Dr. Fiori’s Tips for Perfectionist Recovery

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I made a B on my French quiz. What if I make a B in the class? What if I do worse on my next French quiz? What if I make a C in French class and a B in another class and my GPA drops and then I might not graduate with honors …

Sound familiar? This, ladies and gentleman, is what Honors College alumna Dr. Rachel Fiori (B.A., classical studies, magna cum laude, ’04) calls the “downward spiral.” You start with one, perhaps very small problem, and inflate it in your head to something huge and unmanageable.

This is just one facet of our internal struggle to be perfect. Sometimes life is not going to line up perfectly, so you have to have enough faith in yourself to know that a small setback isn’t going to stunt you for life. At the same time, you have to appreciate these little things that bother you because that drive to excel is also the impetus that propels you towards success.

I recently sat down with Dr. Fiori, herself a recovering perfectionist, to get her advice on finding a balance between the I-haven’t-slept-or-smiled-in-weeks-because-I-made-a-B perfectionist and the I-play-Candy-Crush-on-my-phone-during-class slacker. Now listen carefully, she gives some incredible advice:

1.    Make a commitment to be kind to yourself.

“This is one of those things that is easy to say and hard to do,” Dr. Fiori said.

It’s easy to comfort your best friend when she doesn’t make her ideal test score, but you won’t give that kindness to yourself. Succeeding in life isn’t determined by one test score, so why beat yourself up? If you’re having trouble being nice to yourself, Dr. Fiori has a great exercise for you:

Imagine a random stranger is sitting on a park bench. He’s upset about the B he just made on his French quiz – what would you tell him?

You’d probably say, “Hey, it’s only a quiz. Now you know what to expect, so you’re going to do great on your next one.” You probably aren’t going to tell him that he’s going to fail out of the university or that he’s doomed for life. Practice that same random-stranger kindness on yourself.

2.    Learn how to stop the downward spiral.

We just learned what the downward spiral looks like. We take one hiccup in our ideal plan, and we magnify it into a life-altering failure. Rationally, we can all look at the above downward spiral and laugh, but we can also relate! Is it just me feeling those slight pings of not-so-happy nostalgia?

But how do you stop the spiral? Dr. Fiori advised: “You have to insert some reality into your spiral. When you are starting to spiral you have to say, ‘This is only one quiz. This is only one exam. This is only one chapter of material, and life goes on after your first B.’”

3.    Life goes on after (insert issue here).

As an honor student, it can sometimes feel like you are just “skating through courses” (especially in high school), but at some point, we all get to a place where we don’t do as well as we want. Dr. Fiori suggests that it’s important to learn how to fall gracefully and to learn how to get back up.

“I had to learn what it meant to have a balanced and satisfying life instead of doing everything perfectly,” Dr. Fiori said. “My definition of what was success had to change, and it’s not something you just switch on or off. It’s something that you have to continue to practice.”

Dr. Fiori made it through the University of Arkansas Honors College without a single B in a course, but once she began medical school at UAMS, she had to learn that “a B in a class in medical school did not deter my career goals or alter my entire path in life.”

So remember that life does go on after each stumble, however: “That doesn’t mean that it won’t still eat at you when you’re 32. But you have to appreciate the fact that the setback that eats at you a little bit is what drives you be successful,” Dr. Fiori said.

So let that B on your French quiz go. There will always be future quizzes to conquer, but you only have one life to enjoy.

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