In pursuit of perfection-
Students who are overachievers may pay a high psychological price
By Maria Pascucci
(Originally published in The Buffalo News)
Aubrey strived to be the perfect student when she was in high
school. She got good grades and was involved in just about every
extracurricular activity her school offered, whether she enjoyed
them or not. "I wanted to get an "A' in everything,"
she said. "I wanted to be the perfect well-rounded student
so others would think I was a "somebody' who would make it
in this world."
But when she got to college, everything became harder, and she
found herself losing control. She studied while her friends were
out partying on the weekends. She tossed and turned in bed the
night before a test, worrying that she hadn't studied hard enough.
Too often, she'd get out of bed in the middle of the night to
cram for a few more hours. Soon she began sacrificing her health
"I developed an eating disorder my freshman year of college,"
said the 20-year-old sophomore at a Buffalo college who asked
that her full name not be used. "I started purging and using
laxatives - anything to make myself thinner, more perfect. I couldn't
control any of the things that I'd been able to in the past, like
my grades, but I could control my body."
When her college soccer coach found out about her eating disorder,
Aubrey was forced to come clean. At the time, she had gotten down
to 105 pounds, a dangerously low weight for her body frame. "Telling
my parents and friends was the worst," she admitted. "I
cried all weekend. I didn't want them to see myweakness."
For whatever reason - the need to impress future employers, the
pressure of keeping up with peers or simply meeting self-imposed
but unrealistically high standards - an increasing number of college
students are literally making themselves sick in the pursuit of
"America is an end-product society," said Eileen Niland,
director and counselor at Canisius College. "We try to get
students to focus on the process. College, like life, is a journey
and students should ask themselves, "Am I enjoying the ride?
Am I learning?' Not "Will I get an "A' in the course?'
Perfectionism is often seen as a good thing in our culture, and
it's important to note that it is not inherently bad. Perfectionists
work hard and are generally high achievers. However, there is
a fine line between being a high achiever and an overachiever.
Dr. Modupe Akin-Deko, senior psychologist at Buffalo State College's
counseling center, distinguished between two different types of
perfectionists - adaptive and maladaptive. She said that while
adaptive perfectionists take pleasure in their successes, the
maladaptive perfectionists set themselves up for failure by setting
impossible standards for themselves, thus lowering their self
esteem when they never reach their goals.
In a recent study, the National Mental Health Association reported
that 10 percent of college students and 13 percent of college
women have been diagnosed with depression. A University of California
at Los Angeles survey found that more than 30 percent of college
freshmen report feeling overwhelmed a great deal of the time,
and that 38 percent of college women report feeling frequently
While many contributing factors are involved in depression among
college students, perfectionism, a set of self-defeating thought
and behavior patterns focused on unrealistic, unattainable goals,
plays a strong part.
"The perfectionist constantly strives for the unattainable,
and experiences feelings of failure, despair and even depression
as a result," said Dr. Brooke Lewis, assistant director of
Counseling Services at Niagara University.
Phyllis Dewey, director of counseling at Hilbert College, noted
that a student needs to be evaluated to determine if perfectionism
is becoming a problem. "We would ask the student if she was
able to sleep at night, or if she was experiencing stomach aches
or feeling stressed out," she said. "When a student's
perfectionism is to the point of obsessive, that's when it becomes
According to Niland, 23 percent of Canisius students who visited
the on-campus counseling center checked off perfectionism on their
intake form as one of the reasons for their visit in the fall
2003 semester. So many more never seek help. "When you're
a perfectionist, admitting weakness is the ultimate failure,"
Aubrey and other perfectionists measure self worth through external
validations like a number on a scale or a test. Dr. Patricia Hutton,
professor of economics at Canisius College, said: "Putting
a letter grade on a perfectionist student's paper is like taking
a person with an eating disorder and making her step on the scale
every day. The number on the scale couldn't be low enough while
the number on the paper couldn't be high enough."
