Having high standards are admired and helps people become successful. The problem is when the standards are unrealistic and inflexible. Wanting to do your best is healthy, however obsessing over perfection is not. For students, this can result in not turning in work, taking on an unhealthy obsession with grades, and lowered self-esteem when they do not reach perfection.
In academic settings, students with this issue present as extremely conscientious and highly anxious. Teachers may not recognize the dynamic that is occurring and thus not address it as such. Therefore the first step is to identify perfectionism in a student.
- One of the biggest signs is an obsession over mistakes. When trying to complete a task, they may put it off. They may not start or they may give up on projects. If they do begin, the process is extremely stressful. They pore over every detail to make sure that they did not miss anything or make any mistakes. As a result homework or projects take longer to complete.
- These students think critically of themselves. Perfectionism is often linked to a low self-esteem because they believe they are not good enough. This leads to anxiety, anger, and depression. Receiving less than perfect grades will confirm the low views they have of their abilities. They will then work even harder at the expense of other parts of their lives.
- Oftentimes the student will decrease time with friends or activities around self-care such as sleep because they need to work harder to meet their goals. You may notice they get poor sleep and are tired in class. They may forgo eating regular meals to stay productive.
- There is a belief that others are critical and will judge them for not being perfect. They strive to uphold positive impressions and avoid letting others down. Students who finish their project, but feel it is not perfect, may react poorly to anyone else seeing it.
Part of changing this irrational thinking involves awareness and understanding how harmful it is. Pulling the student aside, asking questions, and reaching out can make a large difference. Emphasizing progress over perfection is crucial. These students are often dismissive of their efforts or assign them to sheer luck. Helping a student recognize how far they’ve come puts their efforts into perspective.
Setting time restrictions on time for homework is liberating for students who spend too much time on their work at the cost of other aspects of their life. This will emphasize letting go and promote self-care. Teaching about the consequences of neglecting oneself for the sake of perfection is educational and necessary. Oftentimes students are unaware of how they are causing themselves more harm by neglecting their sleep, social life, and or healthy eating.
Shed some light on the value of mistakes. Help them see mistakes as a path towards learning and growth and not as signs of failure. Teach them that one’s self-esteem is not solely based on successes. Effort, determination, and attitude are just as important. Share examples. Real life people and fictitious characters alike are usable here. These examples can help normalize their struggles.
Connect them with a professional counselor for added support. No matter what frustrations stand in your way, keep the student motivated to change. Not all changes will be large, but they will all matter. It is what brings them down from perfectionism, building their self-esteem and possibilities.