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The Problem of Perfectionism

Perfectionism is a topic which has received a lot of attention in recent years, especially amongst those of us who work with children, and I’ve recently been talking to our pupils about what it might mean to them.

The most widely discussed angle in mainstream media has been the danger that, in this digital age, children are continually exposed to unachievable images of a mythically perfect life which is fuelling a deterioration of their self-esteem and self-worth.  As with so many things in the world of social media, some of the online responses to this – while outwardly purporting to be demolishing the ‘perfectionist myth’ – are at best superficial and at worst reinforce the notion of perfectionism.  In the era of the ‘humblebrag’ it seems that even when well-meaning people share the supposedly unvarnished reality of their lives, they can’t quite resist adding a bit of social media gloss.

If we make light of perfectionism on social media, by turning it into a hashtag where we post insignificant examples of things going wrong in our successful adult lives, then we’re missing the point and are adding to the constant digital noise our teenagers face, without addressing their real concerns. There is a growing body of evidence that perfectionism is increasing, although not solely as a result of social media. Studies in the US, Canada and UK show there is a sense that government policy over the last three decades, changes such as much more testing in school and an expectation that many more individuals will go to university, has resulted in young people feeling that they need to compete against each other from a young age and this has made society increasingly meritocratic. The evidence suggests that the prevalence of all types of perfectionism is growing and this is equally distributed regardless of gender. However, the greatest increase is socially prescribed perfectionism: this is where social media fits in.

Broadly defined, perfectionism is a combination of excessively high personal standards and overly critical self-evaluations. In its negative form it’s about trying to earn approval and a belief that ‘I am what I accomplish and how well I accomplish it’ – it is bound up in each individual’s own metrics about what matters to them and it ties their self-worth directly to their achievements. We know that teenagers are more vulnerable to feeling judged than adults. As the brain matures in adolescence, there is an increase in abstract reasoning skills and, with abstract reasoning, comes an ability to be able to take an observer perspective on one's self and to make inferences about other people's thoughts and feeling in relation to us. Coupled with this, the areas of teenagers’ brains which control emotional responses are not fully developed, making it hard for them to control their feelings in relation to how others perceive them and how they feel about themselves. It is genuinely tough to be a teenager without the added burden of perfectionism.

None of this means that our teenagers shouldn’t have high standards or feel frustrated or upset when things don’t work out in the way they hope. It is important to be aspirational and to want to do something really well. It is also natural to be upset when things don’t go according to plan. But it is a problem when the fear of getting it wrong becomes crippling, when the desire for a perfect outcome permeates everything and when a sense of self-worth is damaged if something goes wrong. 

So should I jump on the hashtag bandwagon and share amusing anecdotes about things going wrong in my daily life to show my pupils that I’m not perfect?  Well I could but, beyond giving us all a bit of a laugh, I don’t see how it would help. Our teenagers need more profound and significant insights into how the adults in their lives have faced challenges, made mistakes or just failed at something. What about the times when we weren’t sure if we fitted in, the moments when we were dumped, the occasions we messed up when public speaking, were rejected from university courses, didn’t get jobs, were told by someone that we shouldn’t study a particular subject because they didn’t think we were good enough, got poor grades, where we couldn’t reach the expectations of our parents, where we were depressed, where we made a move on someone and we were rejected?  These are the areas with which our teenagers are struggling and, because social media means they live their lives in public, it’s hard for them to escape the sense that everyone knows everything. We need them to know that the goal is not ‘perfection’, that they’re not alone and that part of growing up is figuring out how to adapt when things don’t go according to plan. What is really important is that we acknowledge and share our vulnerabilities with people we trust, try to be kinder to ourselves in those areas where we know we are prone to perfectionism and try to moderate our responses to each other understanding that, particularly during teenager years, judgements hurt.

Rowena Cole is The Head of St John's School.   Follow her @rowenacole01 and stay in touch with all the news at St John's by following us @StJohnsSurrey

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