Monday, September 25, 2023

Toxic perfectionism and burnout

MosaicCampus LifeToxic perfectionism and burnout

Co-Managing Mosaic Editor

This article will be published in The Review’s special magazine issue, set to be available on campus starting the week of April 24. 

Since my first days of schooling, I’ve been a perfectionist. I’ve always felt that not getting A’s meant I was a failure. I had to excel in every subject and stand out from my peers. 

This toxic perfectionism is likely a manifestation of my anxiety, but is also influenced by my peers and family. Many times, high grades came easily to me – I was, as some called me, “school smart.” I trained myself at a young age to always expect to obtain high grades. I was obviously capable of this achievement, so why wouldn’t I just do it all the time? If I didn’t achieve the grade that I wanted, the only explanation seemed to be that I was inadequate and wasn’t working hard enough.

While having an extreme perfectionist mindset has paid off on paper, I didn’t consider its consequences on my well-being. At the end of the day, I felt as if people only saw what I produced on paper, rather than the obstacles I overcame to yield these results. In high school, while my perfectionism was at its peak, my mental health was in shambles. I had brutal expectations for myself until the very day I graduated. As my mental health worsened, my perfectionism intensified, because I promised myself to maintain my grades no matter what. Getting into college was my only priority. 

I lacked the ability to practice leniency and self-compassion. I frequently reminded myself that colleges weren’t going to see the depression I endured, so it would be a mistake to let my mental health visibly affect my transcript. My tendency to overwork myself, even at my lowest points, led me to being fully burnt out once I graduated. However, since I had now crossed my self-imposed finish line, I figured I would naturally recover with time. 

When I allowed myself to fully burn out in high school, I neglected to consider that a college environment would create just as much, if not more, academic pressure than high school. I would need to be equipped to deal with this pressure in order to prevent another cycle of pouring from an empty cup. 

This meant that I needed to recharge before starting college. Despite getting lots of rest, I wasn’t able to successfully recharge and neither were most of my peers. One summer after a four-year emotional rollercoaster is simply not enough time for proper burnout recovery. I used to think high school was difficult, but college has put my high school experience to shame. College is incredibly rigorous and the stakes are higher than ever before, so toxic perfectionism and burnout had an even greater impact on my mental health. 

I’ve taken solace in the fact that my friends at the university are experiencing similar issues with academic burnout. I spoke to two of my friends, David Shapiro (‘24) and Sarah Rouff (‘23), about their experiences with burnout and their thoughts on the toxic perfectionism culture at the university. 

Sarah has made herself busy with internships and has been ambitious in her academic pursuits. Her hard work resulted in acceptances from all of the graduate programs to which she applied, but not without substantial burnout in the process. 

Sarah told me that her difficulties with burnout began in high school and continued into college. She found that she lost academic stamina by the end of her sophomore year, due to overworking and taking insufficient care of herself. This did not stop her from maintaining an unsustainable cycle of perfectionism and résumé-building. She found herself doing some form of work every semester and has taken a class each summer and winter session in addition to full course loads during the academic year. 

Conversations about perfectionism become even more nuanced when mental health issues are thrown into the equation. I spoke with my friend David about his experiences with mental health and burnout. David explained that struggling with mental health made keeping up with his daily commitments while maintaining good grades very difficult.

I have dealt with this challenge as well. There have been several times when I’ve been too anxious to attend classes because I’ve felt behind, so I skip class to catch up on work. While missing class seems counterproductive, I am less overwhelmed by having to catch up on lectures versus assignments. 

David explained that our burnout is a result of being driven by social and intrinsic motivations to get good grades no matter what. He saw a profound manifestation of his burnout while writing a final paper last semester, for which he pulled two consecutive all-nighters. This decision severely harmed his mental health, nullifying satisfaction from the high grade he ended up receiving. 

Sarah and David, both having high GPAs (but having neglected their well-being to obtain them), agreed on the importance of deprioritizing perfect grades and prioritizing personal wellness instead. When I asked them about their advice for other college students, Sarah and David placed a strong emphasis on sustaining mental health. Sarah shared an important reminder for everyone that although grades are important, not getting a 100% does not make you a failure. While this is something that I tell myself often, I rarely internalize it. If I continue to remind myself of this, slowly but surely I will be able to put academics in perspective and separate my worth from my academic success. 

With continued trial and error, I have found that limiting caffeine dependence, maximizing sleep, meeting nutritional requirements and taking care of my mental health are all integral ways to maintain my well-being and prevent burnout. 

After speaking to my friends, I’ve learned that neglecting my mental health in the name of academic perfectionism isn’t worth it. Perfect grades do not equal success when that success comes at the cost of my body and mind. I hope that other students struggling with toxic perfectionism can recognize that grades do not determine their worth and that long-term burnout is not going to be worth it.




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