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Perfectionism in College Students Versus Striving for Excellence: Thoughts from a Birmingham Therapist.

Have you ever voiced concerns to others about your college experience and are met with responses like “college is supposed to be the best part of your life!” or “college stress is normal, you’ll feel better soon”? While this may be the case for some people, others might be experiencing heightened levels of pressure and anxiety in the form of perfectionism.

Low levels of stress and pressure are common during the college experience and are important factors in creating motivation. Whether this be in the form of deadlines for assignments or grade requirements for scholarships and extracurricular involvement, college students will strive for excellence and experience stress throughout their time in college. Perfectionism comes into play when that typical stress and pressure turns into elevated levels of anxiety around academic performance, which can cause burnout and lowered levels of self-esteem.

As a Birmingham therapist, I am here to guide you through some basic patterns of perfectionism that I have seen in my clinical work, and through my own experience with college. While this post in no way encompasses every aspect of perfectionism, it is a good starting point into understanding how perfectionism can begin, and the effects that this thinking pattern can have on college students.

an egg balanced perfectly on two forks

Striving for Excellence vs Perfectionism in College Students

When we say striving for excellence, we simply mean putting your best foot forward and giving your best effort. For college students, say you have a presentation in one of your classes. Striving for excellence can look like finishing your speech before the last minute and rehearsing your presentation before class. While there can be a variety of emotions felt in these situations, the most common are normal levels of stress and nerves, and a sense of relief when the task is complete. Striving for excellence can set you up for success with a good sense of motivation to complete the task.

Perfectionism comes into play when this striving for excellence takes an elevated form. Take the example above of having a presentation in one of your classes. Perfectionism can look like rehearsing your speech multiple times to make sure there is absolutely no mistakes, difficulty sleeping the night before worrying that your presentation won’t be good enough, and picking apart your performance after the speech is over. Again, while there is a range of emotions that college students can feel during these situations, the most common are chronic feelings of anxiety, a fear of failure, low self-esteem, and eventual burnout.

the word perfection with question marks around it

How to Tell the Difference Between Perfectionism in College Students and Striving for Excellence

There are notable differences in the example above. While striving for excellence can bring on normal levels of stress and nerves, perfectionism can bring on fear, anxiety, and low self-esteem. The biggest difference to keep in mind for college students, though, are the feelings and effects that happen after these situations. Typically, there is a sense of relief that comes after striving for success. The stress and nerves dissolve either in the moment or directly after, and you are easily able to stop thinking about the event and emotions that came with it.

With perfectionism, there is a tendency to hold onto the anxiety and negative thoughts, and it is difficult to stop thinking about the event. This rumination is what keeps us in this cycle of perfectionism. Eventually, the anxiety, fears, and negative thoughts about ourselves burn us out. This burnout can take many forms, but for college students, burnout typically looks like issues with sleep and exhaustion, lack of motivation, procrastination, and avoidance of social situations. It can also be described as hitting a wall and feeling stuck.

Other effects that can come from perfectionism are lowered levels of self-esteem and negative beliefs about ourselves. When college students do not perform to these “perfect” standards, they tend to start thinking that they are not enough and that they are failures. This can be caused by finding a majority of their worth in their academic performance. When college students rely on good grades or validation from their professors, it can cause perfectionism and anxiety to become worse and in turn can lower levels of confidence. This can increase feelings of being stuck and not being able to get out of this cycle.

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Putting it All Together

Let’s complete the college student presentation example. You see on your syllabus that you have a presentation due in one week. You start feeling anxious because you don’t want to mess up and look like you don’t know what you are talking about. This anxiety continues throughout the week, so you avoid spending time with others because you are anxious about getting your presentation done. But, instead of starting your speech, you procrastinate working on the assignment to try and reduce some of your anxiety. This might look like laying in bed, watching TV for hours, or scrolling on social media. Suddenly, it is the night before your presentation, and you eventually get it done. You’re trying to get some sleep, but you have trouble falling asleep due to continued thoughts about your speech. You pick it apart and continue thinking about changes you need to make to sound perfect. The next morning, you successfully complete your presentation, but you are still feeling anxious and start to pick apart the things you said. You might also compare your work to other college students and think negatively about your performance. You start feeling like a failure and that you aren’t good enough. You get your grade back and it wasn’t 100%, so you continue to think negatively about yourself and lose motivation for other assignments. This isn’t just a singular event and you have noticed that this has been happening a lot recently with your schoolwork.

Does this sound like your college experience? Have you noticed yourself feeling more than just your typical college stress and nerves? Therapy in Birmingham, Alabama can help.

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How Can Counseling in Birmingham, Alabama Help with Perfectionism in College Students?

The main goals of counseling with a college student experiencing perfectionism are to manage symptoms of anxiety, set and achieve realistic goals, redefine the word perfect, and to work on increasing self-esteem and worth. Therapists are there to guide clients in their journey, validate client experiences and progress, and encourage clients when hard emotions come up. This might sound overwhelming and a lot of work, but therapists honor where clients are in their process and go at a pace that creates trust and comfort in the office.

This process can also lead into more work around previous experiences with perfectionism and anxiety, even if you have not thought about it previously. Perfectionism can absolutely be a new experience for you in college, but I have also seen early experiences in childhood and in other academic situations connected to these current experiences.

It takes courage and strength to reach out for help, and counseling is a very personal experience for college students. When looking for a therapist that fits your needs, it is important to think about what you want to achieve during your time in counseling. In Birmingham, Alabama, there are many great mental health professionals that can help with anxiety and perfectionism. When beginning your search, make sure to include key words such as “anxiety counseling,” “perfectionism therapy,” “Birmingham anxiety therapy,” or “counseling for perfectionism in Birmingham.”

Here at Empower, Marti specializes in using Acceptance Commitment Therapy with college students struggling with anxiety and perfectionism.

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While striving for success is a typical experience for college students, it can easily turn into perfectionism and intense levels of anxiety. It is important for college students to be aware not only of perfectionism and its effects, but also how to recognize when you might need help.

If you or anyone else that you may know are experiencing these symptoms of perfectionism and anxiety, therapy in Birmingham, Alabama can help. When you are ready to reduce these hard feelings and live a more fulfilling life, Marti is here to guide you through this process using these steps:

  1. Reach out to Empower Counseling to set up an initial appointment.

2. Get to know your therapist, Marti.

3. Begin your journey to success and being the best version of yourself.

Start your journey with overcoming perfectionism and anxiety today with Marti Hardin at Empower Counseling in Birmingham.

Therapy for perfectionism and anxiety is not the only service we offer at our Birmingham Area counseling clinic. Kathryn, Marti, Savannah, and Lucia also offer anxiety counseling, counseling for transitions and phase of life concerns, counseling for eating disorders, counseling for trauma and PTSD, counseling for depression, bipolar treatment, and counseling for women’s issues.

We offer our services to teens with teen counseling, counseling for college students at Samford University, The University of Alabama, Auburn University, UAB, Birmingham-Southern, and all colleges in the state of Alabama, young adults, adults, and professionals. All of our services are offered in person in our Mountain Brook offices and online through telehealth.

by Marti Hardin

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