Kristin Allen Armstrong

Mental Health Awareness Week: Managing Perfectionism to Promote Leadership

Striving to be high achievers as both collegians and alumnae is a part of who we are, and a large part of why Theta chose us to become members. Unfortunately, many of us are no longer satisfied with simply doing our best, instead holding ourselves to impossible standards that contribute to stress, anxiety, depression, and countless other negative medical, emotional, and interpersonal consequences.

As Mental Health Awareness Week (May 11-17) comes to a close, it's a good time for us as modern women to recognize that this balance between perfectionism and achievement has become an all-too-common problem and a barrier to effective leadership. Essentially, it’s a confidence-killing cycle of self-doubt. First, we attempt a task with the standard of perfection, and when that impossible goal isn’t reached, we take it as confirmation of our insufficiency. If you count yourself among perfectionists, you’ll likely notice it playing out in a sequence of procrastination (a result of our fear that we don’t have what it takes), stress (as we scramble to complete the task and wait for the evaluation of our performance), and burn-out (when we can no longer keep up with the cycle). Sure, the results are often of a high caliber, but perfectionists are unlikely to acknowledge the quality of the final product, instead focusing on the minute details that didn’t meet their standards.

In contrast, substituting a standard of realistic high achievement rather than a standard of perfectionism allows us to finish with a sense of satisfaction in our work and an improved, leadership-building sense of self-efficacy that encourages us to take on greater challenges in the future and execute them well. The question is, how does one begin to make such changes in their ways of thinking?

  1. A good place to start is by identifying areas of your life where a standard of “good enough” is truly sufficient. For example, earning an ‘A’ on an exam is still an excellent score even if you earned a 94% rather than a 100%. Likewise, cooking a healthy meal doesn’t have to look like it was made by the Barefoot Contessa. Set realistic goals for achievement in areas of lesser concern to promote exceptional performance in the few places where it matters most to you.
  2. Remind yourself that it is okay to say “no” to taking on additional commitments if you feel overwhelmed by your current engagements. If you have time to execute a few tasks at a high level, you will be more satisfied with your performance than with many tasks you have to scramble to complete.
  3. Finally, engage in positive affirmations. Rather than focusing on what you could have done differently, identify the areas of a task where you did well. Remind yourself of those achievements, however small, to build confidence for future endeavors and reduce the fear of failure that fuels perfectionism. For example, an affirmation such as, “I’ve done well in all of my past races, so I will most likely do well in this one” is better fuel for your next 5K than focusing on the fact that you didn’t complete your last race at a faster pace than your running buddy.

With the numerous roles Theta women take on, the demand on our time, skills, intellect, and emotions is higher than ever. If you feel overwhelmed with your current commitments and the high standards associated with them, you are not alone. Take the mental health screening on the Kappa Alpha Theta website to assess if you may need help, or visit your campus counseling office or local mental health professional.