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Perfectionism in College: The Unrealistic and The Unhealthy
This paper examines the socially constructed idea of perfectionism and how it affects people, especially college aged students. After looking at several sources and learning from personal experience, I state that the idea of perfection is different for everyone and therefore virtually unobtainable, which leads to self-destruction and mental health issues for many people. This paper looks into the story Frankenstein by Mary Shelley and how Victor falls victim to this unrealistic idea of perfection, just as many college aged students do. I use five peer- reviewed articles including a study called “The Cost of Being Perfect: Perfectionism and Suicide Ideation in University Students” by Teresa K. Hamilton and Robert D. Schweitzer which analyzes the number of students with suicidal ideations during their time at universities. Some people may argue that kids today are “too soft” or “afraid to get their hands dirty,” but the reality is social pressures to be “perfect” have become increasingly difficult to keep up with leading kids to feel hopeless and disappointed. Bringing light to the suicide rate among college students and the feeling of failure they feel when perfection isn’t met may help ease this widespread strive for the unattainable idea of perfection. With this knowledge we can seek change in the rigorous academic coursework that drives the students to feel the way they do.
It’s almost 1am on Tuesday, December 12 and I, along with several other students are scattered throughout the lobby of Hanks Hall in the University of Connecticut doing our best to study the night before our second, third or even fourth test already this week. We are exhausted, worried and busy, our bodies composed of 75% coffee rather than water, but we aren’t planning on stopping anytime soon. Although no one has to say it, we were all striving for A’s, not just on this one final, but all finals and in all classes. In college, sleep, relaxation and sometimes a social life are all put on the back burner in order to achieve the perfect grades, to aid in getting the perfect job, in order to have the perfect life. However, what this means to all of us, and the rest of society, is different. This strive for perfection is a huge issue in our culture and can often lead to more harm than it does good. There is not only a strive for perfection in the school or work world either, there is a widespread attempt to have the perfect, hair, clothes, body, etc. that plagues the mind of people all over the world. Me and the other college students studying all night for our finals are only a small population of people who fall victim to this idea of perfectionism, but when does it go to far? This idea of perfection is unachievable and a socially constructed idea that takes an especially hard toll on university students all over the world.
In the article, “ “The Self- Destructive Side of Perfectionism”, Journalist Benedict Carey describes three types of perfectionists:, “self-oriented strivers who struggle to live up to their high standards and appear to be at risk of self-critical depression; outwardly focused zealots who expect perfection from others, often ruining relationships; and those desperate to live up to an ideal they’re convinced others expect of them, a risk factor for suicidal thinking and eating disorders” (qtd. in “Self-Destructive”). Victor Frankenstein falls into the last category of perfectionists, “ those desperate to live up to an ideal they’re convinced others expect of them” which is why he was unable to stop working until he could prove to himself that he could bring something to life. He didn’t pause to think about the consequences of his actions, only that he needed to complete his goal. College students also fall under this category of perfectionists. They feel as though they have to be perfect in all aspects in order to not only live up to their families’ expectations, but also not to waste the money that they put into their schooling. In “The Self- Destructive Side of Perfectionism” Professional Life Coach Maria Pascucci describes the “perfectionist mask” that many people wear every day. She says,“So many of us put on a perfectionist mask to be acceptable to society…. We either start overachieving in one area to compensate for the sensitivity flaw that we think we have, or we completely shut down, buy into our own story that we’re too sensitive and not good enough, so therefore we’re not going to bother to try” (qtd. in “Self-Destructive”). You never truly know when someone is unhappy or unsatisfied with their lives because of this “perfectionist mask” that they wear. This mask is one of the reasons that suicide rates are high in college. Students feel as if everyone is in the same boat of feeling overwhelmed and constantly stressed, so they never address the problem or tell anyone that they are feeling overwhelmed.
