When we hear the word ‘perfectionism’ we often mistake it for meaning ‘doing things perfectly’ or ‘being perfect’. For many of us, this sounds like a great thing! Afterall, who among us does not love the idea of being perfect?
However, when we allow ourselves to take pause and ask ourselves if it is ever possible to really be 100% perfect… it can be easy to wonder what people mean when they talk about perfectionism.
When I was introduced to Olivia she was in the 8th grade. Olivia was loved by her teachers and her core group of friends. She was a gymnast, an artist, and a lover of animals. Outside of the home, adults were constantly commending her for her grades, how polite she was, and her maturity. Inside the home… a storm was often brewing. Olivia would come home from school complaining of headaches or stomach pains, panic about completing her school work and doing it ‘right’, and often become agitated or explosive when things did not go the way that she had hoped or planned. Olivia’s mom was starting to wonder who the ‘real’ Olivia was because the girl she saw at home had a wheelbarrow filled with worries and anger, and a teeny thimbleful of patience.
When I meet with the parents of young perfectionistic teens, these are a few of the major things they describe:
- Their teen generally requires a great deal of motivation to push through big worried feelings to try new activities
- Complaints surrounding tummy troubles, headaches, and migraines become more and more frequent
- Parents are met with explosive moods and anger when things don’t go the way that their teen had hoped, expected, or planned
- Their teen has difficulty sleeping and often requires reassurance surrounding attending school the following day
I also see teens who are highly ambitious who want to do well in school who seriously struggle with procrastination (which is often surprising for many parents to learn!), teens who panic about not having enough time to complete certain tasks when they do have enough time (ex. completing homework, or getting to hockey/cheerleading practice on time), excessive worrying, fear surrounding doing the ‘wrong’ thing (ex. writing out scripts before talking on the phone to avoid a verbal error, refusal to order for themselves in a restaurant, large feelings of fear surrounding answering or asking questions in class)… the list goes on.
In essence, perfectionism looks an awful lot like high functioning anxiety (Here is a great article on High Functioning Anxiety). At its core, it contains these three things:
1) the pursuit for extremely high standards for both oneself and others that is personally demanding
2) determining one’s own self-worth based upon their ability to achieve those high standards and
3) feeling the negative consequences of setting such unrelenting standards and continuing to do so despite the cost. In that vein, it is important to note that there is a vast difference between a healthy or helpful pursuit of excellence and the unhelpful/unhealthy aim for perfectionism.
Brene Brown summarizes this idea quite well in this quote:
“Perfectionism is not the same thing as striving to do your best. Perfectionism is the belief that if we live perfect, look perfect, and act perfect, we can minimize or avoid the pain of blame, judgment, and shame. It’s a shield. It’s a twenty-ton shield that we lug around thinking it will protect us, when in fact, it’s the thing that is really preventing us from taking flight”.
This is how I can help you teen learn to soar freely again:
- Equip them with the tools to help them self-soothe and reduce their feelings of anxiousness
- Explore the thoughts that keeps their perfectionism going and assist them in rewriting the stories that they tell themselves about those unhelpful thoughts
- Examine the role that social comparison plays in their daily lives
- Introduce mindfulness-based cognitive therapy strategies to teach them to: Break away from negative thought patterns and pull themselves out of thinking traps
If you feel like your teen could benefit from talking with me, I invite you to connect with me for a 30-complimentary parent phone consultation.
SHELYNN GERVAIS MACP, YOUTH COUNSELLOR
I have an honours undergraduate degree in English and Family & Child Studies from the University of Guelph, a partially completed Bachelor of Education from Western University in Intermediate and Senior English and Family Studies, and a Master of Arts in Counselling Psychology degree from Yorkville University. I have worked with children and young adults as an educator, a coach, a camp counsellor, a distress line operator, and mentor since I was a high school student myself, and I value the honour of sharing in the chaotic and exciting experience that is adolescence with you. Under the supervision of Counting Butterflies’ Clinical Director and Registered Psychotherapist Michelle Brans, I specialize in helping teens and families through: anxiety and depression, social and school challenges, perfectionism and low-self esteem.