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.
Not all young perfectionists need to see a therapist, says Jillian. If a child’s symptoms are stable and they feel generally OK, parents can try to sort out their issues. Most importantly, the experts advise, parents need to educate themselves about perfectionism and connect with their children and try to figure out why they feel the way they do. Perfectionists believe that love and approval are contingent on their achievements. The most potent remedy is simply spending time with your kids, helping them feel cared for unconditionally, says Gordon.
It can also help if you’re able to put kids’ annoyances into perspective, says Jillian. If your child is upset about a poor grade, you can tell him “I know you didn’t do as well as you wanted. But it’s only Grade 9 and universities won’t be looking at this mark.” Parents also need to model healthy ways of reacting to their own mistakes, says Jillian. “Don’t fret when you spill milk,” she says. Tell kids “Sometimes I have a bad day.” Making balanced assessments of trials help children develop their own inner language for coping with setbacks, she says. Parents can teach kids self-compassion when they slip up, says Gordon. “Rather than criticize yourself, acknowledge the error but see it as an opportunity to grow and develop,” he says.
Volunteering is another helpful strategy to overcome perfectionism, says Gordon. Contributing to society helps foster self-esteem in perfectionists and directs their attention away from their perceived flaws and onto the needs of others. “You can feel good about yourself in a way that has nothing to do with meeting goals,” says Gordon.
Still, there may be limits to what parents can accomplish, says Jillian. If kids are feeling deeply distressed, and their symptoms are worsening, they should see a counsellor, she says. Therapists can help children identify stressors and create strategies to defuse them, as well as training them to replace negative thinking patterns with positive affirmations, she says.
For Rebecca, the referral to a therapist helped rebuild her shattered self. “Just being able to talk to someone helped,” she says. The counsellor showed her how to tune in to her feelings and identify them. Verbalizing her conflicts was also useful. “I would release my emotions instead of funneling them into work and trying to get everything right,” she says.
Coping strategies such as controlled breathing helped her manage stress as well. But most importantly, the counsellor helped Rebecca learn to like herself. “She helped me to feel better about who I was so I didn’t have to always prove myself,” she says.
Today Rebecca is thriving in her Grade 12 class. Her focus is no longer restricted to achievements. ”I don’t find my identity in what I do as much as in who I am,” she says. She gets satisfaction from her involvement in a Christian youth ministry, and enjoys reaching out to the kids who attend the drop-in program. ”I don’t feel I have to impress them – the focus is on what I can do for them.”
Every once in a while her perfectionism still rears its ugly head but she’s developed the ability to restrain it. “If I do something that’s not the best, I still wish it could be better but I’m okay with it,” she says.
Most importantly, she feels positive about her future. She’s interested in studying architecture, but applying to university programs is stressful. She worries about not getting in. But she’s much more flexible about her options and she has other passions that she knows will create a satisfying life. “My goal is not to be successful in society but rather to be happy with myself and to make the world a better place,” she says.
Rebecca has some hard-won advice for other youth suffering from perfectionism. “Lose that need to be in perfect control. Let someone else help you,” she says. There is hope for those who do reach out. “You can have so much more to your life than just working hard,” she says.Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, Fall 2017.