Workaholic is usually a lighthearted term someone uses to describe someone who is constantly working and sacrificing for their work. While usually a workaholic can eventually find time to destress and take some time for themselves, there a few instances where this isn’t possible and leads to very destructive outcomes. In Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley, Victor Frankenstein is a perfect example of a Workaholic, but one who takes his work too far. When Victor begins his adventure at school, he dives head first into his schoolwork, and for two years he barely comes up for air. As he progresses rapidly in his studies he mentions, “Two years passed in this manner, during which I paid no visit to Geneva, but was engaged, heart and soul, in the pursuit of some discoveries which I hoped to make” (Shelley 51). This notion of students putting all their efforts into their school work, neglecting family and friends is seen consistently throughout society. College students today are spending considerable amounts of time on work and school trying to be perfect. While being a hard worker and investing all of one’s time into their work doesn’t make one a perfectionist, the combination of being a workaholic and a perfectionist is where people can get into trouble. Hamilton and Schweitzer mention in “The Cost of Being Perfect”, “We acknowledge that striving toward high standards is admirable, but there appears to be a point, beyond which, the person’s striving takes on the characteristic of a trait with an obsessional dimension, termed perfectionism.” (Hamilton and Schweitzer)
Avoidance of the issue is a big factor in why college age students don’t seek help for these feelings. No one really talks about the overwhelming amounts of work and stress that is placed on college students because it is widely accepted that “that’s just the way it is.” In the article “Suicide among College Students” irt was mentioned that “only 11 of the 25 students who committed suicide [from 1920-1955 were seen in the Department of Mental Hygiene and Psychiatry” (Parrish). This means that there were 14 helpless students who were suffering enough to end their lives, but avoided seeking help for a myriad of reasons. One reasons may be that students feel as if everyone is feeling as helpless and stressed out as they are, and therefore they don’t seek help for these bad feelings they are having. In “The Many Faces of Perfectionism”, Benson writes, “They found that hopelessness and psychological distress among college students could be predicted by the interaction between perfectionism and avoidance coping--dealing with problems by avoiding them--but not by perfectionism or avoidance coping alone” (Benson). Mental health issues and suicidal tendencies don’t just arise because of the strive for perfection. The mix between perfectionism and avoidance of the fact that they need help is what ultimately sends people over the edge and can cause severe mental health issues. By avoiding the problem altogether, college students are adding fuel to the fire and making things exponentially worse than they already were. It is crucial that students start to recognize this problem and become more willing to seek out and accept help. The only way for a problem to get better is to address it and understand how to solve it.
The idea of perfectionism can be very detrimental to one’s mental health especially when one avoids seeking help. The article “The Many Faces of Perfectionism” argues that, “perfectionism correlates with depression, anxiety, eating disorders and other mental health problems.…several new studies were published that help explain how perfectionism can contribute to psychopathology” (Benson). No one knows in the moment the damage they are doing to themselves by isolating themselves and focusing solely on work. Victor Frankenstein had to find out the hard way about the effects of his non-stop work. First, Victor became numb to everything in his surroundings, having feelings only towards his goals and discoveries. He says, “My limbs now tremble, and my eyes swim with the remembrance; but then a resistless, and almost frantic impulse, urged me to go forward; I seemed to have lost all soul or sensation but for this one pursuit” (Shelley 55). It’s clear that Victor is no longer mentally stable and should realize that he needs to take a break from his work, however the pressure to be perfect is surpassing his desire to be healthy. When Victor continues to push through this emotional instability, he encounters a physical toll to his work as well.
Victor finally achieves his goal, but felt the opposite of perfection or completion. He immediately fears the monster he had made, and his never ending efforts caught up to him, making him sick, “for I was lifeless, and did not recover my senses for a long, long time” (Shelly 62). This physical manifestation of Victor’s exhaustion is not uncommon in college students today. To many, it seems impossible to stop working because of impending deadlines and exams that count for up to 50% of their grades. They see that there is no time to rest or take a break, just as Victor had thought. The overwhelming feeling that accompanies all of this work is often the cause of anxiety, depression and even suicidal thoughts. Students feel pressure from parents, classmates, extended family and most importantly from themselves to achieve. In “The Many Faces of Perfection” it is stated, “Socially prescribed perfectionism--believing that others will value you only if you are perfect--has been associated with depression and other problems, including suicide” (Benson). Students think there family may not understand, or even love them less, if they aren’t performing to their highest ability, and therefore they put immense amounts of pressure on themselves to succeed.
An article called “The Cost of Being Perfect: Perfectionism and Suicide Ideation in University Students” gives the statistics, “An Australian-based study reported that 11.7% of young men and 9.7% of young women reported some degree of suicide ideation in the few weeks prior to testing” (Hamilton & Schweitzer). The physical and emotional toll that this goal of perfection has on people is too much for anyone to handle and clearly needs to be reevaluated so the suicide rates tied to this don’t increase. In the US, the National Data on Campus Suicide and Depression says that “ Suicide is the second leading cause of death from people ages 20-24 and that nearly one in twelve college students make a suicide plan” (Neumann). It is clear according to all these statistics that mental health and suicide is a serious issues plaguing colleges all around the world. Something needs to be done to aid college students who are pressured to be perfect all the time.
