BYU’s perfectionism plague: More than just good grades

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Perfectionism has been a part of BYU student Aubree Curtis’ life since she was young. As a child, she remembers spending hours on what should have been fun family activities, like carving jack-o-lanterns, and getting to the point of tears sometimes because of self-inflicted pressure to do everything perfectly. 

She sees the pressures of perfectionism following her at BYU: “It’s the nature of it being a religious institution, because as Latter-day Saints we are taught a lot about perfecting ourselves unto Christ.” 

She said Church culture has wholesome and good intentions. But “warp that in a negative way, and it becomes ‘I need to do everything perfectly now,’” Curtis said. 

Students study in the basement of the Harold B. Lee Library. Perfectionism is a big part of the BYU experience for many students. (Kate Parrish)

Merriam-Webster dictionary defines perfectionism as “a disposition to regard anything short of perfection as unacceptable.

Allan D. Rau, a religious educator, wrote about this issue in “Be Ye Therefore Perfect”: Beyond the Perfectionist Paradigm

Rau said the Church has been concerned with perfectionism in its members for a long time. “Perfectionism corrupts the doctrine of perfection and creates unnecessary burdens in the lives of those who seek perfection,” he said. Perfectionism “combines unrealistic expectations with an unhealthy preoccupation with faults, weaknesses, mistakes and sins.”

During the first week of a semester, it is not uncommon for BYU professors to make comments about perfectionism. “I know you’re all perfectionists but a B is a good grade,” some may say. Others will remind students, “Mistakes will be made and that is okay.”

However, despite reassurance from their professors, striving for perfection seems to be a common phenomenon among students at BYU. 

Gawain Wells, former psychology department chair at BYU, explained perfectionism as never feeling satisfied and “working worried.”

The signs of perfectionism are tales of anxiety, Wells said. In a study by Penn State, researchers found that one of the top concerns for college students is anxiety. 

A student studies in the Harold B. Lee Library. Perfectionism is a big part of the BYU experience for many students. (Kate Parrish)

Wells said perfectionism is an anxiety issue and it is how students may choose to deal with the restlessness they feel inside. “Putting forth your best effort serves you well,” Wells said, but he cautioned that it can be overdone and the stress that it produces can lead to other difficulties.

A Utah Valley Counseling article reported that “a perfectionist’s sense of self worth is externally based; they are only as good as their latest goal or achievement.”

Ken Matheson, a retired BYU social work professor, said the pressure for perfectionism comes from a need for external validation. He agrees with Wells that perfectionism is connected to the students not being content that what they’ve accomplished is enough.

One of the causes of the pressure, according to Matheson, is family. He said that it can be a learned behavior from parents who always ask “Is that your best effort?” and are more concerned with the outcome than the process. 

Johnny Blood, a BYU graduate student, said perfectionism is dismissive of the actual purpose of school, which is learning. 

Matheson said scholarships and GPAs are another pressure that students face. Students begin to believe “GPA is an indicator of your brightness.” Wells and Matheson agreed that students are driven by grades.

Students talk and study in the Wilkinson Student Center. Perfectionism is a big part of the BYU experience for many students. (Kate Parrish)

Matheson said when he was teaching his first year at BYU, the average GPA of an incoming freshman was 3.72. However, in the past few years, College Simply found that incoming BYU freshmen now have average GPAs of 3.86.

One might think a higher average GPA is a good thing, but Wells and Matheson said it comes from a place where there is more pressure to get the best grades in order to obtain masters degrees and be accepted into doctoral programs. Matheson said that students need to remember that school is eventually a means to an end and they are still a good person even if they get a B.

“Grades don’t give the full picture of all the qualities we possess,” Blood said. When he takes space from worrying about disappointing grades, Blood said he will realize that there are still lots of opportunities for success as a student and lots of career options. 

Utah Valley Counseling also reports that “perfectionists leave little to no room for making mistakes. A score of 99 out of 100 is seen as a complete failure because they missed that 1 question.” Perfectionists need complete success, and they struggle to accept anything less.

During Curtis’ freshman year of college, she said that she failed her first midterms because of the pressure to do things perfectly. “I was spending way more time than average on assignments. I wasn’t in the right mental state,” she said.

After talking with her accounting professor, Melissa Larson, Curtis said she realized she needed to address these perfectionistic tendencies because they were doing more harm than good. 

BYU public health professor Tana Page said, “Perfectionism is a mirage.” Our brains are always humming with semi-conscious thoughts and stories we tell ourselves about our lives and about not being good enough, she said.

Students should also be cautious not to wear perfectionism as a badge of honor, Page said.

The public health professor said students “see themselves as motivated hard workers, but perfectionism leads to high levels of stress, anxiety, depression, and burn out. Chasing after it does us more harm than good.”

Ewerton Barroso, an international relations major at BYU, said when he would receive academic results that were not as he expected that the stress would stop him from taking care of his physical and mental health. 

Although exercising, and getting better sleep does not have instant results, it can be seen “in the long term results,” Barroso said. 

Wells said he used to tell his students, “If you think you’re too busy to take time for rest, then you’ll have to take time for sickness and rest later.” 

Students study in the Harold B. Lee Library. Perfectionism is a big part of the BYU experience for many students. (Kate Parrish)

Page said to combat the pressures of perfectionism, students should work to be more self-aware by asking questions like “What am I thinking and what are my thought patterns? Are they accurate?”

Curtis and Blood agreed that talking to other people about the pressure they were feeling was most helpful in bouncing back from disappointment. 

Wells said students should focus on the process and map out assignments, take it one step at a time and be “willing to keep working.” 

“It’s doing what I know how to do, and the grades will take care of themselves,” Wells said.

Wells said some people misinterpret the scriptural charge to “be ye therefore perfect.” 

“The Lord couldn’t have meant you lead a flawless life,” it means to be complete. To have “your heart, mind and actions where they need to be and putting forth effort to follow Him,” Wells said.

Curtis described perfectionism as a “mix of celestial and temporal perfection” where “lines get crossed.”

Blood said we should follow President Nelson’s advice about the biblical definition of perfection, that we are to be complete but not flawless. The goal should be to be better today than yesterday.

“A more worthwhile goal than achieving perfection in immediacy should be focusing on improvement relative to our past self,” Blood said.

Curtis said perfectionism is not a unique experience, and everyone experiences it in “one form or another.” She said it is important to practice having a healthy mindset, to learn to accept failure and to learn from it rather than catastrophizing. 

“Learning from mistakes makes you wiser, and gives you more perspective,” Curtis said.

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