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COLUMN: Perfectionism is like walking a tightrope

By Ty Aller
On March 19, 2014

In the academic world, attention to detail and an undaunted desire to achieve tasks others might deem impossible are often encouraged. Refining your personal character to reflect these traits is a pursuit many students find pride in during their journey throughout their schooling.

There is, however, a concern that this attention to detail and an undaunted desire to achieve can flirt with the need to be perfect.

Perfectionism can be defined as “a disposition to regard anything short of perfection as unacceptable.” While this internal force can help you complete the next assignment and motivate your pursuits for a 4.0 GPA, the thinking patterns of perfectionism can become obsessive. Obsessive thinking and the desire to always complete a task to perfection can cause an imbalance in your life and negatively affect your schooling. Understanding how to balance the desire to pursue your fullest potential with the reality that you cannot accomplish every assignment perfectly will help in remaining mentally healthy.

Finding balance is not always easy. Much like a tightrope walker who gracefully walks across a remarkably thin wire with the aid of a balancing pole, the mind must also use a balancing pole to harmonize your thoughts with your actions. On one end of the mind’s pole are the thoughts and ambitions that push us toward perfectionism. On the other end of the pole is the lack of desire to accomplish anything. Finding your unique balancing point to help walk the tightrope consists of evaluating your thoughts and accepting your emotional experiences.

Try to imagine yourself during the end of the semester. Each one of your 15-page papers are due, your group work is concluding and you are starting to apply for jobs and/or graduate school. You are extremely concerned about your grades and making sure each application you turn in fully represents you to the last detail. Your thoughts reflect the idea that each piece of work you turn in must be done flawlessly and you hold yourself to perfection. It may not be obvious, but during this time the balance between your driven self and the inactive self is out of sync.

Increasing mindfulness of your internal (e.g., thoughts and feelings) and external (e.g., actions) experiences can restore balance. When you start to feel pressure to pursue perfectionism, stop yourself from reacting and be aware of the experience. What are you thinking? Do you think if you do not accomplish each task at a high level that you will be a failure? What are you feeling? Do you feel tension in your body, have sweaty palms or feel sick to your stomach? How are you behaving? Do your eating and sleeping patterns change? Are your actions altered?

As you think of the thoughts that surface during times of perfectionism, are they realistic? Will you be a failure if you do not perfect these assignments or will your work still turn out to be high quality? If you do not study a set amount of hours will your anxiety really consume you or will it pass with time? Answering these questions will help you learn to separate unrealistic thoughts from realistic thoughts while allowing intense emotional experiences to pass.

These skills help create an awareness of your situation, but in the end you must take action. Setting a plan to not let unrealistic thoughts and intense emotions keep you from walking the tightrope will allow you to walk more easily. So, take the first step out on the wire and be mindful of your experience.

Ty Aller is a master’s student in marriage and family therapy at Utah State University. If you have topics relating to mental health that you want covered, send him your suggestions via email:

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