Perfectionism doesn’t always do good students a favor


Depending on the circumstances, perfectionism can be an asset or a defect, at school or at work. And when it leads to a performance gain, it can be overshadowed by wellness issues . Links have thus been established between perfectionism and burnout or depression .

Evidence of these types of negative effects can be found in many contexts, and particularly among young people, in whom perfectionism constitutes a factor of vulnerability to mental disorders. However, practical measures, such as courses taught at school, could make a difference.

Unrealistic goals

Perfectionism is a personality trait of setting unrealistic goals and being overly critical. Driven both by the desire to prove themselves and by the fear of not being up to the task, perfectionists are often plagued by worry, anxiety and doubt.

Recent studies glaringly illustrate the fragility of young people in the face of perfectionism. One of these studies , conducted by a doctoral student in my research group, looked at the relationship between perfectionism and the use of social networks.

Covering 135 teenage girls, it found that when these young girls compared their appearance to others, those most likely to report depressive symptoms were the most prone to perfectionism and self-criticism.

Our research group also conducted an extensive analysis of academic literature on perfectionism in high achievers, which highlighted the different ways in which perfectionism influences these students. We have found, from 36 studies carried out in this field, that the doubts, worries and fears characteristic of perfectionism leave traces, even in the most gifted.

Surprisingly, only one study , with promising conclusions, looked at concrete ways to fight against perfectionism. She has shown that a series of lessons on how to deal with pressure, expectations and the harmful aspects of perfectionism can help students.

Motivated by the absence of work in this field, and convinced that the school and the teachers had a fundamental role to play in preventing the difficulties linked to perfectionism before they manifest themselves, we were interested in what could be done in class to help students with perfectionist tendencies.

Relationships with others

Working with the National Association for Able Children in Education ( NACE ), an education charity, my colleagues and I have compiled resources to help schools address this issue and share our suggestions with students, teachers and parents.

Among these resources is the implementation of a simple lesson aimed at improving the level of knowledge with regard to the functioning of perfectionism. Our intention was to allow young people to recognize the characteristics of perfectionism, to inform them about the existing aids, and to encourage them to use them, if necessary.

The lesson in question provides information on perfectionism and offers an activity explaining the difference between perfectionism and the desire to do well

The goal is to insist on the fact that, very often, the best is the enemy of the good. Aiming for perfection is pointless and unrealistic. Conversely, working hard and doing your best is not striving to be perfect. It’s also a more rewarding goal.

Another activity is to teach young people about the different “flavors” of perfectionism . This analogy draws attention to the fact that perfectionism can take many different forms, including with respect to our perception of others and how they see us.

We tend to view perfectionism as a personal matter, such as setting ourselves unrealistic goals. However, perfectionism also affects others  : we expect others to be perfect, or else we think that is what they expect of us.

Perfectionism therefore affects not only our well-being but also our relationships with others.

Concrete actions

We recently piloted a program in a secondary school. The students were guided through the lesson by a teacher who had undergone a little training and had the opportunity to ask questions while getting used to the material.

We found that the lesson had a positive impact on the students. At the end of the course, they said they better recognized perfectionism and the importance of getting help if necessary.

It is also up to teachers to ensure that the practices in their classrooms do not encourage a perfectionist mentality in their students instead of discouraging it.

Unrealistic expectations, frequent or excessive criticism, anxiety about making mistakes, and reliance on rewards or punishments reinforce perfectionism in students. Although this is a new area of ​​research and educational practice, we believe it is key to achieving positive and lasting change.

Teachers and parents need to be able to recognize perfectionist behavior and the difficulties it may cause in the child or adolescent. Improving teachers’ understanding of perfectionism is a good way to support student well-being.

Author Bio: Andrew P.Hill is a Professor in the School of Science, Technology, and Health at York St John University