With three years of working with college students under my belt, I’ve heard students describe the necessity to stay up until 4 am, skip dinner and breakfast, and even skip showers to cram for an exam. I’ve also heard students explain their fear of telling friends “no, I can’t hang out tonight so I can catch up on sleep” because of some major FOMO. I’ve met with multiple students who were determined to hold full-time jobs and take 18 credits while keeping their struggles with depression or anxiety a secret from friends and family members. Hustling to be perfect seems to be the new standard. And if we are constantly hustling, are we able to live intentionally?
My conversation with these students would usually lead me to ask this question: “What do you think your life would look like if you cared less?” I would watch their shoulder rise to their ears, their eyes become wide, and their hands begin to fidget. Their bodies would have a fear response immediately. They believed if they cared less they would become more imperfect, more vulnerable, and less worthy. I’ve had students become stuck in catastrophic thinking. Imagine someone saying this next sentence in one breath- “If I don’t get an A on my next test then I’ll get a C in the class and my GPA will drop and I won’t be able to join the honors fraternity and I definitely won’t be accepted into graduate school so since I won’t get an A, I just won’t study at all.”
If I’m being fully honest, I was once told to care less as a graduate student by a professor. As a counselor in training, I believed the more I cared about everything, the more successful and compassionate I would ultimately become. I mean- aren’t counselors supposed to care so much about everything?! My professor went on to tell me I should try to create my own standard of “good enough” instead of spinning my wheels to fulfill what others expect from me. I was caring too much- to the point where it was debilitating my performance, mental health, and overall wellbeing. To put it simply, I was exhausted.
How to find and practice “Good Enough”
Ask yourself, “In 20 years from now, will this make a difference?”
Having perfectionistic tendencies can make anyone lose sight of what is truly important and how to measure the appropriate magnitude of importance. Sometimes the smallest one-page assignment can feel like a be-all and end- all, consuming our thoughts for the entire day. If you catch yourself thinking, “If I don’t get this ____ turned in, I’ll be a failure”, take a few deep breaths and ask yourself if you would know the difference (or even remember this assignment) 20 years from now. This question will hopefully lower the panic and create some space to approach the assignment to complete it. Is it good enough? Turn it in. Get some sleep.
Don’t procrastinate. Approach the anxiety!
This can be a tricky and very difficult change for those who have proudly identified as procrastinators and claim procrastinating forces them to do their best work. Often assignments and tasks that tend to trigger the most anxiety provoking thoughts can be pushed aside until last minute. While helpful anxiety can motivate anyone to complete a task, too much anxiety can become debilitating and distressing. Scheduling time to complete an assignment a week or two before the day it is due can help keep you accountable and stress-free! Using Google calendar or buying an hour-by-hour calendar to schedule when you can work on your assignments is a great first step.
Mindfulness meditation can be an excellent tool for anyone to have in their back pocket- especially for the recovering perfectionist. According to Jon Kabat-Zinn, “Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally”. I personally like to edit this quote a little by adding with self-compassion*. When our anxiety kicks into overdrive as if we were preparing to fight off a pack of lions (when we are just checking out at the grocery at 4 pm on a Sunday), we can bring ourselves back into the present by focusing on our breath and simply noticing where in our body we feel our breath. This simple exercise helps lower cortisol levels and our stress response. There are some great free apps you can download to start your practice- I personally recommend “Stop, Breathe, & Think” and “Calm”. I like to add the compassion piece because practicing Mindfulness, especially as a beginner, can be very difficult! When first beginning this practice as a recovering perfectionist, it can be tempting to go into a place of shaming “I’m not good at anything, I can’t even do mindfulness.” But practicing self-compassion is key! Changing your self-talk to, “this is really difficult and I’m proud of myself for making the time to take care of myself” can help lower anxiety and boost self-esteem.
I feel like it is important to note that this article isn’t to excuse hard work or perseverance. I hope your main take away is that caring too much can do more damage than we intended. Practicing a healthy lifestyle, investing in supportive and loving relationships, and maybe more importantly, the relationship we have with ourselves- these are the things we remember 20 years from now.