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When Teens Struggle with Perfectionism

By Michael Schwarz, LPC

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Many people tend to view perfectionism as a stepping stone to success, but what is often missed or ignored is the negative contribution it can have on an individual’s self-esteem and self-worth.  When teens strive to achieve or be successful, they can often set the bar too high, accepting nothing short of being perfect or the best in some specific activity or class. As long as the individual is always the best, there isn’t a problem.

However, as we all all know, no one can be perfect or the best at everything. The inability to achieve perfection leads to perceptions of the self as being a failure, not “good enough,” or inherently flawed in some way. It is often difficult to assess when the struggle for success and striving for perfection becomes problematic, as performance in academic endeavors, extracurricular activities, and other school settings and situations is often viewed as the primary method of achievement for teens.  Here are some warning signs that a teen may be struggling with these difficulties:

  • Constant comparison of self to others, difficulty focusing on their own work or achievements and instead relating their performance to others

  • Significant distress when feeling unable to achieve a desired level of achievement (frequent tearfulness/crying episodes, excessive worry about upcoming tests/assignments, difficulty concentrating on other tasks, struggles to complete other household chores/tasks)

  • Difficulty accepting praise or acknowledging positive aspects of their work

  • Being very critical of their own work or performance

  • Spending prolonged amounts of time reviewing and re-reviewing assignments after they initially appear to be or report having finished

Once you have recognized the problematic characteristics of perfectionism in someone, the next task is to help them manage or cope.  This often occurs in interacting both with the individual and supportive others around them (including parents, peers, teachers, administration). This can sometimes be quite challenging, as the characteristics noted above often develop over an extended amount of time, and thus, require some time in bringing about change.  Below is list of suggestions that I have found to be helpful in altering the patterns of perfectionism:

  • Emphasize frequently that imperfection is a fundamental facet of human existence; we ALL make mistakes, and be willing to provide examples of your own mistakes, especially if you are in a position considered to be an authority (parent, teacher, coach, administrator)

  • Note that making mistakes does not make someone a bad person, signal that they are “not good enough,” or define their existence

  • Encourage effort and enthusiasm about tasks, focusing most on what can be learned from an assignment/activity, rather than a specific final performance evaluation

  • Make learning and completion of assignments and tasks as pleasant as possible; foster curiosity and increasing knowledge the end-goal of learning assignments

  • Provide positive feedback frequently, and focus on positive aspects of performance far more than pointing out short-comings

  • If identifying a challenge or struggle, make it as constructive as possible (describe why you think the suggestion would help improve performance, present the information as a suggestion rather than a demand)

  • Help the individual to gain some perspective, recognizing that performance on one specific task is almost never completely exclusive or inclusive

  • Encourage effort and perseverance, reminding them that anyone who has had prominent success has most likely failed many more times than they have succeeded

  • Suggest that they engage in some distracting activity (that is also subjectively meaningful to them), such as going for a walk, reading a non-academic book, listening to music, playing with a pet, attending a movie/concert/religious service, drawing, coloring, painting, yoga

  • Confront, in an appropriate manner, others who encourage perfectionistic tendencies; teens are impressionable, and modeling unwillingness to accept perfectionism will help them to do so themselves

  • Make sure that self-care and general wellness is important, emphasizing appropriate eating and sleeping habits, consistent hygiene, and participation in enjoyable activities

When working with who struggle with perfectionistic tendencies, I generally provide them with the following feedback: Striving for perfection is typically not the problem, expecting perfection is.  Striving for perfection can lead to pursuit of meaningful goals and an individual challenging themselves to be better in some way, but expecting perfection sets a person up to fail. It is critical to help teens learn to recognize that it is enough to try as hard as you can. Encourage them to put in concerted effort in doing the best they can.  Give them praise for doing so. In time, these strategies can help them come to accept that they will often fall short of perfection, and that is ok.

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