other strengths of mine. Now, I spend significantly more time worrying about my academic standing, which makes me feel worse in the long run.

I still have conversations with some of my friends who have 4.0s and above in which they rant to me about possibly getting a B. In the past, I always felt some resentment, because how can you complain to somebody who's struggling to pass a class that you feel like you’re failing because you’re only going to get a B? And they would always justify it: “Well, that’s my normal.” It doesn’t erase the fact that this is still a ranking system, and you’re still complaining about being the top of that rank. I’m sure I’ve been guilty of this, too, and now I can sympathize with the overachiever, as I have also been way too stressed over the possibility of only a B grade. However, I do not want to get to the point where I am also complaining about a B like it’s the end of the world because it’s not. It’s important to remember that this struggle is not on par with other people’s struggles. Perfectionism, in a way, can manifest as selfish behavior. When you’re so focused on how you can be perfect, you tend to forget about other things that matter. My roommate and I have had several conversations about how we feel like we have to compete with each other in some way, and even though we recognize this as stemming from our own insecurities rather than an actual competition, it sucks to know that we can make each other feel worse about ourselves depending on who’s being more productive at the moment. So not only can perfectionism harm our relationship with ourselves, but it can also jeopardize our relationships with others.


And yet the worst thing about all of this is the fact that we still glorify perfectionism as this favorable trait, even to the point of mental (and physical) illness. Coming from both sides of the situation, I have seen varying responses to behaviors resulting from perfectionism. I receive sympathy for being stressed and juggling different projects and deadlines, but I receive frustration and blame when I am depressed and I struggle to complete minimum expectations. Perfectionism drives my stress in both situations: it is celebrated when I have spent far more time than necessary on an assignment but demonized when I procrastinate, and I’m labeled as merely lazy or distracted. Not bring the c-word into this, but perhaps capitalism has taught us to only value people for their productivity rather than their inherent worth as a human being. This is why perfectionism isn’t just a sign of mental illness: it’s a sign of a cultural illness, in which we expect everyone to strive for perfection but don’t allow people to be sad that they’re never going to achieve it.


A lot of psychologists (and the general public) like to chalk up perfectionism to social media, and while I agree that social media encourages a dangerous amount of perfectionism for young people, this isn’t my experience, and I feel like there is much more to it in regards to academic success. College students today are dealing with degree inflation, where getting a bachelor’s degree isn’t quite enough to obtain a stable income anymore. Companies are now forcing students to work for free (ahem, I mean internships) for extended periods of time before they even have the “experience” to be considered for paid labor. Now you need to maintain a 4.0 GPA while doing a bunch of extracurricular activities and have a “leadership position” in every club. I’ll never forget the mom who told me in high school that, despite my several, high-commitment clubs that I was involved in, if I wanted to get into a “good college” I “needed” to be in a sport. We’ve tried to increase quantity while maintaining quality, but in the end, we reduce the quality of our happiness and our quality of life outside of work.


I don’t know if I can even offer any solutions to this problem because I am just as wrapped up in this endless climb to success as the next person.  I’m sick of feeling like I have to climb over other people,  over my friends to get there. Am I a monster for not wanting to live for my work? Is it too much to ask for dedication to school, my clubs, and my sleep schedule all at once? It makes me sad to think that my outlook on life has changed from trying to find a balance to forgoing hobbies and other things that bring me joy for the next two years until I graduate, only to give it up all again when I enter grad school.


People suffering from perfectionism also suffer from the Sisyphic Condition, based on a story of a Greek man Sisyphus who was condemned to roll a boulder up a hill for the rest of eternity. I feel like I am rolling a boulder up that hill, waiting to reach the peak of perfection, but never actually getting there. Nobody is going to take that boulder away from me and give me a reward for my efforts, so I have to do it myself. This is reminding myself of my life’s worth outside of academic success. I am worthy of happiness because I am a person. I have inherent value outside of my academic success. If I don’t graduate on the President's list, I will still have the opportunity to have a fulfilling life, outside of how much money I make or how much “prestige” I have earned. Maybe I need to get better at expressing gratitude for how much I have rather than focusing on what I want to get. I think gratitude is the power that can take away the boulder, that can keep me aware and thankful for my imperfect successes. It’s hard to keep this outlook in a world that values endless productivity, but I think in order to have a fulfilling life, we have to try and step outside of this endless struggle for perfection and look at why we feel we need to reach perfection. You might just be surprised at what little reasoning you have to justify it.