Overcoming Perfectionism in Students
Overcoming Perfectionism in Students
PUBLISHED: Wednesday, February 13, 2019 by Andilynn Feddeler

When the genuine drive to excel becomes the need to be perfect, students can suffer from stress, anxiety, and feelings of worthlessness. Perfectionists tend to base their concepts of self-worth on their accomplishments, and when the outcomes are imperfect, they see it as unacceptable. Although there is often a need to be accurate or precise in high-stakes environments, the classroom should be a place to learn from failure—not a place to encourage the idea that success is only achieved through perfection. Kids can adopt these unrealistic standards from very early on, so it’s important for parents and educators to know how to spot and counteract these tendencies. Some of the largest contributors to unhealthy perfectionism include:

  • A competitive school culture. When students are told that the only measure of their success or learning is grades, they can start to develop unrealistically high expectations for themselves that don’t necessarily help them learn. A classroom that ridicules failure punishes those who are improving but struggle with applying their skills. Remind students that their worth is not found in the grades they receive.

  • Unhealthy family dynamics. When a sibling or family friend is a high achiever, it can cause kids feelings of doubt when their parents make distinctions between who is “smarter” or “better” at certain things. Parents can also project their self-esteem issues onto their children, and when their high expectations aren’t fulfilled they see it as a reflection on their own character. This lends itself to a tense parent-child relationship that depends on tangible measures of success rather than growth and support.

  • A tendency for self-criticism and anxiety. Nervous, unconfident children often try to make up for their false sense of inadequacy by striving for perfection. When they don’t achieve it, they feel like they have come up short, which is rarely the case. Reassuring kids who struggle with self-esteem can prevent their initial feelings of self-doubt from turning into a bad case of perfectionism.

  • Traumatic experiences. Kids who have backgrounds of abuse or getting punished for small mistakes will often try to achieve perfection in every aspect of life for fear of getting in trouble. Interventions and safe spaces are sometimes necessary for these students who have grown up with unfair expectations.

Perfectionists often avoid challenges so that they have a lower chance of failing, because when they do fail, they have difficulty rebounding and regaining confidence. They dislike vague standards and sometimes struggle with getting things done on time. It’s hard for them to appreciate success if it’s not
perfect, which can lead them to feel unfulfilled and helpless. You can begin to help these students by offering compassion and understanding, as well as support and encouragement when they’re feeling inadequate.

For more information on perfectionism and how to overcome it, check out these resources: