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The link between perfectionism and mental health

3 min read
  • Stress management & well-being

Many pupils set ambitious goals and want to achieve the highest grades possible. But sometimes, the line between lofty goals and perfectionism gets blurred, and this perfectionism can cast a long shadow over their mental health and overall well-being.

Therefore, it is important that students, teachers, parents and guardians are able to understand the dynamics of perfectionism and recognise its effects. In this blog, we’ll dive into:

  • What is perfectionism, and what does it look like in school?
  • The link between perfectionism and mental health
  • The latest research on perfectionism
  • Strategies for managing perfectionism

What is perfectionism, and what does it look like in school?

Perfectionism is often defined as the pursuit of flawlessness and as setting high standards for oneself. While perfectionism can drive academic success and intrinsic motivation, it can also have an impact on students’ emotional well-being and fear of failure.

Perfectionism in school may look like:

  • Setting excessively high goals that may be unattainable
  • Spending excessive time on assignments to ensure they are flawless
  • Exhibiting intense anxiety over minor mistakes or imperfections in their work
  • Seeking constant approval or reassurance from teachers and peers
  • Struggling to celebrate their achievements and always focusing on areas of weakness

The link between perfectionism and mental health

Research has consistently shown a link between perfectionism and mental health. Harmful perfectionism, characterised by the relentless chase for perfection and fear of failure, can damage self-esteem and make people feel inadequate. This type of perfectionism often leads to chronic stress, anxiety and depression, as individuals set unrealistic standards for themselves and become overly critical when they fall short.

Setbacks and mistakes are part of the learning process. Our practical strategies will help your students fail better.

What the latest research has to say…

In a study, researchers explored the impact of perfectionism on students’ mental and emotional well-being over time. They had two aims: first, to categorise students based on their levels of perfectionism at the beginning of lower secondary education; and second, to observe how these levels change or remain consistent over a two-year period, and what implications this had for the students’ well-being.

The researchers found that:

  1. Perfectionists exhibited higher levels of burnout, anxiety and depressive symptoms. Despite their pursuit of high achievement and excellence, these students grappled with feelings of inadequacy.
  2. Ambitious students, who managed to balance their perfectionistic tendencies, demonstrated very positive overall well-being. Meanwhile, non-perfectionists were the least engaged in their learning.

This study indicates how individual differences in perfectionism can significantly impact student well-being. It also highlights that a certain degree of perfectionistic aspiration can be beneficial, but not when it comes at the cost of students mental and emotional health.

4 ways for students to manage their perfectionism

1. Remember no one is perfect

It’s vital for teachers to underscore the normalcy of imperfection. Fostering a classroom environment where mistakes are not only accepted but viewed as a natural part of the learning process helps demystify perfectionism.

2. Strive for excellence, not perfection

Highlighting the difference between excellence and perfection is key. Excellence is achievable and focuses on the process of improvement, whereas perfection is often an unattainable goal. By setting realistic, clear and measurable objectives, you can guide students towards attainable achievements.

3. Enjoy and embrace challenges

Challenges should be framed positively, as they are integral to learning and growth. Activities that push students slightly out of their comfort zones, without overwhelming them, can help reduce the fear of failure associated with perfectionism. It’s about finding the sweet spot between too easy and too hard, where students feel challenged but capable.

4. Understand the cost of perfectionism: The good and bad

Discussing the positive and negative aspects of perfectionism openly can help students recognise when their pursuit of perfection is serving them and when it’s detrimental. This awareness allows students to recalibrate their goals and approaches as needed.

Final thoughts

While the pursuit of excellence is commendable, falling into the trap of perfectionism can have significant consequences on students’ mental health and well-being. By understanding what perfectionism is, its impact on mental health, and implementing strategies to manage it, you can play a pivotal role in helping students develop a balanced, healthier approach to learning and achievement.

About the editor

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch is a Chartered Psychologist and a leading expert on illuminating Cognitive Science research in education. As Director at InnerDrive, his work focuses on translating complex psychological research in a way that is accessible and helpful. He has delivered thousands of workshops for educators and students, helping improve how they think, learn and perform. Bradley is also a prolific writer: he co-authored four books including Teaching & Learning Illuminated and The Science of Learning, as well as regularly featuring in publications such as The Guardian and The Telegraph.

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