Margaret S. Hill, Lincoln University
Can perfectionism be a good thing? Traditionally, perfectionism has been viewed rather negatively as a character flaw or burdensome personality trait. For college students, perfectionism has been seen as an obstacle in the way of students’ healthy emotional and academic adjustment. However, recent studies have shown that the impact of perfectionism on students is a great deal more nuanced. There is evidence that perfectionism is a multidimensional quality with both positive and negative aspects and that the healthier aspects of perfectionism can benefit students considerably (Stoeber & Otto, 2006). In order to support student success, academic advisors should recognize the signs of both adaptive and maladaptive perfectionism in students and learn ways to encourage healthy, adaptive perfectionism while helping students with a maladaptive perfectionistic mindset to cope more constructively with challenges.
Most researchers now agree that perfectionism is multifaceted, encompassing a wide range of behaviors and attitudes. Individuals can observe this complexity in themselves and in those around them. Some individuals are relentless in the hard-driving pursuit of excellence, while others are more laid back. Some people compare themselves constantly with others, while some rely on a more internal metric. Although some are able to bounce back from major failures and setbacks with apparent ease, others are plagued with anxiety over the smallest mistakes. As advisors, we have probably all encountered students who are too hard on themselves and others who are too carefree. Recent studies have identified three broad groups of individuals with regard to perfectionism:
- those who set consistently high standards for their own performance but do not dwell on past failures (adaptive perfectionists),
- those who set high standards for themselves and are preoccupied with failure to measure up (maladaptive perfectionists), and
- those who tend not to set high personal standards (non-perfectionists) (Mobley, Slaney, & Rice, 2005).
A growing body of research suggests that a healthy, adaptive style of perfectionism can be beneficial for college students. Findings show that students who set consistently high self-expectations while still remaining optimistic in the face of setbacks are more likely than their non-perfectionist peers to succeed both academically and socially. Students who are adaptive perfectionists tend to report better self-esteem, a lower incidence of anxiety, stress, and depression, and higher grades (Gnilka, Ashby, & Noble, 2012; Rice, Vergara, & Aldea, 2006). In addition, students high in adaptive perfectionism may be less likely to procrastinate on assignments (Burnam, Komarraju, Hamel, & Nadler, 2014) and more likely to engage in active and effective problem-focused coping strategies when academic setbacks occur (Noble, Ashby, & Gnilka, 2014).
In contrast, individuals with unhealthy or maladaptive perfectionism are preoccupied with the discrepancy between their high, sometimes rigid standards and their performance. As students, maladaptive perfectionists are too hard on themselves—tormented by a single missed point on an exam, for example, or distraught over not receiving the highest grade in a class. These students often suffer from self-doubt and discouragement and may experience poorer socioemotional adjustment and academic achievement as a result (Rice et al., 2006). Students with maladaptive perfectionism may be more likely to procrastinate (Burnam et al., 2014) and to rely on less-effective coping strategies such as avoidance and self-blame when faced with challenges (Gnilka et al., 2012). Signs of maladaptive perfectionism should never be taken lightly by advisors or other higher education professionals, as it can lead to high levels of stress and anxiety, negative thought patterns, and even suicidal ideation (Chang, Watkins, & Banks, 2004).
Some sub-groups of students may be especially vulnerable to the harmful effects of maladaptive perfectionism. A pair of studies that focused on undergraduate STEM majors found that maladaptive perfectionism was related to lower course grades and chronic academic stress among female students but not among their male counterparts (Rice, Lopez, & Richardson, 2013; Rice, Ray, Davis, DeBlaere, & Ashby, 2015). The effects of maladaptive perfectionism may also differ according to race; for example, Castro and Rice (2003) reported that maladaptive perfectionist attitudes were associated with more depressive symptoms among Asian American and white students but with lower grades among black students.
As members of the campus community who enjoy a continuous, ongoing relationship with students, academic advisors are in a unique position to encourage attitudes of positive, adaptive perfectionism in advisees. It can be frustrating to encounter students who underperform academically not because of poor ability but because of unrealistically low self-expectations. Some students may need gentle and tactful coaxing to “dream big,” while others may need not-so-gentle reminders to take more responsibility for their own achievement. As advisors, we know that a consistent attitude of striving for excellence is fundamental to our students’ success—and chances are, we have students who could benefit from hearing this message more clearly and more often.
On the other hand, students who make statements that reveal pervasive defeatism, rumination, or self-doubt can be guided to develop more balanced, constructive attitudes toward failure and achievement. Through positive reframing, for example, students can come to view academic setbacks as learning opportunities and to focus on what has been accomplished rather than obsessing over failures (Stoeber & Janssen, 2011). Advisors might help students gain a broader and healthier perspective of academic achievement and to refrain from dwelling on every minor mistake. Advisors can also point out the importance of stress reduction and encourage students to take time out for meditation, mindfulness, or other relaxation practices. Students should be guided toward problem-focused, active strategies such as improved time management and critical problem-solving, rather than avoidance or self-blame, for coping with the stress of academic failure (Noble et al., 2014). Most importantly, however, advisors must remain aware of their own limitations and recognize when it is appropriate to refer a troubled student to campus or community counseling resources (Nutt, 2015).
As a framework for working with students, appreciative advising may be an especially useful approach for addressing perfectionism. With appreciative advising, students are encouraged to build on their own personal strengths and skills by reflecting on past successes (Bloom, Hutson, & He, 2008). Students who appear too indifferent about their own achievement, for example, can be urged to recall those times in their lives when setting the bar higher actually did result in greater success. Conversely, students with maladaptive perfectionism can be encouraged to focus less on their missteps and more on their accomplishments and to reflect on the personal strengths that made those accomplishments possible.
Can perfectionism be a good thing? Most certainly! Of course, we as advisors should keep in mind our own perfectionistic tendencies. As we guide our students toward greater self-forgiveness, even as we urge them to strive for excellence, we need to remember the importance of self-compassion for ourselves as well. Just as students can benefit from intentional, positive self-statements (Mehr & Adams, 2016), advisors can, too. Although academic advising can be a tough and sometimes thankless job, advisors play a vital role in the success of our students. As we go about our daily work, we might all do well to remember the wisdom in that old adage, “Just do your best, and forget the rest!”
Margaret S. Hill, MHS
Academic Advisor & Success Coach
Center for Academic Advising
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Cite this article using APA style as: Hill, M.S. (2017, June). Impact of perfectionism on students: The good, the bad, and the indifferent. Academic Advising Today, 40(2). Retrieved from [insert url here]