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Back to school – back to peak perfectionism?

Back to school!

For many parents and guardians, the ‘first day back at school’ photos taken by the mother of Lucie Falconer – which went viral on Facebook showing her transition from pristine to utterly dishevelled over a single day  – were simply hilarious.

For others, though, this time of year prompts stirrings of anxiety. Parents of children in the more senior years, for example,  worry about the slog ahead and whether their child will have the resilience to cope with what is to come. This is especially the case with children with conditions such as post-viral fatigue but there are other factors that can have a serious impact on a child’s resilience – including perfectionism.

Teenage case study – my perfectionism and me

In a recent Blogpost, Phil Parker described perfectionism as a set of “self-defeating thoughts and behaviours aimed at reaching excessively high unrealistic goals” and shared his insights on the causes of it. Illustrating this definition really well are the reflections of a teenager, who has recently taken the Lightning Process training, on the impact of perfectionism on his schooling and general well-being.

“My perfectionism has often had a negative impact on my schoolwork over the years. Instead of being a source of motivation, it has consistently led to anxiety and procrastination, whether it be in relation to revision for exams or writing essays for homework.

The acute awareness that nothing would be good enough (because of course it’s impossible for any piece of work to be flawless) was demoralising in the extreme; I would almost always end up leaving my work until the last minute, because the idea of sitting down to a task when I knew I couldn’t complete it to my satisfaction was simply painful.

My worst instance of these tendencies impacting my studies was my A-level history coursework. Despite being given an entire summer holiday to write my first draft, the fear that whatever I produced would be less than perfect meant that I couldn’t start it and ended up trying to write it in its entirety the night before it was due (the day after I started back at school). Not only did this mean that my work was not as good as it could have been, but I was so anxious that I spent most of that night shaking uncontrollably, feeling like I would be sick and staving off a panic attack. My mother, who stayed up with me all night, felt powerless – I couldn’t take on board any help. I took the next day off school as I was so ill. I wound up handing my work in the next Monday, four days late.

This pattern (so anxious unable to work, staying up all night and having to take days off school) persisted over the duration of the course, and although the end product was good enough, that was in no way thanks to any sort of perfectionism, and I was still wholly dissatisfied with my work.

Now, the idea that perfectionism can be helpful when it comes to achieving goals, at least to me, feels inaccurate. You don’t have to be a perfectionist to be driven and hardworking, and my experience is that in fact perfectionist tendencies can almost completely cancel out such attributes, making productivity so much harder. It can also introduce a host of negative emotions such as stress, anxiety and depression that can make life that much more difficult.”

Happily, following the  sugestions below changed things around for this teenager  who is now joyfully off to University in a few weeks, brimming with excitement and equipped with a more balanced perspective.

Research on the trends

The research of Thomas Curran (University of Bath) and Andrew Hill (York St John University) measuring the incidence of perfectionism over three decades shows that it is rising. Their work also underlines the comments made by the teenager in our case study about the relationship between perfectionism and well-being. If you want to hear more about this, click here for Thomas Curran’s thought-provoking TEDMED talk on his research about generational trends and the relationship between perfectionism and the mental well-being of young people. He also shares his views on the broader cultural influences driving this trend.

How to buck the trend

The research is interesting in itself but the immediate question for parents and young people alike is: what can be done to break out of this cycle once a child seems stuck?

It can be shocking for parents to realise what their child is going through and the depths of their child’s feelings. Sometimes the realisation dawns slowly; in other cases it follows a crisis. The observations of researchers and social commentators about the causes of perfectionism can make parents feel uncomfortable as well as powerless. But as the teenager in our case study illustrates, there are steppingstones to resilience and a sense of balance.  They include:

  • Recognising your thoughts, beliefs and behaviours associated with perfectionism, which can differ between individuals – even very young people are adept at spotting their individual patterns – ‘that may be theirs but mine is like this!’
  • Identifying, speaking out, any limiting and destructive beliefs you may have about your relative worth, what constitutes success and failure, any thoughts about your place in a presumed pecking order, etc – and replacing them with greater balance and perspective, including perspective over a longer time frame than the next academic term or set of results!
  • Valuing yourself in the same way you value someone you care about; watching out for destructive self-talk. Ask yourself: ‘if I spoke to my friends the way I speak to myself, would I have any?’ and ‘what would I say instead to someone I cared about?’ Then turn that light on yourself.
  • Experimenting with showing your true colours in the world, to build your confidence.

As a river is created by many streams, the causes of any one person’s perfectionist tendencies can be many and complex (and differ from person to person). The good news, though, as our case study shows, is that we are hugely influential in our ability to change course, to become flexible and able to take life’s events more in our stride.  If you have any stories of how you changed this around, whatever your age, please let us know!