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Perfectionism to Procrastination: Inside the Mind of an Anxious College Student

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Some college students struggle with perfectionism due to the fear of not being good enough. The article “Procrastination: Your Perfectionism may be the Problem” says, “There is a strong correlation between perfectionism and anxiety. Sometimes procrastination can hold us back from being able to complete projects in a timely manner, or even worse leaving us avoiding the project altogether.”

Most students go to college to study the one thing they think they are already good at, or could be good at, or the area they want to make a difference in. There is a lot on the line at college: The absurd amount of money, struggling to make friends and have a social life, and creating “who you are supposed to be.” On top of all that, you are there to excel in (mostly) one area of study. If you begin to do badly in that area or perform not at the absolute best level you can or be on the same level that the other students are, you can begin to feel like a disappointment. In the extreme perfectionism case, you could be performing up to standard, however; you have set extremely high and almost impossible expectations for yourself. But these expectations have been achieved by someone, somewhere, so you know they can happen, which keeps you trying to attain them, and pushing yourself too far doing it.

Since the main priority of many is to be good at what you’re majoring in, it only makes sense to want to be the best. Every assignment — final portfolios, exams, and even measly discussion posts that you don’t understand the purpose of until you are months removed from the course. Every word should be carefully crafted, and every multiple choice question should be correctly colored in. If you receive C’s that means maybe you should try a different path. If you receive B’s, that could feel even worse because you’re not doing bad — but you’re in the middle of the pack. You aren’t excelling to the point where you don’t even need college because you are going to be a guaranteed millionaire. You aren’t being told to try something else that you could flourish in. You are average. Your words and effort are not quite making enough of an impact.

When you aren’t receiving repeated A’s, you could feel as though everything you have worked for to get here, all your putting aside to do this, and everything your future rides on, is all going to crumble down, and nothing was worth it. It sometimes doesn’t even directly relate to the physical “A” written on the paper, but to the feeling you have when you turn in the assignment. If your entire effort, energy, and personality wasn’t involved in the making of the project, your sense of self-worth could decrease. You are a perfectionist, and you don’t feel perfect.

When students have created such high stakes for themselves to where they feel like they can’t start their assignment until they are in a perfect state, they will likely start to procrastinate. This could happen in multiple ways — the environment you’re in isn’t “clean enough,” your physical state isn’t “healthy enough,” or your mood isn’t “positive enough.” If you don’t feel enough in any way, you don’t want to do your work because that will not be “enough.” Thus, begins waiting until you feel enough, and enough for perfectionists means, feeling perfect. Spoiler alert: That feeling never comes. Then nothing gets done.

The article “Procrastination Is Really Perfectionism” says ,“Since they are putting such pressure on themselves, perfectionists will often procrastinate and not start a project or task because of the fear they have of not being able to achieve perfection. If it can’t be done perfectly, they would rather just not start at all.”

They stare at the blank page for hours, and the closest thing to completing their assignment, is just opening up their computer and reading the prompt 500 times, even though they understood it after the first read. They probably have ideas upon ideas circling around in their head on what they want to write about, research, and give their new thoughts on that they believe could impact someone, but they don’t do anything.

The article, “Breaking the Perfectionism – Procrastination Infinite Loop” says, “Procrastination is often a symptom of perfectionism. Because perfectionists fear being unable to complete a task perfectly, they put it off as long as possible. The higher the fear of failure and ridicule, the more perfectionists procrastinate. To clarify, procrastination is not laziness.” The fear of failure and ridicule is higher when the student already has a mental disorder such as anxiety or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

The article “Perfectionism” on Psychology Today says, “While not considered a mental illness itself, it is a common factor in many mental disorders, particularly those based on compulsive thoughts and behaviors, like obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).” Anxiety might convince you that when you walk into a room, people are judging you. If you raise your hand to answer a question, you will get it wrong. When you try and make a joke, no one will laugh, and the room will all of a sudden go incredibly silent. Anxiety tricks you into thinking the worst-case scenario is the only possible outcome, and that’s the only thing your brain can think about.

OCD convinces you that if you don’t do something a certain way, whatever you’re anxious about will come true. OCD attacks the sacred. When you have OCD, your thoughts are often telling you what you fear the most will come true, unless you do something to stop it. And that something to stop it, sometimes doesn’t correlate to your fear at all, it can be a baseless task, but again, it’s the only thing your brain can think about. When students already have either of these mental disorders, they have a higher chance of being a perfectionist.

When students submit assignments late, don’t complete them until the last minute because they are operating around “crunch time” and the pressure of just getting it done, rather than putting effort into it or getting creatively invested into it, the student can be perceived as “lazy” or as if they don’t care. When in fact, it’s the opposite — the student cares so much that even when they are not working on the assignment, it’s all they are thinking about. They can’t execute it because they are scared they will try and fail (it might not even actually be failing, they’ve just convinced themselves they’ve failed).

From my experience, one of the most overwhelming things about doing assignments as a college student, is starting. You hear the essay is not due for another two weeks, so why would you do it right away? Inevitably you do nothing for 13 days, and then try to crank it out in the last day. “Crunch time” is the procrastinator slogan. They do an abnormal amount of work in a short amount of time, not because they were assigned an abnormal amount of work, but because they have managed to let all their work pile up until the last second. Procrastinators are self-enablers.

There has most likely been one time they waited to complete an assignment at the last second, and they still submitted it on time, and they received a grade they were satisfied with. This one time will allow the procrastinator to think this is a sufficient lifestyle and that it can be done again. Since they are also a perfectionist, and don’t want to start, they will delay the starting even more because they think it’s possible to complete it within their “crunch time.” Every time they get the assignment done in crunch time without any consequence, they will keep going. However, when “crunch time” does eventually fail them, they might then become behind in class, receive worse grades, and their self-esteem might slip. Now that their self-esteem may be even lower, they may think there is no way they can achieve perfection, so they do nothing instead. A vicious cycle.

We must lower the stakes. One assignment does not define our entire ability to be a good student or writer. The assignment could turn out terrible, but that’s what we’re in college for — to learn and improve. College would be a waste of time if you were already perfect at what you’re studying. We must allow ourselves space to grow without such harsh self-judgment and impossible expectations.

Getty image by Pheelings Media

Originally published: April 27, 2022
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