The perils of perfectionism: supporting young people

For many, seeing a perfectionist in action can feel like watching magic unfold. In fact, frequently, the reason perfectionists do not recognise the dangers of their behaviours is because they are greeted with feedback about:
– How committed they are
– How much attention to detail they have
– How well they are doing
– How admirable their attitude is
– How incredible the quality of their work is
How does a perfectionist recognise that their behaviours may be causing strain on their mental, physical or emotional health if they are continually told that they are amazing?

Perfectionists can look like real life superheroes. Their commitment, drive and determination can be quite an incredible feat. However, like all good things, there can be consequences, and therefore perfectionism can have its own perils.

What is perfectionism?

Perfectionism is a personality trait which occurs when some individual places themselves under high levels of pressure to meet high expectations. It should be noted that these expectations are normally set by themselves. Whilst some traits of perfectionism can be helpful, many can be destructive to mental, emotional and physical well-being.

Whilst many people can see perfectionism as a positive thing, almost a superhero strength. It is a defence mechanism which protects the individual from difficult emotions and becomes a survival strategy. Effectively, by pursuing perfectionism we can avoid other areas of life, such as emotions, relationships, social engagements or situations which we find challenging. Perfectionism causes havoc in relationships with friends, parents, family and the work place, the emphasis on being perfect and meeting high or unrealistic expectations means that the individual becomes isolated and our world becomes smaller, leaving us focussing on achievements.

By using their perfectionist traits, the perfectionist feels ‘safe’ but this perception of safety is false and can lead to attachment issues such as feeling helpless, lonely and fearful.

Perfectionism can affect:

  • Work / school
  • Study
  • Housework /cleanliness
  • Ordering and organising
  • Body / food
  • Personal hygiene
  • Sport / fitness
  • Health

Additionally, it should be noted that perfectionism is frequently linked to mental health disorders such as OCD, depression, anxiety and contributes to anorexia.

What causes perfectionism?

Perfectionism has many schools of thought to its causes. Perfectionists generally have a belief system that they are not worthy or useful unless they are perfect.

Schools of thought about the causes of perfectionism include:

  • Perfectionism is genetic – there is a school of thought that an individual is genetically born as a perfectionist of around 30-40% in girls and 20-40% in boys (Iranzo-Tatay et al, 2015). However, this interplays with environmental factors.
  • Perfectionism is a trauma response – perfectionism can become a coping mechanism to managing the response to trauma. When an individual experiences a distressing, disturbing or overwhelming event, they can feel a need to control other areas of their life, or try to be perfect, or to try and prevent this happening again.
  • Perfectionism is a biological response – Dr Dan Siegel discusses the concept that perfectionism is rooted in neurobiology. That at the point of birth, the brain developed a need to need to hyper-control in response to the changes of the world in comparison to the equilibrium of being in utero. In utero, the child was ‘being’ and in the world, they start ‘doing’. The need to over control and create ‘perfection’ is a way of creating predictability.
  • Perfectionism is caused by social input – for instance schools pushing children to have perfect grades, exam outcomes, university choices or careers
    Perfectionism is caused by expectations – such as having parents or care givers with high expectations, who are highly critical, shaming or abusive behaviours.

Traits of perfectionism

Perfectionists frequently have:

  • High expectations
  • Like discipline
  • Focussed
  • Motivated
  • Organised
  • Determined
  • Impatient
  • Focussed on outcomes / results
  • Solution focussed
  • Goal orientated
  • Like to be challenged
  • Ambitious
  • Efficient
  • Will take control of situations
  • Need goals or targets
  • Enjoys challenges
  • Focussed on career / plans / achievements
  • Can achieve a great deal of work in small time
  • Will push themselves out of their comfort zones

The challenges of perfectionism:

  • More likely to get stressed
  • Persistent worries about not being good enough / failing
  • Overcompensating
  • Seeking reassurance from others / needing compliments
  • Judging self-worth on achievements
  • Fixating on failures or mistakes
  • Self-critical
  • Can be likely to procrastinate
  • Will repeat things if they are not ‘perfect’
  • Overly critical if things do not go to plan
  • Can become destructive
  • Can lose focus is things are not achieved / do not work
  • Fear of failure can make them freeze
  • Failure can make them feel that are useless
  • Frustration at other people’s incompetency
  • Refusing to delegate or ask for help
  • Annoyed at monotony
  • Can get aggressive if things are not done their way / the way that they want them to be
  • Focus on quantity not quality
  • Unrealistic sense of urgency
  • Everything is ‘urgent’ – struggle to put things in context
  • Life can become imbalanced
  • Will put work commitments in front of health / friends/ family/ rest
  • A sense of always struggling against the clock
  • Schedule commitments too tightly
  • Become easily wound up

What happens when things go wrong?

