July 26, 2019

Effortless Perfectionism 

In essence, what educators and parents seek for today’s young people is that they engage the whole gamut of school and life’s learning opportunities, to become the best they can be. With the ultimate aim, that as adults they are people of worth and valued contributors to society. With this ideal guiding educational programs and parenting practices, research advises us to be careful about how we communicate this desire and goal. We want our daughters and students to be high achievers, but without them gravitating to the excesses of perfectionism.

In 2003 at Duke University, the phrase ‘effortless perfectionism’ was coined to describe the immense pressure students felt in relentlessly having to meet unduly high marks. Sixteen years later and now known from well documented research is that while males can fall prey to this predicament, females are more susceptible. For girls and young women, effortless perfectionism encompasses the need to make achievement look effortless, to be high achievers maintaining excellent grades while remaining well-rounded, well-liked, attractive, polite and nice… and to accomplish all this without any visible effort. However, at its’ core, effortless perfectionism is not just doing something perfectly, “it is a complex psychological phenomenon involving extreme self-pressure to meet excessively high standards which is powerfully connected to the judgement of self-worth” (Dr Alix Vann, clinical psychologist).

We need to be acutely aware of the widespread increasing trend towards perfectionism, to understand what drives it as a social construct and how to divert the consequences which can follow in its’ wake.

In defining a perfect life, society subtly celebrates successful lives, with wealth, status and possessions.  Social media amplifies this yet in reality ‘perfect lives’ are a myth. Girls who are constantly connected on social media platforms are inundated with often photoshopped images of the ‘ideal woman’. These are seen on social media, television advertisements, in magazines, highly visible billboards in the street, computer games and online videos. The pressure to look good all the time is taxing and the breeding ground for a loss of self-confidence.

Females are socialised to aspire to perfection and often to be more cautious than males. Parents can unwittingly place pressure on their children by sending conditional expectations regarding high achievement or withholding praise on less than perfect performances. Within schools there lies the danger of girls comparing themselves with others, to the extent that some discern their own high achievements as imperfect efforts. This drives them to perform more perfectly next time so as not to be seen as a failure and to be valued as a person of worth in the eyes of others. The peril of perfectionism gives rise to dissatisfaction and leads to thinking that work is never done; there is always something to improve. As a consequence, it becomes burdensome and sometimes paralysing when perfectionists relentlessly strive for unreachable standards, no matter how much effort is expended.

There are numerous characteristics and behaviours which are warning signs resulting from the unhealthy excesses of perfectionism, some of which include:

> Setting unrealistic expectations for yourself
> Unwarranted self-criticism which inhibits high achievement and hampers intellectual and creative growth
> A fear of taking risks
> Procrastination to the point of the incompletion of tasks
> The avoidance of tasks
> Constantly seeking reassurance
> Excessive checking of work
> Difficulty in making decisions or an obsessive focus on failures
> Extreme competitiveness
> Stress which impacts clear thinking
> The diminishing of self-esteem and the increase of self-doubt
> The onset of emotional and mental health disorders, such as anxiety, depression, self-harm and eating disorders

To steer girls away from effortless perfectionism, so they remain balanced while aspiring for excellence, requires mindful and proactive measures on the part of parents and educators. Ultimately, it is imperative our young people develop a sense of their own self worth, not to believe that ‘almost perfect’ is an imperfection. In addition, the girls need to hear encouraging and supportive messages from adults such as:

> To develop a growth mindset and see that learning is not finite; that it can be developed through effort and trial
> To thrive on challenges and see failure not as evidence of un-intelligence but welcome opportunities for growth and for stretching existing abilities
> To adopt good study habits; to learn for the sake of learning, not just for outcomes
> To set personal goals, minimising comparisons to others and to work towards personal bests
> To see that tests are only a measure of their mastery on any one day; that they do not determine future performances, or how much teacher likes them, or how much parents value them
> To understand the difference between healthy striving and perfectionism
> That mistakes are part of learning and it is okay to make them; that they are part of the process

It is natural to want to help young people by preventing them from making mistakes. However, adults are encouraged not to step in with their assistance, rather to be a supportive presence, unless it becomes evident that the child is feeling frustrated. It is vitally important that children learn from adults that they themselves make mistakes, experience disappointments and setbacks. Crucially children should be taught that from setbacks recovery is possible. Even the most successful and talented people make errors and experience difficulties. No-one is immune. It’s how people deal with setbacks and failure that counts.

If adults reward behaviours such as effort, giving things a go and risk taking in children’s learning, not just achievements, this will help develop academic resilience and perseverance, regardless of the achievements.

It is imperative we listen without judgement to our daughters and students; to validate their feelings and communicate our understanding of their points of view. We must champion them to feel worthy, so they have the courage to be imperfect and true to themselves, and very importantly to be comfortable with this feeling.

It is also important to provide them with opportunities to reflect on how to be kind to themselves, to grow in self-respect and confidence and to nurture their sense of adventure and fun, to be brave in their thinking and actions.

In the first session of the Year 8 Healthy Minds program last term, the topic of perfectionism was explored. After an initial presentation, students completed tasks including one where they highlighted the failures of famous people such as JK Rowling and Anh Do. They also interviewed family members detailing the failures or mistakes they had made on their pathway to success.

Psychologist Thomas Curran from the University of Bath says that “perfectionism is at its root about perfecting the imperfect.” Telling children to be more resilient is not the answer, as important as resilience is to overcomes obstacles and to be more robust. It is the task of parents and educators to help children “to live and learn bravely and to celebrate the joys and beauties of imperfection as a natural part of everyday living.”

With best wishes

Debbie Dunwoody