Supporting Perfectionistic Students

Recently I delivered a training at the Independent Schools Conference hosted at Kings School, Ely as part of their risk prevention training. Asked to speak on a topic I felt was relevant to independent schools I chose to speak about supporting students who are in the grip of perfectionistic thinking. This is a pervasive problem that I see repeatedly in the students that I coach. This post supports the training that I provided pastoral care and teaching staff.

I run a social venture called Cambridge Academic Performance which provides an occupational therapy approach to student wellbeing and academic performance. I wanted the training to provide staff with a therapeutic insight into what I feel drives perfectionistic thinking and also strategies to help students change their thinking and develop new ways of approaching their studies.

This article is in two parts. First the problem of perfectionism in the student population and what drives it and secondly how to tackle it.

Perfectionism – what is it? 

Perfectionism is the belief that we must be ‘perfect’ at all times and in every way.  Perfectionism can be described as having ‘unrelenting high standards’. Having high standards and aiming high is in and of itself a good thing. This is why perfectionism is able to hide in plain sight – because we know that setting our sights high can lead us to achieve great things. The problematic and dysfunctional side of perfectionism kicks in with the ‘unrelenting’ aspect of this belief system – when we start trying to be ‘perfect’ in every way and at all times.

Perfectionistic thinking is seriously dangerousI don’t think this can be underestimated. Firstly, perfectionistic thinking can massively reduce our academic performance. More about this later. But more to the point perhaps, perfectionism can cost lives. Student suicide rates are on the increase year on year. The New York Times in it’s article on student suicides quotes a Duke University report in which it’s female students say that they feel under pressure to be “effortlessly perfect”. As the article says these students feel that they have to be “smart, accomplished, fit, beautiful and popular, all without visible effort.” New York Times

This aspect of making ‘perfection’ look effortless is a typically perfectionistic twist on what would already be a hard task. That we should not only feel that we should be perfect – but also believe that we must make our efforts to be perfect look effortless is truly exhausting. And on a very human level, it is alienating. Perfectionistic thinking is at it’s heart a cognitive distortion. It naturally causes us to isolate ourselves from others when we do not feel we are reaching our own unrealistically high standards. It is this cocktail of feeling vulnerable and inadequate combined with a withdrawal from those who could support us or point out our faulty perspectives that leads to a high vulnerability to self harm and suicide. This student group warrant fast and effective clinical support.

Supporting perfectionists requires academic enticements

This group are notoriously difficult to reach through the usual pastoral care routes, that is unless they are in crisis. Often they do not recognise their difficulties as being within the realm of mental health or wellbeing issues. They view their difficulties in terms of what they are not achieving academically and their efforts are all funnelled into achieving these goals. Support structures that will help them to achieve these academic goals will be successful where pastoral care support will not. As a means of providing an early intervention approach our service is structured around academic success. The top three reasons students come to our service are academic – exam technique, revision strategies and time management. The top three things that we end up working on with these students turn out to be wellbeing issues – confidence/self-esteem, motivation and stress management.

This highlights just how important targeting our help should be and this needs to be taken very seriously by schools. As a society we are breaking down the stigma associated with mental health issues but in the meantime there are specific populations of students, including perfectionists, who because of their thinking distortions, will not associate themselves with mental health support.

This problem is highlighted in the following picture.

We tend to focus on the problem and not ourselves

It shows the fundamental problem of stress management support. You have a stressed individual who is viewing all of their problems (in the problem bag) as the thing that needs to be addressed.  Stress management and well-being support however will want to focus on the individual and new ways that they can focus on changing themselves and their thinking.

Perfectionists do not recognise that their way of thinking is at the heart of the stress that they are experiencing and so they do not recognise the need for stress management support until they are at crisis level. Helping them recognise that their problems can be addressed by learning to manage themselves differently is key to a successful change in their approach.

I use this picture all the time to highlight to students the dilemma that they face in viewing where the solution actually lies i.e. not in a golden bullet strategy for time management but in looking at why they are so exhausted and depleted and struggling with motivation and procrastination. A change in their own perspective and thinking changes the problems that they face. This is usually not what they came for! But it is what they are happy to embrace once we can agree on the issues and how to manage them. Agreeing the issues usually involves agreeing what drives perfectionistic thinking.

