Teenagers often feel under great pressure to be perfect. Perfectly smart. Perfect looks. Perfect at sport. Perfect at socialising. Unfortunately, for many this leads to an increase in stress and can reduce individual development. So how can we best help students when overcoming perfectionism?
What is Perfectionism?
Perfectionism is defined as ‘straining compulsively and unceasingly towards unobtainable goals and measuring their self-worth by productivity and accomplishment’. The problem here is clear. If you set unobtainable goals and measure your self-worth against those goals, you are likely to be continuously disappointed, angry and stressed when you inevitably fail.
Though both male and female students can suffer from perfectionism, it seems that it may be more common in female students. A recent survey carried out by the Department for Education found that a third of teenage girls report issues around anxiety and depression.
Anecdotally, from my experience of running workshops with InnerDrive for over 30,000 students a year in over 140 schools, many teachers are reporting higher levels of stress, anxiety and perfectionist traits in students (especially in high achieving female students).
As well as hurting general well-being, perfectionism can lead to a fear of failure. If your whole self-worth and identity is tied to your success, then mistakes and setbacks are seen as a threat. The common perfectionist answer to this problem? Avoid situations that have an element of risk. Better to have the perception of perfect than to risk it and everyone sees your imperfections.
How to Overcome Perfectionism
Understand The Cost of Perfectionism – Educating people about perfectionism (i.e. what it is) and what the consequences of it are is a good starting point.
One study found that ‘a brief low-cost intervention is effective at decreasing the psychological distress in maladaptive perfectionists’. The key here is to do so in a helpful and safe environment. By discussing hypothetical situations, it can de-personalise it and ensure a non-judgemental atmosphere.
One way to do this is to ask students to give advice to a hypothetical student who worries about having to get perfect grades whilst being perfect in all other aspects of life (music/sport/fashion/relationships) and then leave them time to reflect on how they could follow their own advice themselves.
Remember Nobody is Perfect – A lot of students today suffer from FOMO (Fear of Missing Out). Sometimes students see others living ‘the perfect life’ and try to measure up. It can be a constant battle to remind them that no-one is as happy or as perfect as they may appear on Facebook. A great practical example for students is to show them how ‘easy’ it is to toss a coin and get 5 heads in a row, as demonstrated in this video below:
To see how it was actually done, click here. This video helps students understand that what they see online is often a fake reality where people sometimes project an image that is not real.
By helping students understand what is going on ‘behind the curtain’ with others, as well as developing malleable skills such as self-compassion, we can help students have a healthy relationship with their own flaws and understand that is part of what makes us all unique.
Strive For Excellence, Not Perfection - Perfection is a myth. It doesn’t exist. It is an illusion. Instead of chasing this leprechaun, aim for high standards. As legendary American Football coach Vince Lombardi once noted that ‘Perfectionism is not attainable. But if we chase perfection, we can catch excellence’.
Research suggests that by proactively taking steps to educate students who have perfectionist traits about the difference between having an ethic of excellence and chasing unobtainable perfectionism will ‘enhance resilience and reduce levels of risk among perfectionism’. These benefits include reducing anxiety, stress and improving mental wellbeing.
One of the best books I can recommend for those keen to harness this mindset, is An Ethic of Excellence: Building a Culture of Craftsmanship with students, by teacher Ron Berger. In it, he highlights many strategies, such as having his students work on long-term projects in order for them to develop a sense of pride in their work, a heavy emphasis on high quality regular feedback from teachers, as well as encouraging students to draft and re-draft their work before submitting it.
Teachers can help make the difference between an ethic of excellence and perfectionism very clearly. The former is focused on becoming as good as you can be and developing your skills. The latter focuses on not making any mistakes and avoiding looking bad. In an ethic of excellence, mistakes are viewed as possible learning opportunities and not something to be covered up, embarrassed by or judged on.
Develop a Growth Mindset - A study on gifted and talented students found that unhealthy perfectionism is associated with a fixed mindset. The authors of this study note that this means that an intervention on helping students develop a growth mindset should help manage the negative consequences of perfectionism. Developing a growth mindset is helpful, as it shifts students towards improving their abilities and away from proving their abilities. The former is associated with learning and development, the latter with comparing yourself to others and a fear of failure.
This is something that lead researcher Carol Dweck has spoken extensively about. This can be done by not focusing on natural ability, avoiding labels such as ‘smart’, ‘gifted', and 'talented’, and asking students questions that reflect on their mindset. This helps students see themselves as a constant work in progress (and motivated to get better) instead of worrying about not being good enough (and demotivated by the thought of never being good enough).
Enjoy and Embrace The Challenge – On reflection, many people find achieving a goal a little underwhelming. The destination may not always be exactly what they thought it would be. What is often the exciting bit is the journey itself. Life is short and goes very quickly. It would be a shame if students only learnt to embrace the 1% of time of achieving their goal and not also the 99% of the time it took to get there.
For most, perfectionism can lead to an increase in stress and fear of failure. For some, it could be even worse. If you are unsure and think it may be a clinical level, it always best to seek help and advice from a professional.
The above tips are the sort of strategies that can help someone manage their perfectionism. They include understanding the cost of perfectionism, striving for excellence, remembering that no-one is perfect and enjoying the challenge. Talking about these issues matter. If we can start a dialogue with students, to ensure that they do not suffer in silence, we can really help them.
We have more content available on developing growth mindsets and enabling students to cope with failure available on our guide page.
This article was first published on The Guardian website on 12.10.16. You can read it, alongside all of our other Guardian blogs here: https://www.theguardian.com/profile/bradley-busch