To the outside world, Alexandra Smithers seems to have it all. A third-year biochemistry student at Mount Allison University, she maintains top marks and aspires to become a pediatric neurologist. She also volunteers with a disabled child, coordinates volunteer services for the student union and captains the ultimate Frisbee team. But under that winning façade, Ms. Smithers suffers from perfectionism, the personality trait where one aspires to be flawless in everything. “I’m my hardest critic – I can put myself really down,” she says. Her negative self-talk has led to anxiety requiring medication.
And, she believes that university has worsened her condition. “We’ve been taught ‘do more, do better.’ We forget about our mental health,” she says.
Gordon Flett, a psychology professor and holder of the Canada Research Chair in Personality and Health at York University, worries that universities are breeding grounds for perfectionism – he estimates that two out of five students suffer from the condition.
Universities attract “superstar” high school students who flounder in the more challenging arena of higher education, says Dr. Flett in an article published recently in the Review of General Psychology. They set impossibly high standards for themselves, and when they fall short they think “I’m stupid,” or “I’m a loser.” The harsh labelling can lead to paralysis and procrastination, resulting in late assignments, depression and anxiety. Since perfectionists fear admitting their shortcomings, they often don’t seek help and may even resort to suicide, he says.
This past fall at Mount Allison, third-year sociology student Caroline Kovesi decided to do something about this troubling trend. “The only model of excellence that’s promoted [at university] is the student who has top grades, is involved in every activity and is simultaneously saving the world,” she says. Perfectionists internalize these messages and imagine these unrealistic standards are held by those who judge them. With the help of the university’s mental-health outreach intern Thomas Williams, she launched an awareness campaign to see what professors really thought about perfectionism. They asked instructors from each faculty what they would say to students grappling with the issue and posted their responses on Facebook.
Jane Dryden, an associate professor and head of the philosophy department at Mount Allison, contributed to the campaign. She is also concerned about the pressure put on students. “The message students seem to get is you better be the next Rhodes Scholar,” she says.
Ironically, many professors also struggle with perfectionism, a subject that York’s Dr. Flett has investigated. Perfectionist professors, he says, fear being judged and polish their articles indefinitely instead of submitting them for publication, lowering their research productivity. “The same problems applicable to students are evident in professors,” he says.
Mount Allison’s perfectionism awareness campaign was valuable, says counsellor Catherine Fawcett. “It was wonderful for students to hear professors advise them not to attach their total self-worth to their grades.” But Ms. Kovesi, the Mount A student, cautions: “Perfectionism is a mental health problem. It won’t get fixed by a campaign.”
However, there is a lot that universities can do to tackle the problem of perfectionism, says Dr. Flett. “I’m very glad to hear about the [Mount Allison] campaign because heightened awareness is the first step,” he says. Hiring more staff trained in treating perfectionism would also help. He recommends orientation sessions on perfectionism at the start of every school year, including workshops on recognizing symptoms, learning compassion toward oneself and realizing when to seek help. An online forum could continue the discussion. Dr. Flett suggests Ontario’s Post-Secondary Students Help Line, an anonymous phone service manned by counsellors, be available on all campuses. Therapy groups for perfectionists could help them strategize solutions. “I see such capable, wonderful people fall by the wayside because they evaluate themselves by impossible standards. Much more effort needs to be made for prevention.”
Ms. Smithers, the third-year biochemistry student, agrees. If a new student enters university struggling with perfectionism, it would be “reassuring” to be told that “it’s OK to seek help,” she says. “Talking is one of the best ways for me to deal with it.” Having more outlets to discuss their issues, including phone lines, therapy groups and counsellors, would be beneficial. “Your mental health is as important as your success,” she says.