Catholic University faculty and students are immersed in a culture of research. In this series we offer a sampling of the many big questions they are working on.
Jacqueline Leary-Warsaw

Can Perfectionism Be a Problem?

In 2016 Jacqueline Leary-Warsaw presented the findings of her research, “Unmasking the Hidden Enemy: Perfectionism in Undergraduate Music Students,” at the College Music Society national conference in Santa Fe. She made a similar presentation the same year at an international conference in Paris. “Students and faculty members alike were glad to find a serious focus on the problem of perfectionism.”

How can perfectionism be detrimental to students?

“There are two kinds of perfectionism. Adaptive perfectionists set high standards for themselves but they can walk on stage and say, ‘Okay, I might not have been perfect but I’m satisfied with my performance.’ Maladaptive perfectionism is debilitating and at best can steal a performer’s joy, and at worst can end a career. It is particularly dangerous in students. Mistakes in their mind are catastrophic even when the audience might never notice it. I’ve seen my own students fall into depression and suffer from eating disorders, drug abuse, or other self-destructive behaviors.”

How can teachers help their students?

“When I was a student we called it stage fright or performance anxiety. After 25 years in higher education, I knew it was deserving of a higher level of research. I partnered with a psychology professor to teach a course on this for music students, and it became quite popular. I asked myself what more I could do to help my students. My research told me we have to change the way we are training young people. We need curriculum that addresses wellness of the mind and body.

“As teachers we are changing our vocabulary. We are no longer using the word ‘perfect’ or offering an expectation of perfection. We are changing our way of teaching to match the brain science by nurturing college students to be the best they can be.”

Jacqueline Leary-Warsaw is the dean of the Benjamin T. Rome School of Music, Drama, and Art. She is an internationally recognized music educator and classical soprano. For more than 25 years, she has hosted the popular television series In Concert on the EWTN Global Catholic Television Network.