"Eventually being perfect day after day, year after year, became like always carrying a backpack filled with bricks on my back. And oh, how I secretly longed to lay my burden down."
-Anna Quindlen

What is the difference between being a perfectionist and being a student with a high standard of achievement? According to the Bureau of Study Counsel handout, Perfectionism at Harvard: Friend or Foe?, perfectionists often hold the following beliefs:

  • "There’s a right and wrong way to do something; being devoted to perfectionistic, all-or-nothing, black-and-white, either-or thinking."
  • "Only ‘perfect’ will do and that "everything else is mediocre."
  • "I’ve succeeded because I’m a perfectionist."
  • "I only get respect or love because I do things so perfectly."
  • "Mistakes mean failure. Failure is devastating."

The handout goes on to say that procrastination is often a sign that someone is a perfectionist. A perfectionist may find that it is impossible to get started on something because they are so worried about making everything perfect the first time around. Additionally, perfectionists may leave everything to the last minute because they feel if they don’t put their best effort forward then it doesn't "count" and the pain of a disappointing performance will be lessened.

What can I do to better manage my perfectionist tendencies?

(Adapted from the Bureau of Study Counsel handout Perfectionism: Strategies for Change by Jennifer Page Hughes)

  • Consider some advantages and disadvantages of trying to be perfect. For example, it can seem valuable to aim high, which for some means aiming for perfection. Some feel that they maintain a sense of dignity by being intolerant of mistakes. However, there are costs to this approach, including difficulty in relationships, procrastination, guilt, and the feeling that you are never good enough.

  • You may be thinking, “But I can’t just give up on my goals!” And there’s no need to do that; the key is having realistic goals. Begin to experiment with substituting realistic expectations for unrealistic ones. Rather than thinking in all-or-nothing terms, encourage yourself to look at and acknowledge the good parts of a paper or another type of performance, even if it feels less than perfect as a whole. Ask yourself questions such as: How do other people see it? Is it a reasonably good performance considering the context and circumstances involved? If I ran into challenges, can I find a way to learn from them? You may be able to use negative feelings (e.g. worry) as opportunities to ask yourself, “Have I set up impossible expectations for myself in this situation?"

  • Try to maintain your perspective and priorities despite your perfectionism. Don't let your search for perfection take precedence over your relationships, your health, or your integrity, which ultimately are more important. 

  • Remind yourself that if you stop making mistakes, you stop learning. Think back to a mistake you have made and reflect on what lessons you learned from it or might be able to learn from it.

  • Setting small goals for yourself can be very powerful. It can feel overwhelming to focus on a large endeavor, so instead focus on the small steps that will bring you to your goal, one step at a time.

  • Come talk with us at the BSC if you would like to explore new ways of thinking about your work or life.

Voices of Experience: Perfectionism vs. Excellence

While it can be engaging and exciting to strive for excellence, M. Suzanne Renna, in her article, Perfectionism vs. Excellence, describes how the need to be perfect can actually prevent us from achieving our goals as it can lead to missed learning opportunities.

Nicholas Molina ’07 reports in his Crimson article, The Failure of Success, that he took classes outside his concentration, and he discovered that, by learning “not to go into these courses expecting perfection, they were all the more worthwhile.” In fact, these classes turned out to be “the most rewarding academic experiences” Nicholas had while at Harvard because “only when we risk failure, are great gains possible.”

Image Credit

(Chris 73). (2009). NautilusCutawayLogarithmicSpiral [Photograph]. Retried May 22, 2014, from
Permission: Creative Commons, Attribution ShareAlike 3.0 Unported.