Is your teen a relentless perfectionist? It’s not as cool as it sounds. Read on to understand the darker side of perfectionism and how you can guide your teen out of it.
By Roshini Varghese
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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