OPINION: The Imperfections of Perfectionism


Hailey Stessman

A state of perfection is not attainable. It’s time we start giving ourselves realistic expectations when it comes to our education. Photo courtesy of Hailey Stessman/The Gateway

A large steaming cup of cinnamon tea beside a lit candle. The sound of typing disturbing the utter quiet and silence of my home. A neat and perfectly outlined schedule of my Zoom sessions and assignments. An assortment of highlighters and sticky notes ready for my disposal. Waking up at sunrise to go over my notes and readings for the day. 

Oh, how I wish I could say that’s how my first week of classes went this fall semester.

The truth is, I’m two weeks behind on one of my online classes. I’ve been waking up late in the morning, so I am practically out of breath running from the kitchen after breakfast to my bedroom to make it into my Zoom class on time. My long-winded and thought-out answers, which I am proud of, are often returned with a blunt “You broke up. We can’t hear you.” This new mode of learning is turning out to be more difficult and stressful than I anticipated.

The week leading up to my initial Zoom classes consisted of intense planning, impulsive shopping trips for stationary, and endless daydreaming of aesthetically pleasing study set-ups and desks. And why yes, I did create a Pinterest board solely for pretty study spots and notes written in perfect cursive. Since all of my classes were online and I had made the heartbreaking decision to halt my visits to the library, I knew I had to be creative with the way I executed my homework and studying, especially while living at home.

But rather than creating attainable goals that would ensure a healthy balance between rest and schoolwork, as a normal person should do, I conjured up a set of highly unrealistic expectations that ended up doing more harm than good. I was engaging in the slippery slope of perfectionism. Like always, those perfectionist ideals I set up for myself fell apart in a matter of days.  Alarms set for sunrise were repeatedly ignored. Previously tidy study spots were quickly cluttered with miscellaneous papers and items. The desire to study in silence was quickly interrupted by the daily sounds of my family living at home.

Ever since high school, I have been fond of the “study aesthetic” on social media platforms like Pinterest and Tumblr that is based around individuals sharing pictures of their extensive collection of stationery and papers strewn upon tables at a coffee shop. For me, it not only is aesthetically pleasing to the eyes, but it often motivates me and puts me in the right mindset to study. But as I began to integrate the practices shared by the “studyblrs,” as they are most commonly referred to, I found myself spending more time on the aesthetics of studying and attaining an image of a “perfect student”, rather than focusing on what I was learning, which led to a cycle of guilt for not finishing any of my tasks.

A study from the American Psychological Association found that those “experiencing ‘multidimensional perfectionism,’ or the pressure to meet increasingly high standards” were linked with a “growing number of cases of mental illness among people in their 20s, including eating disorders, anxiety and depression.”

Your value as a student and the knowledge you learn should not simply be judged by the manner in which you choose to study. You don’t need an expensive set of pens or highlighters that you know you are never going to use for the sake of reaching an aesthetic. There is no wrong or right way to learn or retain information.

When I finally acknowledged that I was putting too much pressure on myself to look the part of the “perfect student”, I found that it was easier to recognize what I needed to change and add to my at-home learning experience. For example, it is not necessary to highlight every single piece of information in an array of colors. A single highlighter will get the job done. Also, sleep is important. I don’t need to torture myself by thinking I have to stay up late and wake up early to be considered a “hard-working” student. There is nothing wrong with saving an assignment or project for another time.

However, if you do prefer to use many highlighters or you are more productive in the wee hours of the morning, continue to do that! What is most important is your well-being and mental health as a student. Don’t feel pressured or forced to accomplish more than you can handle just because others may be doing so.

There’s no such thing as a perfect student.