When a perfectionist makes mistakes, or things do not go to plan, it can cause several different reactions, which may not be in context with the situation which is occurring:

  • Attacking themselves – e.g. referring to themselves as being stupid
  • Attacking others – getting angry / aggressive / volatile
  • Blaming themselves
  • Blaming others
  • Having a lack of compassion (for themselves or others)
  • Being defensive
  • Fight or flight reactions
  • Stress
  • Rejection of others
  • Rejection of help
  • Low mood – an internal battle with self
  • Wanting to quit
  • Wanting to leave
  • Losing sight of how to solve the problem
  • Feeling that everything is pointless

Associated issues:

When a child, teenager or adult struggles with perfectionism, they can also have challenges with:

  • Fear – a fear that they will fail, be rejected, not be accepted, not be successful
  • Low self-esteem – when they do not achieve something, or do not meet an expectation they can frequently feel like a failure
  • Negative self-beliefs – many perfectionists believe that they need to be perfect to be successful/loved/accepted – their perfectionism is a way that they control the world around them

Consequences of perfectionism:

Whilst perfectionism can mean that we get a lot done at a very high level. There are some recognised consequences:

Perfectionism can cause health issues, such as:

  • Chronic stress
  • Increased inflammation in the body (headaches, muscle ache, IBS)
  • Feeling overwhelmed
  • Not being able to sleep
  • Sleeping more than usual
  • Feeling irritable
  • Reduced immunity and increased illness
  • Feeling disappointed or low
  • Increased risk of burnout
  • Symptoms of addiction
  • Increased risk of self-harm
  • Increased risk of suicidal or intrusive thoughts

Supporting young people

Supporting a perfectionist to find balance is a marathon and not a sprint. They may need support from a trained professional to help them manage their expectations and find new coping systems. Equally, it should be remembered that often, perfectionism is a response to a feeling of being unsafe and so it requires patience and sensitivity. There are however, some considerations that we can make as parents and professionals.

#1 – Avoid talking about ‘just doing your best’
A perfectionists’ ‘best’ is far beyond the realms of belief. So, do not encourage ‘doing their best’ as they simply do not have an ability to quantify this. Instead support them to find a reasonable goal or outcome, such as ‘when this is finished I will do X (insert something nice)

#2 – Accept that there will never be a ‘draft’
When a child is a perfectionist and a teacher suggests submitting a ‘draft’ it should be accepted that this is rejected as they only see things as completed. Instead, consider asking for a ‘skeleton’ of bullet points’ or ‘first paragraph’ which sets realistic expectations.

#3 – Support priorities
Helping young people to set reasonable goals, such as only 1-2 big rocks each day, rather than everything at once.

#4 – Role model and advocate downtime
Perfectionists can find that downtime is linked to feelings of guilt or failure. Ensuring that we support them to take purposeful downtime from a young age and talking about the benefits – e.g. reduced stress, increased focus, filling the tank, increasing effectiveness – so that they can allow themselves the rest are important.

#5 – Praise effort not grades
Perfectionists are outcome based, however, we can support them by praising and giving feedback on efforts and qualities rather than grades and outcomes. See my previous article here

#6 – Increase cognitive flexibility
Perfectionists can be prone to a thought process of either/or rather than and/both so, supporting children and young people to take part in cognitive flexibility tasks to support them to loosen up rigid thinking. This also helps them to learn from mistakes rather than fixate on them. Consider, card games, music games, Rubik’s cubes. Memory games, imaginative play. Problem solving games, learning new skills and playing in nature.

#6 – Exercise – team sports
Supporting/encouraging young people to get involved in team sports where they are considering your team mates and participation rather than outcomes, and having to move through mistakes quickly.


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Further help 

For more articles about mental health visit – HERE 

To learn more about child and adolescent mental health visit – HERE

For resources to support child and adolescent mental health visit – HERE

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