March 6, 2017

Nobody is perfect

Although perfectionists are often celebrated for their above-and-beyond efforts, educators and mental health professionals increasingly recognize perfectionistic tendencies as an obstacle to student success. In fact, perfectionism impacts students and impedes success in a number of ways. Primarily among them are:

  1. Fear of failure: Perfectionists often balk at challenges that do not come naturally to them. They prefer to skip activities all together if there is a chance they will not succeed. Because of this “all or nothing” mentality, perfectionism is a leading cause of procrastination, compelling students to turn in assignments late, delaying until their final product is up to their very high standards.
  2. Difficulty getting started: Perfectionists often work slowly, preferring not to begin work at all unless they have the perfect approach to a task. Many perfectionists will repeat preliminary tasks, such as outlining an essay, without ever starting the writing phase of work, because their plan is not yet “ready” to move onto the next phase. Others will stare at a blank page until the exact right phrase or sentence comes to them. Perfectionists also check and double check for mistakes as they draft material, not after, which impedes their ability to produce seamless content, as they stop and correct and interrupt themselves continuously.
  3. Physical and Emotional Sacrifices: Perfectionists may be inflexible and respond emotionally when they are forced to deviate from a “tried and true,” but often extremely inefficient, plan that makes them feel safe. Perfectionists often prefer to stick stubbornly to a tedious, lengthy process that they know will work, sacrificing sleep, meals, and more, in order to succeed.

Overcoming perfectionism is often a slow process, but with consistent practice, and the aid of an executive function skills coach, students can build strong habits to support their high-achieving mindset while minimizing negative impacts. Here are some ways you can help and support your perfectionist:

  1. Learn to recognize it: In addition to some of the symptoms of perfectionism discussed above, there are many “tells” of perfectionism that students (and the adults in their lives) can learn to spot in themselves, a strong first step toward reversing such thinking. Catastrophic thinking (“If I fail this test, I will never get a job and become homeless.”) is one that students can learn to spot, and even laugh at, once they understand it for what it is. Students can also be trained to watch out for “should statements” (“I should never make mistakes.”) and revise them.  
  2. Train realistic thinking: Many students at Engaging Minds use the mantra “Done is better than perfect” to remind themselves to push past procrastination and perfectionism to create a finished product. When speaking to your child, encourage him/her to aim for their personal best, not perfection.
  3. Look at the big picture: For many perfectionists, every grade is “make it or break it.” However, when students view each grade as a piece in a much larger puzzle, they can understand that one mistake won’t ruin their chance at success. Executive function skills tutors help their students check gradebooks, syllabi, calendars, and homework websites to contextualize the big-picture impact of occasional missteps.
  4. Create attainable schedules and goals:  After looking at the big picture, students and tutors can work together to create a low-stress, step-by-step calendar that breaks larger tasks down into attainable parts. Calendars and goal-setting can help students get more sleep, balance a busy schedule, and be able to perform their best without having to resort to repetitious, inflexible strategies that add time and energy to their process. They can work smarter with the right plan and support in place.

Nobody is perfect, and the road to overcoming perfection is long, but effort and support can change habits for the better and allow perfectionists to reach their full potential in all their pursuits.