The Problem with Perfectionism

Lots of research has been done in recent years on the impact of the drive for perfection amongst young people, in particular girls. Those of us who either have, or work with teenage daughters will recognise many of the traits which mark out a young person with these tendencies and can recognise them as destructive. Girls don’t recognise them, however, and can find themselves locked into cycles of behaviour which can, at best, see them becoming risk averse and at worst immobilised by fear of failure.

You may have encountered some degree of perfectionism in your daughter. Disappointment with a perfectly good grade is a common example, and the feeling that everyone else has done better when that clearly isn’t the case, or focussing on one slightly lower grade in a glowing report. You may notice that your child only focuses on achievement grades and ignores comments about superb effort. These may be familiar scenarios in your house. For some students, though, perfectionism becomes more of a problem. It can feel, to staff in school, like a crippling lack of resilience and we sometimes find it incredibly frustrating. “Why can’t you see that this is an excellent report?” we might say. Or “You did your best. Why does it matter that someone else got a higher grade? You can’t be top at everything.”

You might see this at home manifesting itself through chronic procrastination: a child endlessly avoiding getting down to work, or spending hours on beautifully written notes. “Just have a go,” you might say. Or, in frustration, “Just get on with it. You’ve been working on the same piece for two hours!” Such comments, to a child with perfectionist tendencies, increase anxiety. A perfectionist cannot accept that being good enough IS sometimes good enough.

What we can do about encouraging resilience in schools has been debated for decades and it’s very much bound up with the problem of perfectionism.  Girls’ schools, in particular, find perfectionism a thorny issue. Head of Oxford High School launched a fantastic initiative in 2014 called Goodbye Little Miss Perfect. This was in recognition of the fact that perfectionism holds girls back, damages self-esteem and can be linked to anxiety, self-harm and eating disorders. Some degree of self-criticism can be healthy; it stops us from becoming complacent, but self-compassion is a better attribute for stronger mental health. Mindfulness, which many of us practise in our teaching in school and is now embedded into the PSHE curriculum, is at its heart about acceptance: be in the moment, be accepting, be kind.

A practical thing a parent can do is to try to help us to foster a “go for it” attitude. Monitor homework habits, especially with younger girls.  Set a cap on the amount of time your child is spending on homework. If, after half an hour, she hasn’t finished it, sign it in the margin and remove the opportunity to carry on endlessly from your child. If she’s expended a good amount of effort on it and you are happy she’s tried hard, that’s enough for us. We’re not looking for perfection; we want girls who have the ability to learn from feedback and, sometimes, getting things wrong.

Along with other pastoral staff in school, I am always happy to share stories of my own imperfect achievements with girls who are struggling with a sense of inadequacy. I happily tell girls about my failed driving tests and the fact that I didn’t gain MathsGCSE until I was 22, and then only under great duress. Girls in my class are used to seeing my (occasionally) experimental approach to spelling – I’ve been teaching English since 1988 and I still have to resort to the dictionary.

Building from Year 7, we are introducing tutor time materials which, working together, will allow students to focus on and celebrate individual, personal triumph. This will enable the girls to reflect on non-academic parts of their lives which give them pleasure and a sense of validation.

In discussion with Year 12 about this area of the school website, there was some interesting feedback on the subject of Perfectionism. Georgie Jones in 12MRW has provided the following insight:

For me, perfection isn't something that I find difficult when I'm doing a task. I try my hardest and I'm normally very pleased with what I've done. It's usually a couple of months after I've completed a project / activity that I feel anxious, worried and being to obsess about what I've done. I may have achieved the highest grade or recognition but I still always feel a certain degree of failure. In my mind I think perhaps I could have done better? Perhaps I threw myself into what I was doing too much because of my perfectionism and became too narrow minded? 

I found the transition between GCSE and A-Levels difficult too because I wanted to be "perfect"; to be able to take part in everything that was available and excel in it. I soon found out that being a prefect, peer mentor, doing multiple student leader roles and doing further Maths, along with 4 very demanding subjects, whilst balancing "me time" was a long way off achievable. 

It was only when I began helping a friend who had issues with their mental health that my "perfectionism" really boiled up. I'd never had any real experience with mental health issues before and I wanted to be everything for this person, and "fix" all of their problems. In hindsight of course this wasn't the right approach, but I'd spent most of my life being able to be the best at anything I did if I put my mind to it. I felt totally inadequate, and it began to get me down. 

The peer mentor training was amazing because it finally taught me to listen instead of trying to find what on earth I was going to say next. If I could give one piece of feedback from my own personal experiences was that I had had loads of advice over the years about my own mental health but had no idea how on earth to help someone else. Sometimes in life we're faced with secrets and issues that aren't ours to talk about and it's really difficult to find a way through the situation. 

I think we all are affected by very different issues throughout our school life. Some of us may have totally healthy relationship with food but struggle with stress and anxiety.  Some may have had no issues with relationships but others may be battling with their identity or be stuck in a situation they no longer feel comfortable in. 

Below are some interesting and useful links, including a link to Oxford High School’s Little Miss Perfect project.

Oxford High School Little Miss Perfect-The Telegraph Article

Helping Your Child Overcome Perfectionism 

Squeamish Bikini-Goodbye Little Miss Perfect

Mrs S Loftus Deputy Head (Pastoral)