Perfectionism has been linked to both positive and negative mental health outcomes. Women who strive to meet high levels of unattainable physical perfectionism may be at increased risk for disordered eating and body image problems. In contrast, academic perfectionism can help a disadvantaged student surmount obstacles that would otherwise prevent him or her from achieving educational success. Although there are many studies that have looked at the role perfectionism plays in the psychological well-being of adults, few studies have looked at how cultural differences influence perfectionism in college students. In addition, even fewer studies have focused on how specific types of perfectionism affect the students academically and emotionally. To address this gap, Audrey A. Elion of the Department of Counselor Education, Counseling Psychology and Rehabilitation Services at Pennsylvania State University led a study that examined the self-esteem, depression, racial identity, and GPA of 219 African American students attending universities made up of mostly white students.
Elion compared students from a southern university to students from a mid-Atlantic university and found significant differences. Using adaptive, maladaptive, and nonperfectionist classifications, Elion discovered that the students at the southern university had higher levels of maladaptive perfectionism than those in the mid-Atlantic university. Even though they represented a larger percentage of the student body than their northern peers, the southern students had elevated levels of depression and lower levels of self-esteem. They did not set their standards as high as the northern students either. Elion believes that the underlying racial tension that still exists in the south may lead these students to believe that they are not as capable, or as good as, their white peers. This leads to an exclusive type of adaptive mechanism, rather than an inclusive mechanism as demonstrated by the students in the northern university. Elion said, “A speculative explanation would be that as African American individuals hold a more mature racial identity worldview, they have higher self-esteem (Vandiver et al., 2002) that is also associated with setting higher standards.” Overall, the students with the most adaptive perfectionist traits exhibited the highest levels of academic, emotional, and racial identification well-being. These findings could help counselors and advisors working with racial minority students, as all of the factors explored here are critical to the overall social and emotional success of each student.
Elion, A. A., Wang, K. T., Slaney, R. B., French, B. H. (2012). Perfectionism in African American students: Relationship to racial identity, GPA, self-esteem, and depression. Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology, 18.2, 118-127.
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