The Mighty Logo

How Educators Can Support Students Who Struggle With Perfectionism

The most helpful emails in health
Browse our free newsletters

Perfectionism, or the refusal to accept any standard short of perfection, isn’t a mental illness. But according to Dr. Jessica Pryor, it can negatively affect mental health. Perfectionism can bring on depression, anxiety, eating disorders and even suicidal thoughts. Perfectionist tendencies can be identified in the classroom as students striving to be perfect in their assignments and relationships.

Not all of your perfectionist students are struggling with maladaptive perfectionism. According to Dr. Pryor, healthy perfectionism allows someone to “work really hard towards ambitious goals, and have the resilience to continue to strive towards those goals even when things get in the way.” This is not the perfectionism that I, and thousands of others, experienced. Unhealthy perfectionism has risen since 1989, and you should keep a lookout for it in your students.

As someone with a degree in education and experiences with depression and perfectionism for most of my life, I think one of the best things you can do is teach your students that they can fail hard, fail often, and they will lose no worth.

In the last few years of earning my Bachelor’s degree in education, I had fallen into a particularly bad period of depression. The one thing I never let slip? My school performance. No matter how low I got, I still clung to the narrative that I was “The Best.” It was so crucial to me that I get the highest marks, be the teacher’s favorite and handle any and every assignment that came my way. I hated myself so deeply, but I still needed to look around the room and know that in at least one way I was “better” than others. What I was oblivious to at the time was how holding on to the story of my own perfection was clearly negatively affecting my mental health.

Perfectionism did not bring on my mental illness. I have a family history of depression. But it certainly made me experience much deeper shame around not being “normal.” It also helped me to hide for much longer and kept me from receiving the help I needed. If I could go back and tell myself one thing, it would be to fail quickly and often because your value isn’t tied to your accomplishments.

Failure gives you the opportunity to reexamine the goal, pick out the parts that didn’t work, and try again—more informed and better prepared. In fact, failure has been hailed as the prerequisite of success. Though no teacher expressed to me that anything less than perfect was failing, my tendencies to hold myself to the highest possible standard were praised and pointed out. This pattern of behavior was encouraged in me—when I was perfect the teacher noticed the quiet girl; when I was not perfect I was invisible. Children will fill in the gaps in their knowledge with their own conclusions when things aren’t clear to them. My understanding at this moment was that I was only worth seeing if I was perfect.

Dr. Brene Brown says that perfectionism isn’t so much about wanting to be perfect, it’s an expression of fear—the perfectionist is trying to avoid blame and shame from others. For me especially, perfectionism was a way to mask the shame I felt around my mental illness. I knew my life wasn’t turning out like other people. I couldn’t seem to experience the same world as everyone else. My superiority complex was the life raft I clung to throughout college as I began to drown in depression.

The advice I want to give to educators is this: failure is a part of life, let your students experience it again and again—standing with them the whole way. In recent years, this has become a staple in many classrooms—growth mindset is everywhere. However, I think the piece missing in my experience, what allowed me to reach astronomical standards and a devastating view of my less-than-perfect self, was that anything less than perfect made me invisible. And if I wasn’t worth seeing, then I must be “bad.” When I started to experience the shame of depression, perfectionism in my school work became the mask I could hide behind because it was the one place that I was “good.”

Let your students know that their inherent worth has nothing to do with what they can accomplish in your room. See your students for who they are and anchor your compliments there. Let them fail, and let them see they’re worth as much as they were yesterday. For some students, it is a matter of life and death.

Getty image by monkeybusinessimages

Originally published: October 2, 2020
Want more of The Mighty?
You can find even more stories on our Home page. There, you’ll also find thoughts and questions by our community.
Take Me Home