Unfortunately, I understand all too well the price students pay
for measuring self worth through a number on a test. A perfectionist
through my college years, I'd rather skip an assignment than risk
turning in a less-than-perfect paper. I fantasized about the day
I would walk across the stage at my graduation ceremony and hear
my name announced along with "summa cum laude" -- with
highest honors. My family would be in the audience snapping pictures
and beaming with pride. By my senior year, that goal had become
When I finally did walk across that stage in 2001, I held back
tears with everything I had in me. They weren't tears of joy,
as my professors and family might have imagined, but of a sick
sorrow. The speaker announced, "Maria L. Pascucci, summa
cum laude." I did it -- I graduated with the highest honors
possible, but at much too high a psychological cost.
I had dreamt of being a writer ever since I was old enough to
pick up a pencil and scribble my name, but after I graduated from
college, I didn't write a thing for months. I told my college
career counselor that I would never write again, and I believed
that I wouldn't. I was burnt out and depressed, battling with
anxiety-induced stomach problems and certain that writing had
almost destroyed me. Three years later, I understand that it was
perfectionism that almost destroyed me and that my love of writing
helped me to rebuild my life.
When I was a little girl, I'd always tell people, "Someday,
when I grow up, I'll be a writer." When the cap and gown
came off, I realized that society considered me a grown-up whether
I felt like one or not, and that it was the time to make or break
my dreams. And I didn't think I could measure up to what that
little girl envisioned while sitting on a porch stoop with her
favorite red notebook in hand. It's so much easier to dream of
the end product than to actually see it through.
Hutton said she often sees perfectionism in her students, especially
the girls. "I see many bright, intelligent young women who
turn in excellent exams, but they won't speak up in class because
they're afraid that what they say won't be good enough. Sometimes
though, good enough is good enough."
Niland argued that success is personal and that there is no single
definition for it. For Aubrey, however, "Success is being
good at whatever you do -- getting good grades, being thin, impressing
others, being perfect." When asked if happiness plays a part
in success, she answered that unfortunately, for her, happiness
takes a back seat.
"In our culture, there is a focus on being the best, rather
than the best you can be, which allows for an acceptance of personal
limitations," said Dr. Sharon Mitchell, director and counselor
at the University at Buffalo. "We cling to the notion that
if we try hard enough, we can achieve anything. If a perfectionist
fails to get an A, she may think she didn't try hard enough to
A guest speaker recently visited one of Aubrey's classes and told
students that employers look for job candidates with the total
package. "He said employers look for recent graduates who
had good grades in college, were involved and basically good at
everything," she said. In high school, she was encouraged
to get excellent grades, SAT scores and to be involved in everything
to get into a good college. It would seem that every achievement
becomes nothing more than a stepping stone to reach the next level
"We're at an age when we're trying to find ourselves, and
some harmful messages are being sent our way," said Aubrey.
"I'm starting to learn that society needs to stand back in
the moment, instead of always moving forward."
Aubrey's battle with perfectionism will be life-long, but with
hardship comes wisdom. "I got a 75 on a quiz last week, and
I didn't freak out," she said. "I told myself that there
will be other quizzes and that I can do better next time. I just
try to take things day by day and not focus so much on the future."
She's also been attending church with her family and trying to
seek strength from within. "I'm trying to work on being happy
with who I am," she said.
When I graduated from college and began looking for a job in my
field, it didn't take long for me to realize that the "summa
cum laude" notation etched on the top of my resume didn't
impress employers, especially when they noticed my lack of experience.
I was furious. I had worked myself to the breaking point, and
I believed that, once again, it hadn't been good enough. Mitchell
said that a perfectionist might have to hit a wall in order to
make a personal choice to cut herself some slack. I had finally
It took me two years after graduation to congratulate myself for
my accomplishments. I finally began to understand what perfectionism
had done to my life. I remember a favorite professor's words:
"Maria, you've got to calm down," she said. "You're
going to burn out before your career even begins."
She was right. I lived in the past for those two years, pointing
fingers at anything that had ever let me down. Then I got sick
of being angry and chose to move on. Perfectionism will always
be a part of me, but never again will I allow it to usurp my life.
I wish I could go back and reach that college student, but I can't.
I can reach others, though. Perfectionists may deny themselves
the greatest adventures involved in being human for fear of never
being good enough. That is the true tragedy. Oliver Wendell Holmes
once said, "Most of us go to our graves with the music still
"I tell my students that I choose to sing all the way to
my grave," says Hutton.
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