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Warnings Signs of Unhealthy Perfectionism

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Striving to do well in school is a positive trait in children and teenagers. However, when this slips into perfectionism, it can become unhealthy and impact your child’s mental health.

Signs of perfectionism 

It is estimated that up to 30% of teenagers and young adults struggle with unhealthy perfectionism. Perfectionists often establish unrealistic goals and pressure themselves to achieve them. Their thinking is usually black and white, e.g. an A-minus on a test is a failure to them as it is not a perfect score.

Five common signs of perfectionism in children and young adults

  • Refusing to try new things in case they make a mistake.
  • Becoming anxious and upset about making mistakes.
  • Giving up quickly if they are not instantly good at something.
  • Fear of embarrassment.
  • Being overly cautious and thorough in what should be simple tasks

Some perfectionists also procrastinate on homework or other assignments out of fear they will do it wrong, or it won’t be perfect.

Perfectionism can manifest in all areas of a young adult’s life. Not only can they focus on achieving perfect grades in school, but they may also strive to be perfect in their appearance. This type of perfectionism can cause young adults to become obsessive about their appearance, and they may over-exercise or restrict their calorie intake to change their appearance.

Perfectionist tendencies can also appear in your young adult’s hygiene and health. For example, they may shower excessively or focus on eating only clean or healthy foods. No matter where perfectionism appears in a young adult’s life, it can harm their overall well-being.

Three types of perfectionism

  • Other-oriented perfectionists set unachievable standards for other people.
  • Self-oriented perfectionists set unachievable standards for themselves.
  • Socially prescribed perfectionists believe others have high, unrealistic standards for them.

All three types can be incredibly harmful to mental health. Those with self-oriented perfectionism can struggle with burnout and anxiety as they work hard to try and achieve perfect grades. Those with other-oriented perfectionism often face relationship difficulties as they believe their friends and peers should be perfect. 

However, it is also possible for young people to have healthy or adaptive perfectionism. Healthy perfectionism is characterised by high standards for others and yourself, even when faced with challenges. People with this type of perfectionism might be disappointed when they do not reach their goals, but they do not become distraught as unhealthy perfectionists do.

Causes of perfectionism

There is no one cause of perfectionism, but there are several factors that can contribute to it:

  • Low self-esteem – Young adults with low self-esteem may think that achieving good grades will improve their worth.
  • Parental influences – although this may be inadvertent, praising children for being smart or getting good grades can encourage perfectionist tendencies. Having a parent who is a perfectionist can also influence young people to become perfectionists themselves.
  • Academic pressure – school puts much pressure on young adults, who may feel they are only worth as much as their grades.
  • Social media – success and failure have been sensationalised by social media and help convince young people they must be perfect.
  • Mental health – conditions such as anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and eating disorders can contribute to perfectionist tendencies in young adults. Trauma can also influence perfectionism, making people think they won’t be valued unless they are perfect.

Some may think that perfectionism will make young adults strive for good grades and work extra hard to get them; however, it may have the opposite effect. Perfectionism can lead young adults to suffer a higher risk of mental health problems such as depression and anxiety, and perfectionists have higher stress levels than others.

Young adults struggling with perfectionism also often struggle with inner pain and may mask their problems and pretend everything is okay. Their anxiety over excelling at new things the first time also prevents them from trying anything new.

Things you can do to help a young adult struggling with unhealthy perfectionism

  • Focus on efforts, not outcomes – instead of focusing on what your child has achieved, look at the effort they made to get there. Focusing on their effort can make it clear that achievement is not the only thing in life.
  • Talk about your failures – being a good role model can show your child that dropping the ball is okay. Talk about the mistakes you’ve made and how you rectified them healthily.
  • Find healthy coping mechanisms – show your child that they don’t have to beat themselves up when they fail or make mistakes. Find healthy ways to cope, such as going for a walk, journaling to write down their thoughts and feelings, or encouraging them to call a friend.

Perfectionism can be symptomatic of a more significant problem within your child’s life. In this instance, they may benefit from professional intervention, especially if they struggle academically.

Fiona Yassin is a psychotherapist, founder and clinical director at The Wave Clinic.

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