Spotlight On: Perfectionism

29 March 2019

This article first appeared in Queenwood News Weekly 29 March 2019

Defined as ‘placing rigid and unrealistically high expectations upon oneself’, perfectionism is something teachers confront time and time again in the classroom and an issue critical to the wellbeing of our students. Perfectionism has increased significantly among young people in recent times, perhaps due to heightened and ubiquitous competition, along with the pervasive presence of social media. Research has also shown higher rates of perfectionism and its close cousin, self-criticism, among girls when compared with boys. Anyone who cares for young children needs to be alert to its pitfalls, especially in an environment of challenge and high achievement.

Both intrapersonal and environmental factors influence how academic perfectionism is expressed in a person. Perfectionism, like many characteristics, can have both positive and negative impacts on a student’s wellbeing and performance. It can lead to extraordinary achievement and self-confirmation. It can drive students to work hard and see the sky as the limit. Students with healthy perfectionist tendencies derive pleasure from their efforts, which in turn enhances their self-esteem and motivation. Such “adaptive” perfectionists strive for success, tend to complete tasks punctually and hold high personal standards for their work, taking into account their strengths and limitations.

Conversely, perfectionism can be a track to enduring unhappiness, being linked to self-doubt, underachievement and even anxiety or depression. Imagine constantly questioning whether what you have done is good enough, or feeling the intense need to repeat work over and over. Perhaps you are so intent on avoiding failure that you cannot even bring yourself to make a start. Such feelings can lead to students evading risks, becoming anxious and frustrated, procrastinating and developing poor self-efficacy.

This type of perfectionism frequently stems from a real or perceived external pressure to be perfect, to please others, to receive praise and, consequently, to avoid embarrassment or shame. It is rarely as straightforward as a teacher or a parent setting specific, excessively high expectations on a student. More often, such pressures build insidiously over time, as students interpret others’ reactions to their performance. Intense desire to keep up with the successes of friends can also play a major role.

Many students with perfectionist traits exhibit both positive and negative aspects, at different times and within different contexts. So what can we do to channel these traits for the better with our Queenwood girls?

First of all, we encourage parents to model self-acceptance of mistakes and openness to constructive criticism. Our greatest mistakes are often the moments of greatest learning. It is important for our girls to see their role models bounce back and embrace their weaknesses as well as their strengths.

Both at home and school the girls must be provided from an early age with opportunities to experience failure safely. It is also important not to rush in to fix problems for them, despite the desire to see them happy and thriving at all times. Effort and persistence in pursuit of a final goal should be praised in addition to reaching the goal itself. Too often in the academic setting, a far greater value is placed upon the end result than the learning process, and this can send out counterproductive or even harmful messages to students.

In Pope’s famous phrase, “To err is human” – and this is the wisdom we need to share with our girls when they don’t do as well as they hoped. Straight As aren’t, in themselves, a ticket to success in the real world. Those who are resilient and adaptable and have the ability to problem-solve when faced with obstacles are most likely to succeed in life after school. We’ll never reach perfection so let’s normalise imperfection, rejoice in the challenge to learn through our mistakes and value persistence.

Ms Lisa Allum
Assistant Catalyst Coordinator (K-12)