The desire to be flawless: helping students cope with perfectionism

Thomas Curran looks at what lecturers can do to help when faced with students presenting perfectionistic tendencies

January 14, 2018
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An important role of being an academic is personal tutoring. Almost daily, a student knocks on my door and we discuss issues that are associated with life at university.

Each is ambitious, hard-working and diligent. But if, like me, you’ve noticed an increase in students presenting psychological difficulties, then you are not alone. Student mental illness on UK campuses is at record highs, and globally, young people are reporting to clinicians with unprecedented levels of depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts.

In stark contrast to the tabloid caricature that today’s university students are “generation snowflake”, these trends are likely to result in part from the increasing demands that young people are placing on themselves. In a systems-level meta-analysis of birth cohort differences, my colleague Andrew Hill and I have shown that more recent generations of young people are reporting higher rates of perfectionist attitudes and behaviours. These are tendencies that include an irrational desire to be flawless in combination with harsh self-criticism.

The rise in perfectionism documented in our study sits alongside epidemics of serious mental illness because perfectionism is the source of much psychological turmoil. Perfectionists are preoccupied with demonstrating their worth, be that via grades and classifications, or by winning the validation of others. In turn, they ruminate chronically, brood over what could have been otherwise, and experience considerable shame and anxiety because they equate mistakes and failure with inner weakness and unworthiness.

We link rising perfectionism with the rise of neoliberal priorities, which give preference to production by means of unconstrained competition over communal action. In a world where competition, standardised testing and setting comes to characterise educational outcomes, and where educational outcomes are fundamental to one’s future market price, is it any wonder that students come to view perfectionism as an adaptive quality despite its egregious consequences? It is how they are coping – to feel safe, connected and of worth – in a culture that prizes individual accomplishment over everything else.

When faced with students presenting perfectionistic tendencies, as personal tutors there are a number of things we can say and can do.

Failure is not catastrophic

The energy behind perfectionism comes largely from a desire to avoid failure. Whether it’s an important exam, crucial essay or graded presentation, each opportunity for failure is a highly stressful event for the perfectionist.

This is one of the key reasons why students’ unions see students reporting mental health issues far more commonly around crucial times in the assessment calendar. When students come to me in distress, I emphasise perspective – each perceived failure that the student believes to be disastrous is a function of their excessive standards and will be a faint memory in the next semester. I try, where possible, to recalibrate their goals and work with the student to see these stressful events as opportunities to develop, not to fail.

No matter what happens at assessment time, they are still ambitious, hard-working and diligent individuals. As long as the student emerges from setbacks with a desire to keep going, they will eventually succeed.

There are better goals than perfection

By definition, perfection is an impossible goal. In adopting excessively high standards, perfectionists set themselves up for the failure that is so damaging for their self-esteem.

We are all novices at some point. As their lecturers, we do not expect students to produce the perfect scores, especially in the early years of university. There is always scope for improvement, even in the best of essays. But do we communicate this enough? I try to advocate perseverance, flexibility, diligence and conscientiousness as far better and more achievable goals than the highest or perfect score. Such goals yield achievement, but they do so with application to the process of learning, not the outcome. For the perfectionists, this is a crucial shift in perspective.

Keep moving forward

Not only do high goals impede success for perfectionists, but so too does their tendency to postpone difficult tasks. When failure is shattering, moving forward on tasks that carry a high risk of failure becomes difficult. Perfectionists therefore procrastinate because they cannot fail on tasks that they haven’t started.

With deadlines looming, this paralysis accentuates and protracts the rumination and brooding that is so damaging to the perfectionist’s psychological health. Procrastination is not something that perfectionistic students voluntarily disclose, but the link is supported by much research. If the fear of failing is holding students back, encourage them to take affirmative action, get words on paper and then refine the ideas. The perfectionist’s work is always better than they think it is, this encouragement is central to their willingness to keep moving forward.

Thomas Curran is a lecturer in sport psychology with expertise in motivation and emotion at the University of Bath.

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