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The Dangers of Perfectionism: More Than Dotting Your I's and Crossing Your T's

11/26/2012 06:06 pm ET | Updated Jan 26, 2013

Remember that student in high school who was in every single club photo in the yearbook? She threw herself into three sports teams, the band, the drama club and National Honors Society. On top of her hectic extra-curriculars, this girl maintained a high GPA and graduated with honors. And this is not an exaggeration; it's the true story of a girl named Andrea. "My friends called me 'O.A.,' short for 'over-achiever,' as everything had to be perfect and done my way," Andrea admits.

As a freshman at Western Michigan University, Andrea tried to keep the stress-free schedule she never had in high school. But by the time her sophomore year rolled around, Andrea had returned to her old habits. By her senior year, she was the president of Kappa Phi, a Fall Welcome Ambassador and a member of several on-campus clubs. She held two part-time jobs and an internship, and she managed a full course load. "I was always told to not take on too many things like I did in high school, but I just couldn't stop. My organization skills and time management were amazing, but my health was catching up," she says. Before long, Andrea was hospitalized with ulcerative colitis brought on by stress.

Although Andrea graduated from WMU in May 2010, her health problems have persisted. Between working part-time, searching for a full-time job, planning her upcoming wedding with her fiancé and staying involved with Her Campus and Kappa Phi, among other activities, she doesn't have much time to relax. She explains, "I don't think I will ever stop being a perfectionist, even though I know how much it hurts me."

Jessica, a junior at the College of William & Mary, had a similar experience. She explains:

I let the stress of business school get to me to the point where I would go 24 hours without eating or taking breaks from homework and group projects. I didn't trust my group members, so I ended up re-doing all of their work myself. I lost eight pounds, my skin started breaking out, and my relationship with my boyfriend revolved around stress and unhappiness. I even quit dance team, because I felt like I couldn't be a perfect student and a perfect team member at the same time.


Andrea and Jessica aren't alone. "I know of several students who have had emotional breakdowns and had to withdraw from school because of all the pressure," says Chrissy Callahan, who graduates from Brandeis this month.

So what's the deal with perfectionism? Why is it so dangerous?

Perfectionism is more than just a need to dot your I's and cross your T's; it's a state of mind characterized by "all or nothing" thinking, holding your own actions to unreasonably high standards, focusing heavily on results and a fear of failure. For some, it's the overwhelming need to maintain a 4.0 GPA; for others, it's the desire to join 10 different activities to appear "well-rounded."

Psychologist Jeanne Strassburger says, "[Perfectionism] causes conflicts with your family, it takes up all your free time, it squeezes the enjoyment out of all your activities. To perfectionists, nothing is ever perfect, so they are never fully satisfied."

Strassburger explains that perfectionists have a desire to succeed; the thought of not succeeding can make them feel anxious, so they develop a coping strategy. This coping strategy could take a variety of forms, although Strassburger notes that spending a prolonged amount of time on homework is a common manifestation. This behavior helps relieve their anxiety. She explains:

When perfectionists release their tension, the loss of anxiety is their positive reinforcement, so they're more likely to repeat that same behavior in the future. It becomes an addiction. They say, "I'll rewrite [this essay] better, I'll rewrite it longer," and their anxiety goes down. Once you have that feedback loop a hundred times, it's so established that it's a hard behavior to kick on your own.

This cycle of positive reinforcement is known as the Law of Effect, a theory put forth by psychologist Burrhus Frederic Skinner in the 1920s.

Ali Berlin, a life coach, explains:

Perfectionism in itself has a great intention: It encourages us to do our best, to reach beyond lazy limits. However, when we start identifying with the results, or our identities become dependent on the achieving of perfection or the praise we expect to get from it, that can be painful.

Where does perfectionism come from? What can it lead to?

Some psychologists have determined that perfectionism is a personality type. Raymond Cattell, a renowned British psychologist, created the "16 Personality Factors Model" in which he identifies perfectionism as one of the "factors." Those with high perfectionist scores on Cattell's "16 Personality Factors" test tend to be "perfectionistic, organized, compulsive, self-disciplined, socially precise, exacting will power, control, and self-sentimental."

However, Strassburger disagrees: "Perfectionism is a behavioral pattern where there's some reinforcement of the habit. I wouldn't think of it as a personality type because it can happen to anyone," she says.

Girls who suffer from perfectionism are more likely to also suffer from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), depression and eating disorders. According to Strassburger, perfectionism is a subtype of OCD; the constant anxiety and lack of satisfaction consistent with perfectionists can often lead to depression; and the cycle of releasing tension over food and body image by starving or bingeing and purging mirrors the perfectionist cycle of positive reinforcement. However, it is important to note that not all perfectionists develop these disorders. By the same token, not all girls who struggle with these disorders are perfectionists.

To find out if you are a perfectionist, and learn how to cope with stress, read the rest of this article at HerCampus.com!