It is probably worth saying at this point that we all dive into perfectionistic thinking from time to time. It helps us on occasion and depending on our environment and the pressures that we are under, it is unavoidable. Just to reassure anyone reading this who is feeling increasingly concerned about their own thinking! However, remember, it is the unrelenting aspect of perfectionism applied to every endeavour, at all times and with the extra added pressure to try and make it all look effortless that is the problem arena.

The two main drivers for perfectionistic thinking

1. The Inner Critic: 

In the picture below you can see again one of my stick pictures that captures how the Inner Critic functions. Notice that it is bigger than the little figure who is us. It is angry and shouting and often speaks in the third person, detaching itself with us as we are such a failure, it doesn’t want to be associated with us!

Feeling small!

For instance, it may say things like “You were useless in that tutorial” or “You never get anything right” etc. You get the idea. It is harsh, critical and mean. It does not recognise context, for instance, I hardly spoke in that tutorial because I’m worried about my Grandmothers health and I can’t think.

When I am working with students we spend time building up trust between us before gradually identifying what things the Inner Critic actually says. I use this picture to break the ice and capture what the dynamics of the roles are and it helps students to look at something concrete and to talk about how the picture resonates with their own experience.

I am always at pains to find and use students’ own very specific language. It is so important to help them hear, out loud, perhaps for the first time, what awful things they are saying to themselves in their heads.

Notice also the impact that the Inner Critic is having on us in the picture. We feel small and slumped, our energy is gone and we cannot even look at the Inner Critic let alone fight back. This is invariably where the Inner Critic takes us. And it is bigger in size because it takes up so much more of our psychic space. It dominates.

Once we have agreed that this is how the Inner Critic is making us feel we have gone a very long way to starting to tackle the problem. This is because the the student firmly believes that this way of ‘doing business’ is motivating. Again and again students will say to me “But what if I stop the Inner Critic completely? How will I motivate myself?” It’s a reasonable question when you believe that it is the only way to motivate yourself. And this is very important to recognise and include in the discussion – that the Inner Critic is genuinely trying to help us but it’s support has gone badly wrong and is in fact now counter-productive, as evidenced by the little, deflated and depleted figure of ourselves in the picture. It wants to help but needs to recognise that it is currently making things much worse.

2. A faulty view of performance: 

In the image below we see the classic graph of how adrenalin or stimulation affects performance.

Our performance changes with stress. Too much and it deteriorates!

Essentially it is telling us that the more stress/stimulation/adrenalin we feel (Horizontal axis) the more our performance is affected from very low performance with little stress to higher performance with increasing stress/stimulation/adrenalin (Vertical axis).

However – and this is crucial to perfectionistic thinking – the law of diminishing returns will eventually take over where too much stress and stimulation leads to decreasing performance. There is just a point beyond which we cannot go and achieve well. Crucial to perfectionistic thinking is that this right hand side of the graph does not exist in this type of thinking.

Perfectionists do not consider this aspect of performance to be something that they must consider. Essentially, they do not believe in it! They feel that if only they could do more and more and push themselves harder and harder, they will benefit from the results. Seeing this graph and talking about it can literally be a revelation to a perfectionistic thinker and I encourage staff to use it.

Recognising that we can push ourselves too far and become depleted and reduce our performance starts to turn around this faulty view of performance.

In this following image I have depicted how many perfectionists (and in fact many students in general) feel they should be by the end of their exams.

A stick person feeling exhausted

Perfectionists push themselves to the limit

They plan to push themselves to the limit and have nothing left to give by the end. They will be like this character – exhausted and flat on their back, cross eyes and finished. Again when faced with this picture many perfectionists will laugh because it so readily captures what they expect of themselves. However, seeing it there in black and white highlights how ridiculous this expectation of themselves is. It is worth discussing how effective working towards this goal is and whether it supports our motivation and our longer-term performance.

In the second part of this article I will look more closely at ways of starting to build new thinking patterns that support perfectionists to apply balance and radically improve their performance.