While it can sometimes be a good thing, perfectionism can also prevent you from performing effectively at University.

What is perfectionism?

There are a number of ways perfectionism is described it he research literature Frost et al. (1990) described two essential features of perfectionism: setting high standards and critical self-evaluation.

What are the effects?

Procrastination: Frost et al. (1990) found that perfectionism was correlated with frequency or severity of procrastination and pointed out that procrastination was often used as a strategy so the individual could avoid less than perfect standards of performance.

Self-handicapping: Kerns et al. (2007) reported that self-handicapping was also associated with perfectionism.  They described this according to those who first used the term (Jones and Berglas 1978);  ‘self-handicapping’  occurs in the situation where a person creates obstacles to their achievement of success, with the aim of having a ready-made excuse for failure if it occurs.

Self-handicapping can include a wide range of behaviours, such as:

  • Procrastination
  • Overcommitting
  • Substance abuse
  • The use of alcohol
  • Lack of effort or not taking opportunities to practise
  • Choosing very difficult goals
  • Claiming test anxiety
  • Side effects of medication
  • Emotional and physical symptoms
  • Being in a bad mood

Mood and Anxiety: Others have found a correlation between scores on a perfectionism measure and depression and anxiety (Gordon et al 2007).

What can I do about it?

In dealing with perfectionism, Kerns et al. (2007) outlined that the outcomes from their research suggested that cognitive behavioural approaches that target beliefs relating to personal standards and concern over mistakes are likely to be most effective.  In addition, they stated that in dealing with self-handicapping it will be important that interventions be of sufficient length to allow participants to put new behaviours in place.

In 2011 researchers Joachim Stoeber and  Dirk Janssen published  the results of their study of perfectionism and coping with daily failures. They found that positive reframing, acceptance, and humor used in relation to failures predicted higher satisfaction for students.

Below are some ideas consistent with changing beliefs and behaviours in the ways described by Kerns et al (2007) and Jochim et al (2011).

  • Set realistic and reachable goals based on your own wants and needs, and what you have accomplished in the past. This will enable you to achieve and also lead to a greater sense of self-esteem.
  • Set subsequent goals in a sequential manner. As you reach a goal, set your next goal one level beyond your present level of accomplishment, and not any more than one level.
  • Focus on the process of doing an activity not just on the end result. Evaluate your success not only in terms of what you accomplished but also in terms of how much you enjoyed the task. Recognise that there can be value in the process of pursuing a goal.
  • Use feelings of anxiety and depression as opportunities to ask yourself, ‘have I set up impossible expectations for myself in this situation?’
  • Confront the fears that may be behind your perfectionism by asking, ‘What am I afraid of? What’s the worst thing that could happen?’
  • Recognise that many positive things can only be learned by making mistakes. When you make a mistake ask, ‘What can I learn from this experience?’ More specifically, think of a recent mistake you have made and list all the things you can learn from it.
  • Avoid all-or-none thinking in relation to your goals. Learn to discriminate the tasks that you want to give high priority to from those tasks that are less important to you. On less important tasks, choose to put forth less effort.
  • Experiment with your standards for success. Instead of aiming for 100 percent, try for 90 percent, 80 percent, or even 60 percent success. This will help you to realise the world does not end when you are not perfect.
  • Talk to a counsellor. Staff at the counselling service are familiar with a range of cognitive and behavioural change techniques that can assist you to manage.


Frost, R. O., Marten, P., Lahart, C., & Rosenblate, R. (1990). The dimensions of perfectionism. Cognitive Therapy And Research, 14(5), 449.

Gordon, F., Paul, H., Teresa, W., & Thomas, M. (2007). The Perfectionism Cognitions Inventory: Psychometric Properties and Associations with Distress and Deficits in Cognitive Self-management. Journal Of Rational-Emotive & Cognitive-Behavior Therapy, 25(4), 255.

Joachim Stoeber & Dirk P. Janssen (2011) Perfectionism and coping with daily failures: positive reframing helps achieve satisfaction at the end of the day, Anxiety, Stress, & Coping: An International Journal, 24:5, 477-497, DOI: 10.1080/10615806.2011.562977

Kearns, H., Forbes, A., & Gardiner, M. (2007). A Cognitive Behavioural Coaching Intervention for the Treatment of Perfectionism and Self-Handicapping in a Nonclinical Population. Behaviour Change, 24(3), 157-172. doi:10.1375/bech.24.3.157

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