The word ‘perfectionist’ is often used in a positive sense, to describe people who work hard, have high standards for themselves, and perform very well in their professions. It is important, however, to realise that there is a difference between perfectionism and striving for excellence – the former is associated with poor mental health and low self-esteem, while the other is linked to confidence and constant growth.
Appreciating this difference can be very significant in the case of students, particularly teens, as they develop life-long character traits during this stage in life. You, as parents, need to be aware of the difference between perfectionism and striving for excellence so that you can guide your teens appropriately and effectively, and lay the foundation for your children to enjoy a successful and fulfilled life.
As far as children are concerned, academic stress is the most common problem faced by them. More than the sheer volume of assignments related to studies, it is the fear of making mistakes that causes the stress. This fear stems from the negative criticism that mistakes and failure may invite. The fear drives the obsession with perfection.
Psychology of perfectionists
In psychology literature, ‘perfectionism’ refers to setting rigid and high expectations of oneself, where one’s self-esteem becomes highly dependent on whether or not these high standards are met. For example, a student might expect to receive an A+ grade in an English exam. If she meets this standard she’s ‘okay’, but if she doesn’t, then she thinks she’s a loser. Such black-and-white thinking is a common feature of perfectionism, and it is not difficult to see how such a mindset can influence a teen’s moods and emotional health.
Some perfectionists may be successful in certain areas (for example, academia or health/fitness), but this may be at the expense of other equally important aspects of their lives (especially relationships). Other types of perfectionists, interestingly, may be poor achievers. They may procrastinate because of the fear of doing bad work, or they might be unproductive because their extremely high standards prevent them from trying at all.
Striving for excellence
You may be surprised to learn that those who strive for excellence (whom I will refer to henceforth as ‘strivers’) are actually very different from perfectionists. They are more resilient, and even though they experience setbacks similar to those that perfectionists face, they bounce back more easily. Strivers improve with time because they are able to reflect on what worked and what did not, and try different strategies. Because their self-esteem is not destroyed by failure, they are honest about their shortcomings and develop effective methods for change. Strivers are often successful in multiple areas of their lives, and enjoy robust mental health. In the workplace, they are often appreciated because of how they respond to challenges, and because they endeavour to improve on previous performance.
Your teen too can be a ‘Striver’
It is good for parents to know how they can guide their children, particularly teens, towards a healthy pursuit of excellence, and steer them away from perfectionism, which never produces lasting happiness. Here are some thoughts to keep in mind:
- Do not compare your teen to others: If you need to make comparisons, make them with reference to your own child’s past performance, and provide feedback that encourages self-reflection, rather than self-blame. For example, instead of saying, “Why didn’t you study properly for that exam? You were obsessed with that silly TV show”, try something like, “Looks like you didn’t get the marks you’re used to getting. Is it because you were watching a lot more TV than you usually do. What do you think went wrong?”
- Pay attention to what you say, and how you say it: You can certainly express how you feel when your child displays behaviour that doesn’t meet your expectations. However, be careful how you do it. Direct your criticism towards your child’s behaviour and not towards him as a person. Avoid name-calling and burdening him with blame. Here are some examples of each, to provide more clarity:
- Blame: “You only have yourself to thank for these marks.” Instead, try “I’m disappointed that you didn’t study well for this exam.”
- Causing guilt: “Your mother and I have paid so much in tuition fees this year and is this the best you could do?” Avoid this type of feedback as much as possible.
- Name-calling: “Why are you so lazy? Stop being sloppy. Be proactive.” Instead, focus on specific actions and give your best, “I would prefer it if you woke up by 10:00 a.m. on weekends, and studied at least half an hour every day.”
- Have an action plan for improvement: Once your teen has moved on from a bad experience, prepare an action plan together with her, to help her do better next time. Taking necessary action prevents the cycle from repeating and increases confidence. If you’re not sure how to go about this, focus on a recent setback and discuss the following four simple questions with your teen:
- What didn’t work?
- What worked?
- What can be done differently next time?
- How can the family provide support to produce this change?
- Acknowledge and appreciate: Notice what your teen does right, and provide constant acknowledgement of this. Quiet, conscientious children often do not get recognised for their good behaviour but nevertheless need acknowledgement, to reinforce good habits and promote healthy self-esteem. As a starting point, try to make one positive reflection about your child a day, whether big or small. Here are some examples to show you that even the smallest things can be celebrated.
- “Thank you for helping me with the groceries today even though you were feeling tired. It meant a lot to me.”
- “I admire your persistence with that maths problem. You got to the solution in the end!”
- “Wow! You’re up bright and early today. I’m impressed!”
- “I appreciate how you helped your brother today. Thanks for doing that.”
Striving for excellence is a healthy alternative for the relentless obsession with perfection. Developing this quality prepares your teenager to get the best out of life and still be prepared to face the worst and overcome it.
Roshini is a psychologist working in private practice. She is experienced in working with children, adolescents, young adults and families. She is passionate about empowering parents with the right information and tools to help their children thrive.