November 14, 2019
Today’s popular culture is often highly packaged and thoroughly curated. Everything looks good on screen, and the social media tally of likes, loves, and shares literally quantifies a hierarchy of success. But this desire to effortlessly excel at all can quickly backfire, especially for teens—leading to paralyzing anxiety on the path to perfection.
“Perfectionists often set unrealistically high standards for themselves and tie all results to their intrinsic self-worth,” writes Sheila Achar Josephs, Ph.D., in her column for the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. “In contrast, what I call ‘positive strivers’ set realistic goals, enjoy challenging themselves and see mistakes as task-specific rather than as a blow to their self-esteem. Practicing this new approach to success means making sure goals are doable, changing the level of effort depending upon the importance of the task and finding satisfaction in the process of doing a task, not just in perfect outcomes.”
Achar Josephs explains that the behaviors tied to perfectionism can actually create bigger, more serious roadblocks. When working with young adults, she recommends posing these self-reflective questions to help teenagers both identify their drivers of perfection and assess how they are internalizing perfectionistic thoughts:
● Does it make it hard to finish school assignments on time because nothing is ever good enough?
● Does it trigger test anxiety, which disrupts performance?
● Does it cause avoidance of situations for fear of making a mistake?
● Does it prevent one from trying new challenges to avoid the risk of failure?
Rachel Simmons, co-founder of Girls Leadership, writes on a similar theme in The Washington Post. She highlights the research study “Perfectionism Is Increasing Over Time,” which “found that unhealthy perfectionism has surged among young adults, with the biggest increase seen in those who feel pressured by the expectations of others. Perfectionism, the study’s authors say, is a mix of excessively high personal standards (‘I have to excel at everything I do’) and intense self-criticism (‘I’m a complete failure if I fall short’). In its unhealthiest forms, perfectionism can lead to eating disorders, depression, high blood pressure, and thoughts of suicide.”
College Preparation, Not College Perfection
With the pressures of college admission being a clear trigger for perfectionism, Mounds Park Academy has taken a deliberate, four-year approach to guiding students through the college selection process. MPA’s college counseling curriculum is student-centered and comprehensive, while actively addressing the common fears and anxiety that come with preparing for college.
“We start the conversation early, in ninth grade,” explains Lisa Pederson, director of college counseling. “I begin by sharing sample transcripts that reflect a variety of MPA student experiences, different course choices, and a range of GPAs. Then I make the big reveal—which is that every one of these students was accepted to college, and usually to multiple schools. It always makes for a lively discussion, as students begin to understand that while grades and test scores definitely play a prominent role, colleges are looking at the broader picture of who a student is, their unique talents, strengths, contributions and experiences.”
Pederson emphasizes to students and parents that college selection and admission isn’t the end goal—in fact, it’s just the beginning. “The place where you go to school is going to be the setting for your day-to-day life,” she says. “You want to choose a college that matches your goals and values, and that offers an environment where you can thrive and build a foundation for the next phase of adulthood. Finding the great fit for you, a place that resonates with who you are, needs to be the priority.”
In her student seminars and individual college counseling sessions, Pederson recommends patience as a counterpoint to perfectionism. “Students sometimes feel they should have already ‘found their passion,’ that they need to hurry up and define who they think they are expected to be, and then perform to self-imposed standards. That’s a lot of pressure, at a young age and during an intense time of life. I encourage students to explore all their interests, to take the time to be creative and reflective, to not rush the process. We want students to focus on their individual progress, to challenge themselves in healthy and productive ways, to make their growth and achievement a personal journey. That’s where fulfillment happens.”
Learn more about it: Perfectionism and Mental Health
- Mental Health Resources at Mounds Park Academy
- Advice from The Guardian’s Teacher Network, with tips on helping students who struggle with being perfect
- Mindfulness as the Antidote for Perfectionism, from Psychology Today
- Perspectives from the Harvard Business Review on breaking the cycle of perfectionism.