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Panel: Perfectionism an issue at ND

Emily Schrank | Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Competition and perfectionism are prevalent issues at Notre Dame — often much more serious than they are considered to be, three experts said Monday evening.

The Gender Relations Center presented “The Fighting Irish: Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger” as a part of their Signature Series in the Carey Auditorium of the Hesburgh Library.  The lecture featured Daniel Lapsley, chair of the Psychology Department, Rita Donley, associate director of the University Counseling Center and Sondra Byrnes, a guided meditation instructor who is also a professor in the Mendoza College of Business.
Lapsley focused on the psychological explanations of perfectionism.

“There is a basic theme that perfectionism is a disorder or defect,” he said. “A perfectionist seeks and strives for unrealistic goals, evaluates stringently and self-censors against unattainable standards.”

According to Lapsley, the three developmental accounts of perfectionism share a common thread: interactions with demanding, perfectionist parents. In these three explanations, parents belittle their own accomplishments and respond with anxiety and disappointment to their children’s mistakes. The child perceives this response as rejection, he said.   

“Many psychologists contend that a normal perfectionism exists,” Lapsley said.  “However, large differences exist between this normal and neurotic perfectionism.”

Several scales of perfectionism, developed by various psychologists, attest to these differences, he said.

Donley discussed her experiences with perfectionism in the Counseling Center.
“I see a difference between a goal-oriented person and a perfectionist,” she said. “The goal-oriented individual studies hard for a test and is happy with the grade they receive, while the perfectionist crams and crams and is ultimately disappointed to learn that their friend received a higher score than they did.”  

Donley said many students base their self-esteem on what they do or accomplish and, in turn, place a great deal of pressure on themselves.

Students need to realize that they can’t do it all and learn to cut themselves a break somewhere, she said.

“In my mind, perfectionism sucks the joy right out of life,” Donley said. “In the end it is our connection to other people and our quality of life that is the most important.” 

Byrnes focused on the value of meditation in coping with perfectionism and competition.     
“Mindfulness is a potentially refreshing and restorative approach,” she said. “It is the idea of being present in the moment.”

According to Byrnes, more than 40 percent of Americans of all faiths practice meditation at least once a week.

She led a meditation exercise to demonstrate that virtually all forms of meditation require only four things: a quiet place, a stable posture, a non-thinking attitude and a focus on breathing.

“Meditation aids in recognizing the moment-to-moment reality,” Byrnes said.