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The ugly side of perfectionism

THE WASHINGTON POST – In a world where so much of childhood is now seemingly organised around striving to build the perfect college résumé – securing top grades, the best travel team, the highest test scores – parents sometimes struggle to find a balance between encouraging an adolescent to achieve without pushing too hard.

Pushing a child too much could feed perfectionist tendencies, which can have a serious impact on mental health.

From the outside, it can be hard to distinguish between a conscientious high achiever and an unhealthy perfectionist. The difference is the motivation that drives the behaviour. While healthy achievers enjoy striving for excellence and cope well with setbacks, perfectionists are motivated by a fear of failure and reach for high goals in an effort to prove their worth to others.

Mounting evidence shows how destructive perfectionism can be. This tendency can be found at the root of mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, eating disorders and, in the most extreme cases, even suicide, according to Gordon Flett, one of the worlds’ leading researchers on perfectionism at York University in Canada.

At its worst, perfectionism acts as a trap. In an effort to maintain that flawless facade, a perfectionist must hide any vulnerabilities. It can hold someone back from asking for help.

After Stanford soccer star Katie Meyer died by suicide this month, her parents, Steve and Gina Meyer, spoke out in a heartbreaking appearance on NBC’s Today show. While there’s no way to know for certain why a young person would take their own life, Katie’s mother, wearing her daughter’s sweatshirt, talked about how the pressure to be perfect may have contributed: “There is anxiety and there is stress to be perfect, to be the best, to be No. 1.”

Growing research finds that rates of perfectionism in young people have skyrocketed since the early 1990s, with today’s young adults reporting a striking 33 per cent increase over time in the level of perfectionist expectations placed on them by others. The researchers point to several factors that may be contributing to this rise, including “a more competitive and individualistic society” that has led to excessive pressure on young people to achieve in all aspects of their lives: academics, extracurricular activities and social interactions.

In a recent paper published in Clinical Psychology Review, researchers call “socially prescribed perfectionism”, or perfectionist thinking brought on by the heavy weight of society’s rising demands, “a significant public health concern that urgently requires sustained prevention and intervention efforts.” Lead author Flett warns that parents need to be aware of the enormous mental, social and academic costs of perfectionism, and not to dismiss them as benign.

“The costs of needing to be perfect far outweigh the benefits,” he said. “A child’s perfectionism can jeopardise well-being and physical health, but it could also be a recipe for burnout, underachievement and loneliness, among other things.” Flett points to the public mental health struggles of self-described perfectionists such as Michael Phelps and Simone Biles.

Parents can help temper perfectionist tendencies by bringing “perfectionist thinking” out into the open, helping an adolescent regain perspective and learn to accept their limitations, said Flett, co-author with Paul Hewitt of Perfectionism in Childhood and Adolescence: A Developmental Approach.

Here are some ways parents can start that important conversation at home:

BUILD AWARENESS

Perfectionist thinking takes root in childhood. Evidence suggests just raising awareness about perfectionism – what it looks like in action and its potential costs – can help to lessen its hold.

One way to do this is to introduce the concept of “good enough”, as in not everything has to be pursued at the highest level all the time. Sharing stories of other people who have struggled with perfectionism can also help children see its negative impact and learn from it.

“This emphasis on building awareness is not a one-time thing,” Flett said. “It should be a focus throughout childhood and adolescence as pressures mount.”

NORMALISE DISTRESS

Young people need to hear that it is typical and normal to feel distress from time to time, that negative emotions are a normal part of life and not a sign of personal defect, Flett said.

Validating emotions, such as saying “That sounds really hard” or “I can understand how you feel”, can help to normalise them and allow a child to feel less alone. Caregivers can talk about their own failures, what they learned, and how they managed their own distress and gained perspective by, said, reaching out to a trusted friend.

ENCOURAGE SELF-COMPASSION AND SELF-FORGIVENESS

Practicing self-compassion can buffer against perfectionist tendencies. Help your child find a go-to line they can said to themselves, as they would a friend, to drown out the critical voice in their heads, as in: That’s okay, Jamie, you’re doing your best. Forgiving yourself for being human doesn’t mean ignoring failures.

It means widening your perspective, aiming to do better but without the energy drain of inflicting additional and unhelpful criticism.

MODEL HEALTHY COPING

A large part of the harm of perfectionism comes from our reactions to it. Said Flett: When experiencing a personal setback, a parent can model healthy coping out loud, as in, “It’s time to stop beating myself up. Everyone makes mistakes.”

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