We’ve all felt it: the desire to be perfect. Teenagers seem to experience this more keenly than most, seeking an imagined ideal in their looks, social status, friendship group or achievements. High standards are good – but perfectionism is a problem. I run workshops in schools, where many teachers say students have high levels of stress, anxiety and perfectionist traits, especially high-achieving females. Evidence suggests perfectionism is indeed more common in females , although both males and females are affected. A recent survey by the Department for Education also found that a third of teenage girls report issues around anxiety and depression.As well as affecting general well-being to read, perfectionism can lead to fear of failure.When your whole self-worth and identity are tied to your success, mistakes and setbacks are seen as a threat and you avoid taking risks.We need to talk about these issues – but where to begin? Here are some tips for students manage and.. overcome perfectionis
Strive for excellence, not perfection
Research suggests that teaching students about the difference between having an ethic of excellence and chasing unobtainable perfectionism will “enhance resilience and reduce levels of risk among perfectionists”.
Ron Berger, author of An Ethic of Excellence: Building a Culture of Craftsmanship with Students, suggests you set students long-term projects so they develop a sense of pride in their work, get high-quality regular feedback from teachers, and are encouraged to draft and re-draft their work before submitting it.
Teachers can help make the difference between an ethic of excellence and perfectionism. Excellence is focused on becoming as good as you can be and developing your skills; perfectionism 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
Unhealthy perfectionism is associated with a fixed mindset (the belief that your basic abilities are unchangeable). A growth mindset (believing abilities can be developed) shifts students towards improving their abilities rather than 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 Carol Dweck, professor of psychology at Stanford University, has spoken extensively about.
Focus on natural ability, avoid labels such as “smart” and “gifted and talented” and try asking students questions that encourage them to reflect on their mindset. This helps them see themselves as a constant work in progress and motivates them to get better instead of worrying about not being good enough and demotivated as a result.
Explain that no one is perfect
Many students suffer from what’s become known as FOMO (fear of missing out). It can be an ongoing battle to remind them that no one’s life is as perfect as it may appear on Facebook.
Get a discussion going about this issue using some real-life examples. The story of Essena O’Neill, an Australian teenager who had 612,000 Instagram followers but quit social media because of its “contrived perfection”, could be a starting point.
Only by understanding what’s going on behind the scenes with others, and developing skills such as self-compassion, can students have a healthy relationship with their own flaws and understand that this is part of what makes us all unique.
Build supportive relationships
Evidence suggests that positive statements by teachers have a direct impact on the number of positive statements students make about themselves. These comments from teachers were also found to have a positive impact on how the students perceived themselves as learners.
Trust is important, too, if pupils are to take your guidance on board. In one famous study on the ability to delay gratification (putting off short-term rewards for long-term gain), students who trusted the person giving them instructions were found to improve their performance considerably. Providing consistency and demonstrating you care will help build this trust and encourage your students to talk to you.