The Pitfalls of Perfectionism
March 19, 2019 03:00PM
Perfectionism is on the rise in children and teens. There is a growing sense among this younger generation that they must do everything right, mistakes are not allowed, and (perhaps worst of all) they’ve come to the conclusion that if they are not perfect, it’s because there must be something wrong with them. What is quite worrying is that among this perfection-prone generation, suicide rates are also going up, and studies show that these two things seem to be inextricably linked.
But why? Where does this drive for perfectionism come from? Psychologists have identified 2 types of perfectionism. One is self-oriented, in which we develop unrealistic standards based on our own beliefs about how we should perform in any given situation. The other is socially prescribed, which occurs when the pressure to perform is demanded by others. I hear a lot of parents say “I have no idea why my child is like this! I don’t care if they get an A!!” But it’s not just parents who can crank up the pressure. Friends, coaches, teachers, even their friends’ parents can be the source of a perfectionistic belief system. I hear stories of teachers in elementary school talking about how you can’t get into college without good grades. To a 2nd grade brain, that message pretty quickly transforms into pressure to excel in school.
I’m sure you’ve already thought it - how big of a role does technology play in perfectionism? The answer is no surprise…a lot. Using smartphones to reach out and connect with each other has created a non-stop feedback loop. They’re never really alone, and they never get a break from how others perceive them (i.e., basing how liked they are on how many likes a picture posted on Instagram gets). Speaking of Instagram and other social media apps, we now only see a meticulously curated highlight reel of people’s lives, so it’s no surprise that their expectations of themselves have gone up. Social media has created a shared delusion that perfection is possible. But it’s not just the kids who are falling into that trap. An additional factor in all of this is the rise in the anxiety of parents.
In what seems like a society filled with limitless resources to help our children achieve great heights, parents seem to be putting more pressure on themselves to access those resources to provide more opportunities for their children. Then parents start to blame themselves if their child didn’t achieve something great, it means that the resources weren’t accessed appropriately. There seems to be another shared delusion that increased access to opportunity means that we can help control outcomes. Take the professionalization of youth sports, for example. In what has now become a $15 billion industry, we have started to train youth athletes like they’re professionals. Kids start specializing in sports in elementary school (if not younger), and they stick to one sport year round to continue their skill development rather than using sports for their original intention- to play and make friends. So now we have expectations that the child that has been playing basketball since Kindergarten is on track to lock down a NCAA Division I scholarship. The problem is, the supply and demand don’t match up, so it turns out we can’t control outcomes after all.
I see a lot of kids with anxiety, and perfectionism is often at the root of their worrying. I see it quite often in my depressed patients as well, and it’s no surprise. If you feel a consistent sense of failure because you’re having trouble living up to the impossible standards you’ve set for yourself, then depression and anxiety won’t be far behind. But the perception of a child’s ability to control what’s going on around them makes a difference in worry and sadness, as well. If children (or their parents) focus on controlling outcomes, then they’re going to often feel very out of control of what is happening to them.
What can we as adults, parents, coaches and friends do to help? The good news is, quite a few things.
Tell kids to take a break from their phones. They need to get away from the non-stop feedback loop and unrealistic world that social media creates. They’ll fight you on it, but it’s so important for their mental health.
Also, be aware of what social media apps they’re using. Make sure they’re not following the Kardashians or other celebrities who only contribute to the misconception that perfection is possible. When they look at pictures of celebrities and even pictures of their peers, ask them the following questions: what are you NOT seeing in that picture? How many pictures do you think they took before they chose the one they posted? Do you think they used a filter? Psychologists call this process media literacy, helping people understand that what we see in these images is never the whole story.
Help kids focus on process, not outcome. It’s not always bad to be outcome oriented, but it’s equally important to also be process oriented. Have them shift their energy away from outcomes to things they CAN control, which is the place they really have power. For instance, your child can’t control the fact she has a test, and she won’t be able to control the grade she gets on the test, but what can she control? How she studies for the test. Which study skills she chooses to employ. Flashcards? Study guide? Mnemonic devices? For every A she wants, she should focus on 2-3 things she can do (and she can control) to earn the A.
Similarly, praise effort, not outcome. Even if she didn’t earn the A she was hoping for, you can praise her for the hard work she put in to studying. We want kids to find pride not just in the outcome, but for them to also find happiness/pride in their process. In essence we want to expand the definition of pride, we want kids to add additional ways to experience pride other than positive outcome.
I’ll leave you with this quote from John Wooden, head basketball coach at UCLA from the late 1940s to the mid-1970s and one of the winningest coaches in college basketball history: “Success is peace of mind…in knowing you did your best to become the best you are capable of becoming.” He also saw the benefits of focusing on process, and his outcomes were pretty extraordinary.