It was the night before her major project was due and Rebecca Zarins was sick with worry. She was trying to build a miniature model of an earthquake-proof house. “I wanted to get all the details just right – the stairs, the windows, everything,“ she says. “I wanted it to live up to my teacher’s expectations.” But time was running out. Rebecca had delayed, delayed and delayed beginning the assignment, feeling utterly daunted by the prospect. Now she was tense and anxious and her chest began to hurt. And when she realized she’d forgotten to add a foundation to the plans, she was furious at herself. “I just felt like I’d really failed,” she says.
Strangely, far from being an under-achiever, Rebecca had all the makings of the golden child. “People thought of me as that kid who knows what she’s doing,” she says. She was maintaining an over 90 percent average in her new gifted Grade 5 program, even helping her schoolmates with their homework.
But looks can be deceiving. Under the winning façade, Rebecca was tormented by setting impossibly high standards. “My identity depended on being the smart kid,” she says. If she got a 91 and another student scored a 96, she would tell herself, “I didn’t try my hardest” or “I’m not good enough”. Even when others commended her on her work, she never felt like she deserved it. “If I painted something and people would praise it, I would only see all the little mistakes,” she says.
Rebecca Zarins is not alone. Five to 10 percent of tweens and teens suffer from what psychologists refer to as perfectionism, says Jillian Roberts, child psychologist in clinical practice and Psychology Professor at the University of Victoria. Because girls tend to internalize problems while boys act out, they’re more susceptible to the condition.
And the epidemic of perfectionism is spreading, says Jillian. The explosion of social media provides a constant reminder of how kids are failing to measure up to each other. Facebook allows users to gage their popularity continuously through the number of “likes” garnered for selfies and other posts. And when announcements go unnoticed, their confidence plummets even further. Social media also play havoc with perfectionists’ already low self-image by distorting reality, says York University’s Psychology Professor Gordon Flett. “Students are chronically comparing themselves on Facebook where there are fake displays of ideal life,” he says. These phony portraits make them feel even more inadequate, says Gordon.
A lingering sense of inadequacy is in fact the root cause of perfectionism, says Jillian. “You don’t feel okay just the way you are, so you’re compensating for that feeling of unworthiness by making everything perfect.” While genetics make some kids susceptible to these anxious broodings, stress can aggravate their predilection to perfectionism, says Gordon. “Perfectionists are striving to get a sense of control over uncontrollable things,” he says. Excessive demands at school are one of the main challenges faced by tweens and teens, he says. “This can lead to highly stressed students who don’t sleep enough and don’t have fun,” he says. Combine that with other sources of teenage angst, including pushy parents, family conflict and a shaky employment market where even well-educated kids can’t nail down a starter job, and you have the recipe for nail-biting kids, says Jillian.
In Rebecca’s case, a volatile mix of several different elements fed into her perfectionism. First, the breakup of her parents’ marriage shattered her sense of stability. She found moving back and forth between her parents’ homes stressful and she hated being caught in the middle of their arguments. Perfectionism became a coping mechanism for her. “I couldn’t control their relationship but I could control how I did things,” she says.
Moving to the gifted program in a new school further exacerbated her wobbly sense of self. Used to being the best in her class, her self-esteem took a blow when she encountered students whose achievements eclipsed her own. “It was a shock – I worried that maybe I wasn’t as good as I thought I was,” she says.
If you’re thinking you’d be thrilled to raise an overachiever like Rebecca, think again. Far from leading to success, perfectionistic striving can backfire, says Gordon. Perfectionists set an unreasonably high bar for themselves and when they feel they’ve fallen short, they torment themselves with thoughts such as “I should have known better,” and “I’m a loser.” Some kids are so crippled by a fear of failure that they can’t deal with tests and hand in assignments late or not at all. Academic performance can take a hit, says Gordon.
The self-critical talk can also lead to depression and anxiety, says Jillian. Physical symptoms often compound the suffering – perfectionistic youth often pull out their hair, develop stomach aches, exhaustion, and have problems sleeping, she says.
Unfortunately many perfectionists are so invested in keeping up a façade of normality that they avoid seeking help. And that reluctance to reveal their turmoil can have grave consequences. A paper published last year by Gordon in the Review of General Psychology drew attention to the strong correlation between perfectionism and suicide.
Fortunately Rebecca never tried to take her own life. But she nonetheless spiraled downhill as her perfectionism ballooned out of control. She was overcome with anxiety. Just talking to her peers became a challenge, as she agonized over the “right thing” to say. At home she took out her frustration on her younger sister, goading her into fights. Rebecca also developed trouble sleeping, “felt down about everything all the time,” and cried at the drop of a hat. She didn’t want to leave her house. “I was very hopeless,” she says.
She finally reached her breaking point a year after her symptoms began. She woke up with crushing chest pain and her mother took her to the hospital. She was diagnosed with severe depression and referred to a counselor.