Perhaps the following scenario sounds familiar. A hypothetical student, Jessica, has a history of excellence in school and extracurricular activities. She shoots for the moon in her areas of interest and rarely has to be nagged to do their homework. The moment she falls behind, though, everything changes. Projects and papers are turned in late or not at all. Test performance plummets under the growing tension of anxiety. Now, it’s a feedback loop. Jessica doesn’t want to start her homework and she rarely finishes it. All of those time management principles went out the window weeks ago. Jessica’s parents and teachers can’t understand what happened, since she seemed to be doing so well before.
Is the behavior shift a sudden onset of laziness? No. There’s a fault here in the executive functioning chain that has a name: perfectionism.
Is Perfectionism Really a Problem?
Perfectionism is a convenient problem to have, so much so that it may not even seem like a problem at all. It’s viewed as a cop-out or arrogant answer in job interviews. Those we admire(celebrities, multi-millionaires/billionaires, etc.) either attribute their successes to perfectionism or secretly struggle with its dark side. It motivates people to be hardworking and high achievers. But, despite its perception of being one of the best negative traits to have, perfectionism is a more insidious beast than it seems.
What is Perfectionism?
Perfectionism is an obsessive need to adhere to the highest standard of success in a given area (or areas) of life. People who have perfectionistic tendencies may say that they strive for excellence in life. Their unyielding desire for excellence is rooted in the fear of negative evaluation or failure.
Perfectionistic people tend to think in black-and-white terms, and have underlying assumptions that their performance at school, work or life is tied to their self-worth. This is why perfectionistic students succeed at so many things: their self-esteem depends on it.
The tendency to tie one’s self-worth to their work results in a behavior that protects the student’s self-esteem, called the Nirvana Fallacy: “If I can’t do this perfectly, I’m not going to do it all”. This is why you see the student failing to turn in their homework and scoring 0’s on projects. Couple the overwhelm they’re experiencing with their self-worth dependent on their success, and you have a student with enormous potential who is now failing their English class.
Let’s go back to the example of Jess, our fictitious student. She’s a self-starter and usually has no problem turning in homework or getting A’s. Maybe she’s a straight-A student, takes honors classes and is president of her chosen club. These results look great on the surface and the resume, so what’s the harm? While it’s natural to reward hard work and high achievement, those external rewards reinforce perfectionistic behavior when a student fails to build a strong core of intrinsic self-belief. Unhealthy subconscious beliefs like
- “I will disappoint everyone if I don’t enroll in that honors class”
- “I am more respected and liked by my peers because I have solos in band”
- “I’m a terrible, lazy, or stupid person if I can’t get straight A’s”
all become paralyzing expectations. The perfectionism that drives achievement soon becomes a prison of isolation and absolutism. After all, this hot shot student never asks for help, she’ll work it out on her own.
Yet, the student falters as the pressure grows, and soon she forgets how to do the basics. Fear of failure is a vicious cycle. It prevents her from fulfilling her responsibilities, and attacks her self-worth when she doesn’t fulfill them. Even when she is successful, her efforts and successes are never good enough because her standard of “perfect” necessitates that she constantly raise the bar.
There are several strategies to combat the vicious cycle of perfectionism.
- Challenge the black-and-white assumptions the student is making. If they believe that getting an A in a given class is what makes them worthy as people, or that not being a quarterback in their football team this year will make them lose their friends, ask for evidence supporting those claims. Through Socratic questioning, the student will gradually see the illogic in their beliefs about themselves.
- Contextualize their assumptions about their achievement by asking them questions. For example, “if a loved one believed this about himself would I agree with them?”
- Build trust and meet the student with empathy. If they are perfectionistic, chances are good that your student is being way harder on themselves than is necessary. Alert their tutors and teachers of their mental health concerns.
- Challenge the student to focus on their effort, not the outcome of their work.
It’s rare to see previously driven, high-achieving students suddenly develop laziness. If your student’s behavior becomes unmotivated, they could be struggling with perfectionism. Addressing perfectionism early on in your student’s life will pay dividends for them in their work, relationships and mental health.