How being a perfectionist is blocking you from success

by Jessica Holsman

Dear Jess,

I recently got my marks back for an exam and it was far from my usual ‘high’ grades. To make it worse, my teacher congratulated the top 5 students in the class and because I wasn't mentioned, some of the students kept acting so surprised and rubbing it in!

I’ve always been a high achiever but I guess I'm surrounded by other competitive high achievers too. This failure or less than perfect score has really hit me hard and I feel like my entire schooling depends on getting a really high score at the end. 

I hate getting anything less than a perfect score and even if I'm only off by a few points, I feel terrible.

I’m scared, stressed and feeling worthless. Please help.

x Anonymous


Hi Lovely,

I'm really surprised that your teacher didn't think about how announcing which students scored the top marks might make the rest of the class feel upset... I can imagine that if I'd studied really hard and took my grades seriously that I'd also feel embarrassed if my name wasn't called and there was an expectation that I was always top of the class. That sounds really unpleasant and I'm sure that having your peers rub it in would have only made you feel even worse!

Putting that situation aside for a moment, I can tell that you're putting a lot of pressure on yourself to get prefect grades. I think it's great to be highly motivated and driven to succeed but success doesn't stem from perfection. When I think about the years and years that I spent trying to get perfect grades, build a perfect business and go through life without any room for potential error (or opportunities for learning, for that matter), all I got was a lot of stress and anxiety. I really think that my success happened in spite of all the pressure I put on myself to be perfect, not because of it. 

Last year, I had the wonderful opportunity to release a documentary web series about mental health on my YouTube channel. Just incase you aren't familiar with it, the series is called 'MindFull' and one of the episodes actually focused on perfection! I had the opportunity to talk to a fantastic psychologist and even got to take part in a perfectionist workshop where I learned about why so many people feel the need to be perfect and what impact it has on their lives. I also learned some great strategies for overcoming perfectionist traits and I think you'd really like the episode! I'll link it below for you to check out :)

I had quite a few ah-ha moments in this session, especially when we broke down the definition of perfection and I realised how closely we tie this idea of being perfect to our own self worth. The problem with trying to be perfect is that it's unsustainable and often unattainable so we just end up running ourselves into the ground and trying to make ourselves feel better through external achievements.

One thing I really want you to take away is that you are not your grades. Your self worth is not tied to your achievements and when you don't perform as you hoped, it's okay. You are far from worthless and you can never be worthless unless you give yourself the permission to feel this way. I know it's really scary when you are in high school and you hear people talking about the importance of figuring out your career path so early on and thinking about what internships you want to do, university degrees you want to study, or jobs you want to have. It's really common to look at each exam as the be all and end all to your dream future but when we have this outlook on our studies or any situation in our life, it takes all the joy out of the journey and leaves us feeling like the weight of the world is on our shoulders. 

All that you can ask of yourself is that you do your best (within reason, of course!) and if ever you need, you have so many resources and support you can tap into to help you improve. 

It's important to remember that support is all around you and that your studies is part of a much bigger picture and journey. Sometimes, you will grasp subjects very quickly, other times it will take perseverance and seeking support from your teachers, tutors, peers and parents. I was used to being the best in school for a long time but by the time I got to grade 11, I had a little reality check and some subjects were quite challenging for me. I decided to meet with my English teacher quite a few times during lunch breaks, I got a math tutor, and I changed up my study approach and began using different techniques. All of this additional support really helped me improve over time and reach my goals, but sometimes I felt like there were setbacks here and there. It's like it was two steps forward, one step back!

Then, when I started university, I struggled with my grades for statistics. It took several years but by the time I graduated from my postgraduate diploma of psychology, I scored in the top 5% of the year for that class! My point is, sometimes improvement takes a little longer than we would like, but when we know who our supports are and where we can get the extra help, the process of learning and improving is much easier and rewarding. It's also a lot more enjoyable and stress-free when we aren't internally yelling at ourselves to be more, do more and maintain our 100% average.

I know it's tricky when you feel compared to your peers and the teacher publicly announces the top 5 students. I can't help but think if I were a student in the room that I'd think the top 5 students are the 5 smartest and most likely to succeed students in the class. Trust me, this is NOT the case. I promise you, being top 1 or top 10 or top 100 is lovely, but it is not an indication of life long success and shouldn't be used to divide students and make others feel like they aren't succeeding academically or in school as much as others. Please try not to let this affect your confidence because you clearly are incredibly bright, driven and capable and I know you will see a huge improvement with your grades.

I think it could be great to brainstorm a list of things you can do to help you with your studies and get you out of this funk. Getting into a proactive mindset makes the world of a difference! Also, rather than saying to yourself, "I have to get a perfect score," or focusing on a less than perfect score, it shifts your focus into a more positive state and gets you thinking about future success.

e.g. You might like to consider some of the following

-revise the material for upcoming tests with you teachers during lunch/ recess/ free lessons

-form a study group and study with friends

-trial new study techniques (e.g. mind maps, flash cards, youtube explanation videos, practice tests etc)

-have a private tutor for a few sessions

-ask your parents or teachers for other potential suggestions or even just talk to them for some support

-brainstorm ways to further organise your schedule to make the workload less overwhelming

I hope this helps to take some of the pressure off. Just remember that you are amazing and you mustn't let your performance on one test or exam influence how you feel about yourself. Do you best and remember there is always support if you need it!

Love, Jess x