Sources of Pressure
While the most prominent reason for suicides in college is the feeling of the need to do the absolute best possible in school, however there are many other aspects where the strive for perfection becomes too much to handle in college. “Suicide Among College Students” says, “Students in college are faced with many psychological and emotional stresses: they are usually away from home for the first time and have to adjust to a new environment, make new friends, and plan their own personal lives; they must adjust from a dependent mode of existence to an independent one; adjustments and attitudes towards the opposite sex are being worked out; new ideas related to life, customs, mores and religion are presented and often conflict with what has been taught at home; and often for the first time the student beings to realize the importance of doing well in his academic studies because his future livelihood depends on it” (Parrish). All of the stresses alone are enough to make anyone a little crazy, but together it is clear why so many college students are struggling. The pressure to do “perfectly” in school in order to be well off later in life is a terrifying concept for college aged kids. There is a constant battle for balance in college as well. You want to work hard and get good grades, but you also have to have extracurriculars that stand out to future schools or employers, and, you have to make friends and go out in order to form connections that can be helpful both now and later in life. The perfect balance is extremely difficult to obtain, and is therefore an unrealistic ideal for college students. Perfection of the aforementioned stressors is also an unrealistic standard and it is unobtainable to achieve perfection in one or all aspects.
Why Perfection is Unattainable
Perfection is unattainable and unrealistic. The goals that one is working so hard for is truly only setting them up for self-destruction and disappointment. In Frankenstein, once Victor finally completes his monster he says, “ I felt the bitterness of disappointment; dreams that had been my food and pleasant rest for so long a space were now become hell to me; and the change was so rapid, the overthrow so complete!” (Shelley 59-60). He realized that his “perfection”, or accomplishing his goals, didn’t make him feel any better. People will never truly be satisfied with what we have, always striving for more and therefore never becoming perfect. In the article titled “The Cost of Being Perfect” this idea of dissatisfaction is mentioned when that author writes, “Evidence suggests that perfectionistic individuals experience increased negative affect before, during and after evaluative tasks, judge their work as lower in quality than non-perfectionists, and report the quality of their work should have been better” (Hamilton and Schweitzer). It’s clear here, that even after achieving the goal one was reaching for, even in the best possible way, perfectionists still don't feel accomplished or satisfied.
For college students, this can be seen in many ways. First off, some students who supposedly have the “perfect balance” in college still aren’t satisfied and among the people who struggle from suicidal thoughts. The “Suicide Among College Students” article says, “Of the 25 students who destroyed themselves, 10 were active in extracurricular activities, 3 were moderately active and 12 were not active. There were 10 fraternity men and 15 non fraternity members” (Parrish). It’s not always the quiet and introverted students who are the ones who are struggling. Sometimes it is the people who seem like they have it all together. These people make it look like they are satisfied with what they are doing, but in reality they are feelings unhappy and unfulfilled in their experiences, always feeling as though they should be doing more. This is why it is so important that people begin to speak up and get help from their schools when they are beginning to feel helpless. It is impossible to be fulfilled in every aspect of life but students are still constantly striving for that goal. Someone else’s idea of perfection could be where another student is right now, but the incessant need to do more and be more blinds us to this fact.
It is clear that there are many psychological issues in our society that we need to face. This unrealistic strive for perfection leads to nothing but disappointment and self destruction. The ideas of perfection are constantly changing with the times are therefore unachievable. If people continue on this path of self- destruction due to overworking, taking drastic measures to alter their appearances and acting as if they are someone they are not, any authenticity that there was in the world will be lost. There are so many sources of stress that people have nowhere to turn in order to get a break from the strive to be perfect. These imaginary ideas of perfection have wreaked havoc on our society and will continue to do so until one day people can put down their work or look in the mirror and appreciate how far they've come and the achievements they had made. Where we are now could be considered someone else’s idea of perfection and we can’t take everything we are able to do for granted. By no means should people settle or stop working towards goals, however by just noticing that not everything has to be “perfect” we can make many improvements in the flawed logic of society.