At Hallways, we have found that the young people we work with almost universally feel an extreme amount of pressure to be successful. This pressure is usually both internal and external – students often feel competitive with their peers and want to be one of the “best,” but also feel that their families and teachers place a lot of emphasis on their academic and extracurricular successes. While this pressure can motivate students to work hard and achieve at a high level, it can also result in students developing high levels of perfectionism.
What is the difference between perfectionism and a healthy motivation to do well? While there are many characteristics that set perfectionism apart, the basic difference is that perfectionists tend to internalize the setbacks they experience, even if they’re routine. A test score that doesn’t meet their expectations is experienced as a personal failure; not making a shot in a basketball game as a fatal character flaw. Where others might feel a sense of disappointment, perfectionists often feel a sense of panic and dread. It’s important to note that while these feelings can be triggered by any number of things, we often see students experiencing a sense of crisis about setbacks that would probably strike many of us as minor – getting a 94 and not a 98, or missing a few days of school because they’re sick. Often, students describe feeling as though their entire futures are riding on their academic success, even in middle school. We hear things like “If I don’t do well on this test, I’ll fall behind. And if I fall behind, I’ll get a bad grade. And if I get a bad grade, I won’t get into a good high school, and then I won’t get into a good college, and then I won’t have a good career.”
As you could imagine, while this level of fixation on achievement can drive young people to work extremely hard, it is also associated with a number of negative outcomes and can even have an adverse effect on how students perform. Perfectionism is associated with depression, suicidal ideation, anxiety, stress, low self-esteem, and disordered eating; in some studies, it’s correlated with less desirable academic performance. Perfectionism also impacts the ability to form close, intimate relationships, as young people become overly concerned with being competitive with their peers or discouraged from seeking support because of a desire to appear competent or a fear of disappointing others. And, finally, the outcomes associated with perfectionism are often associated with substance use. Young people generally lack the coping skills they need to healthily deal with the high levels of stress and anxiety their perfectionism contributes to – substance use becomes a quick, albeit unhealthy and counterproductive, way to cope.
So, what can parents and school staff do to help? Here are a few everyday actions that you can prioritize to support your child:
Help foster their genuine interests and a love of learning for learning’s sake, so that achievement isn’t their sole educational goal.
Do your best to foster a growth mindset – focus on their individual progress in gaining new skills and knowledge, and make sure they know that growth (and with it success) can only come when they engage in healthy risk-taking.
Help them understand that it’s normal to take time to master a new skill or content area, and that any setbacks they experience are an essential part of their mastery.
And, most of all, make it clear that you value the young people in your life for who they are, not what they do. Often, perfectionists feel like their value is contingent on their achievements, and worry that a disappointment can actually result in a loss of love or affection from the adults in their lives. Make sure they know that the way you feel about them won’t change.