High Standards or Perfectionism?

By Dr Nathan Wilson, St Leonard’s College Counselling Team Leader and Clinical Psychologist

Something that school counsellors can see a lot of over time is perfectionism. Perfectionism is common among students. Australian research suggests that between 15-30% of adolescents can have perfectionistic tendencies. What do we mean by perfectionistic tendencies? It is technically defined as (1) when a young person expects themselves and or others to be perfect; and (2) they strive to do the best in all that they do. The unhelpful part is the first part of the definition (the expectations) while the second part overlaps a lot with something that is positive and helpful: striving for excellence or high standards. There is a growing body of evidence highlighting the difference between perfectionism and high standards, and how while initially they may look similar, when you dive into the details, they end up: (1) looking different; (2) feeling different; and (3) leading to different outcomes for students.

So how does it look different? A student who is currently engaging more in the perfectionistic behaviours will tend to do some of the following: spend lots of extra time on minor tasks that were not designed by teachers to take a long time; rework – going over something again or again; or, not completing a piece of work when they cannot see a way to get it to perfection. Sometimes students engaging in perfectionism will do what I heard one student call a “glorious zero,” which is the thought I would rather hand in nothing, if I cannot get a perfect mark.

When compared to students having high standards for themselves, students engaging in perfectionism also end up feeling very different. Without getting bogged down in mental health theories, you can broadly summarise all people as being in one of three modes at any moment. The first is a “safe/content/relaxed” mode; the second is a “driven/vitality/energetic” mode, the third is a “threat/fear” mode. Students who can set high standards without being perfectionistic can operate mostly in the second mode and do work from a place of drive and then switch off into relaxed mode. In contrast, the stream of self-criticism which goes with the threat/fear mode tends to make the student engaging in perfectionism operate nearly totally from “threat/fear” mode, without ever really engaging the drive or relaxed modes.

Over time these differences in behaviour and the feeling can lead to students with perfectionistic tendencies experiencing worse outcomes at school. There is a large body of research showing students that set high standards (without perfectionism being overlayed) have better academic outcomes and well-being compared to those who engage in perfectionism. The burn out from also being the threat/fear mode also means that students engaging in perfectionism are more likely to end up with clinically elevated depression and anxiety symptoms, feel more exhausted physically, and can have some social up and downs as they expect others to be perfect (which no one else can elver live up to).

So, what can we do as a community to help ensure we separate out helpful high standards from perfectionism? The first is noticing when our students, either at the College or at home, are crossing over from applying themselves and setting high expectations to the more inefficient, avoidant, and self-critical perfectionistic behaviours. We can gently highlight the difference between the two and discuss how over time they lead to different results. We can encourage students to try to catch themselves when they start to think that they or others need to be perfect. Most importantly, as direct experience will trump discussion on this topic, the whole College environment provides with an opportunity to experience and participate in so many co-curricular activities where students can aim to do well (or even just give it a go), enjoy the process of being involved and they don’t have to be perfect. If they are really getting stuck, you can also reach out to our team. Students with perfectionism tend to initially be relatively reluctant to engage in counselling, but it can and has helped a lot of students.