The Price of Perfection
The college admissions scandal has brought up many questions on the costs and benefits of attending an Ivy League college. As parents, we all want the best for our children. We want them to go to a good school which we hope will get them on a path to a solid career that will give them a stable and promising future. There are many costs associated with attending prestigious schools even before you have to pay for the first year of college tuition. Let’s look at one of the variables that is taking a toll on our young people, the pressure to be perfect.
Studies are showing that there is a definite connection between perfectionism and feelings of anxiety and depression. Academics is a place where there are plenty of opportunities to be recognized for your achievements. Honor roll, awards, competitions, performances, etc. are all part of the school experience, these are all opportunities to showcase your successes or feel the sting of failure. There is a tangible reward when you succeed, be it grades or social acknowledgements through award ceremonies and such. Also, it looks like the bar is constantly being set higher and higher, where a 4.0 is no longer good enough to get you into a good school. The GPAs, SATs and extracurricular need to be exceptional, there is no room for an A-.
Experts define perfectionism as “a combination of excessively high personal standards and overly critical self-evaluations.” Therefore, perfectionism is an internal process linked to what we experience in the outside world. The pressure to be perfect is everywhere. Since perfection is an unattainable goal, failure is inevitable and so is anxiety and depression.
Here are the three types of perfectionism as defined by researchers:
- Self-oriented perfectionism: Imposing an irrational desire to be perfect on oneself.
- Other-oriented perfectionism: Placing unrealistic standards of perfection on others.
- Socially-prescribed perfectionism: Perceiving excessive expectations of perfection from others.
The statistics are alarming: Between 1989 and 2016, self-oriented perfectionism scores increased by 10 percent, other-oriented perfectionism increased by 16 percent, and socially-prescribed perfectionism increased by a whopping 33 percent.
According to the World Health Organization, young people in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom are experiencing higher levels of anxiety, depression and suicidal ideation than they did a decade ago. So, what is driving this trend? There are two dynamics at play:
- Social media – these trends seem to coincide with the advent of the smartphone and unlimited access to social media platforms. The push for perfection as it relates to social media is the competitiveness inherent in putting on a front, an avatar, that shows the world how perfect and wonderful your life is. Young people are driven by what they see and there is a constant pressure to look good, feel good and have a perfect life. A side effect of social media use is that people are spending less and less time engaging face-to-face with each other, so there is also a higher sense of loneliness. The research shows that loneliness in and of itself is a precursor to depression and anxiety.
- Achieving success in college – In 1976, about half of high school seniors were expected to get a college degree. By 2008, that number was 80% and by now that number is likely to be higher. With so many people in the job market with degrees, the competition for getting a degree from an elite school is even higher. People feel a need to stand out from all the other degree holders in getting a good-paying, stable job. “Today’s young people are competing with each other in order to meet societal pressures to succeed and they feel that perfectionism is necessary in order to feel safe, socially connected and of worth,” Curran, one of the researchers in the perfectionism study, said.
8 signs of Perfectionists
Are you or your child a perfectionist, here is a list of nine signs of perfectionism. Working hard and wanting your work to shine are not in themselves bad or signs of perfectionism, so continue to move forward, learn and always do better. These signs are aspects of toxic perfectionism that don’t result in better work, they often result in feels of stress, inadequacy and intense self-judgment.
- You think in all-or-nothing terms – things are either good or bad, black or white
- You think, and then act, in extremes – you ate one cookie and your whole diet is shot
- You can’t trust others to do a task correctly, so you rarely delegate
- You have demanding standards for yourself and others – demands are unreasonable and often unattainable
- You have trouble completing projects because you think there is always more you can do to make it better
- You use the word “should” a lot – please stop “shoulding” everywhere
- Your self-confidence depends on what you accomplish and how others react to it
- You tend to fixate on something you messed up – often something minute that others did not even notice
- You procrastinate, or avoid situations where you think you might not excel – you don’t take risks that might move your career forward
What Does it All Mean to Me as a Parent?
To battle the consequences of perfectionism, we need to have some tough conversations with our kids and our schools. The work by the Challenge Success Program out of Stanford University and other researchers in neuroscience have provided some good guidelines for handling this pressure for perfection.
- Define success on your own terms – Allow your children to show you what they want to do, where their talents are and what is important to them. As a family, decide what is important to you and don’t give in to parent peer pressure, get off the “success treadmill” of tons of enrichment activities, AP classes and the like. Help your children find a path that suits their passion and gives their life meaning, it isn’t all about going to an Ivy League school.
- Love your children unconditionally – Healthy emotional development stems from having a sense of being lovable. Make sure your kids know they are loved for who they are and not just on how well they perform. Since recent research on depression and anxiety shows that perfectionism is linked to both, it is vital to find a balance between pushing for success and letting them know that they are loved no matter what.
- Allow kids space to develop on their own and make mistakes – Let your kids fall and let them pick themselves up. Kids today are experiencing a great deal of adult intervention, which does not allow them to figure things out on their own. Let them take appropriate risks and allow them the gift of figuring problems out on their own, let them ask for help instead of jumping in and fixing life. They build resilience and creative thinking strategies if they are allowed to make mistakes and come up with their own solutions. Also, how you respond to the mistake is important, come at it from a place of nonjudgment. Failure is feedback and is about what happened, it does not mean that you love and respect your children less when they are not perfect.
- Unplug – Research is showing that too much screen time has detrimental effects on everyone, but especially on young people. Screen time is often social media time, and on many social media sites there is much to feel insecure about.
- Debunk college myths – Emphasize that there are different paths to success. There are many excellent colleges, and research is showing that academic engagement is a greater predictor of success than the name of the school. It is important to find the right fit between your child and a school than the name of the school. Also, not everyone is meant for college. Embrace your child’s mature and thought-out decision to do something different; to study abroad, go to a trade school or another choice that is right for your child’s goals and dreams.
We all want others to think highly of us and we need to feel good about ourselves if we are to move forward in life in a healthy way. Much of the push toward perfectionism is linked to fear of making a mistake that makes you feel unworthy. Let’s help ourselves and our kids feel lovable because everyone is worthy of love and belonging. We are all in this together.
Perfect people aren’t real and real people aren’t perfect.
– David Kessler
3. Yes Brain – Dan Seigel