Perfectionism can be difficult to spot as a problem, especially among high-performing students and in high-stress environments. But it’s critical to pay attention to students who are struggling with the pressure to be perfect because it can have serious effects on their mental health, academic performance, and self-esteem. The defining characteristic of perfectionism is a fear of making mistakes, according to research by Dr. Thomas Greenspon published in Psychology in the Schools (2014).
“Hallmarks of perfectionism include an exaggerated concern over any mistakes, lofty and unrealistic self-expectations, harsh and intense self-criticism, feeling other people need you to be perfect, and nagging doubts about performance abilities,” says Dr. Simon Sherry, a psychologist and associate professor at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, Canada.
Perfectionism looks different for everyone. Here’s what to look for in your students
- Feelings of inadequacy Those who struggle with perfectionism often feel that they’re not good enough, according to Greenspon’s research. If they do happen to make some mistakes, perfectionistic people are likely to take that personally. Their slip-ups become reflections of themselves as people, not just of their performance or achievement.
- Setting rigid rules Perfectionistic people take rule-setting to an extreme, one that can get in the way of daily functioning. This intense structure can lead to other stressful and time-consuming habits, such as over-checking work to excess or missing deadlines, according to research published in 2016 in JMIR Research Protocols.
- Procrastinating on assignments or never turning them in at all Students struggling with perfectionism are often consumed with making sure that every last detail is perfect. While some may never miss a deadline, others might finish tests late, hand in assignments past deadline, or never finish them at all, according to a 2014 study published in Psychology in the Schools.
So how can you help?
Build a community that values the learning process, not just the results
Encourage your students to think critically about what they’re learning, not just how they’re performing. Share examples of mistakes that you’ve made to reframe the idea that perfection is a requirement for success.
To prevent people from attributing their shortcomings to personal flaws, and to draw attention to how much failure it takes to get where you want to go, a Princeton professor created a nontraditional résumé. Share it with your students, or make one of your own.
Be more transparent about failure
In response to the pressure that students feel to perform, some campuses are highlighting the times they didn’t get it right. Stanford University created The Resilience Project, a combination of events and programs that feature students, faculty, and staff talking about setbacks, failures, and learning from mistakes. Consider doing the same on your campus.
Know your resources and share them with your students
If you see your students struggling with unrealistic expectations, self-imposed pressure to be perfect, or procrastination, make sure you know what resources are available to help and have that information visible and readily available. Your counseling center might offer workshops on perfectionism, or tutoring services can help with time management. The more you normalize reaching out, the more likely students are to feel comfortable doing so.
Keith J. Anderson, PhD, registered psychologist, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, New York.
Simon B. Sherry, PhD, registered psychologist, researcher, and associate professor, Dalhousie University, Nova Scotia, Canada.
Sarah Vinson, MD, child and adolescent psychiatrist; assistant professor in psychiatry and behavioral sciences, Morehouse School of Medicine, Georgia.
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