Nobody’s perfect: healthy striving involves admitting failure, CMHC says

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Robert Epstein used to hold himself to very high standards in academics, relationships and appearances. But during his freshman year of college, he realized nobody is perfect.

“It was like a huge slap in the face,” human biology senior Epstein said. “You can’t run from the fact that (there are) some weaknesses you’re afraid of confronting.” 

The Counseling and Mental Health Center promotes “healthy striving” for students, as opposed to perfectionism, on their social media accounts. 

Katy Redd, CMHC associate director for prevention and outreach, said instead of punishing themselves, students should humanize their failures and encourage themselves to get back up.

“Self-compassion teaches us to treat ourselves (using) the same language that we would with a friend,” Redd said. “It’s saying something like … ‘You know what, a C is not going to ruin my life; here’s how I’m going to try to do better next time.’”

Like Epstein, many students often set unrealistic expectations for themselves, contributing to a perfectionist culture. CMHC defines perfectionism on their website as an unhealthy pursuit of excellence, resulting in fear of rejection. The website also states that healthy striving involves resilience in the face of failure.

Epstein said when his GPA dropped during his freshman year, he chose to admit his failure not only to himself but to others who helped him bounce back.

“As soon as you can open up comfortably about that in front of people, you then open up yourself to help,” Epstein said. “Since I couldn’t hide those things from myself or from other people anymore, I guess I have to deal with this.”

According to a study published in the Psychological Bulletin, college students today have higher levels of perfectionism than those from earlier generations. The study examines three types of perfectionism increasing in college students from 1989 to 2016. Perfectionism demanded by the self and perfectionism demanded of others grew, but socially prescribed perfectionism saw the highest increase.

Socially prescribed perfectionism, or perfectionism demanded by others, has grown because college students today face greater pressures from their parents, academics and social media, study author Thomas Curran said in an email. 

“Social media has a role in (emphasizing) social comparison,” Curran said. “This is a totally new market-based culture that pushes us to compete against each other … These forces were far less pervasive in our parents’ era.”

Theater and dance junior Malyssa Quiles said seeing your friends post on social media about how great their lives are going can take a toll.

“No one ever posts that they’re having a bad day, ever,” Quiles said. “Everyone looks like they’re having the best time of their lives when, really, they could be struggling as well.”

While posts on social media focus on the accomplishment instead of the process, Redd said mastery and learning are more important than the end result. 

“It’s the idea of learning skills and learning a new concept as opposed to the performance of it,” Redd said. “So, many times, we are really concerned about getting the A or the GPA, instead of actually learning.”

Editor's note: The paraphrased portion of Malyssa Quiles' quote has been edited to more accurately reflect her opinion. The Texan regrets this error.