As holidays end and goals are set for the work and school year ahead, it’s timely to question whether striving for perfection is a good thing.
A-plus interference: Perfectionism has been associated with many clinical disorders.
What makes someone a perfectionist anyway? Someone who is highly competitive and also extremely critical of themselves and others, says Magson.
“Their standards are impossibly high, and they often hold others to those same standards,” she says. “This often causes relationship problems with peers, partners and family members.”
Based on her own recent research of 525 families with Year 6 children, Magson argues that seeking perfection is not a healthy motivator and can pose a “serious risk” to mental health.
Perfectionists quickly become overwhelmed with tasks, procrastinate and find it difficult to finish. This can lead to failure at school.
“Perfectionism has been associated with numerous clinical disorders such as anxiety, eating disorders, depression and preoccupation with body image – just to name a few,” she says. “It can severely interfere with your life.”
This is because a perfectionist ties their self-worth to their achievements, their successes and failures. “So when perfectionists fail to meet their high standards, which they inevitably will, they engage in self-criticism and feel a sense of worthlessness,” says Magson.
“‘If my performance is not flawless (ie: perfect) then I have completely failed’ they say.”
Perfectionism can also lead to mental paralysis. People become so preoccupied with the possibility of failure that they can become afraid of trying anything new.
“Perfectionists quickly become overwhelmed with tasks, procrastinate and find it difficult to finish,” Magson says. “This can lead to failure at school when they constantly revise assignments and class work, which are still incomplete by the deadline.”
Some research suggests that perfectionism is partially hereditary, and can also be a learned behaviour from parents. It often strikes in the teen years and is more common in gifted children.
The good news is you can do something about it. Magson offers strategies that concerned parents, caregivers and teachers can try:
First of all educate your child on what perfectionism is. Encourage them to set more realistic attainable goals and not catastrophise mistakes. When they become overwhelmed with a task, help them break it down into achievable chunks.
“You can help them overcome negative self-talk by offering more positive alternatives such as ‘although I didn’t win, I tried my best’,” she says. “Encourage good sportsmanship and kindness and write these thoughts on Post-It notes so they can read them often and positive thoughts become habitual, rather than the negative ones.”
She also suggests reassuring perfectionists that everyone makes mistakes – even a parent, teacher or world leader makes mistakes. Constructively reflecting on mistakes is a learning opportunity.
If you really can’t make headway with these tips, Magson suggests seeing your GP for a referral to a psychologist who may recommend various cognitive behaviour therapy techniques.
Dr Natasha Magson is a Research Associate at the Centre for Emotional Health.