Over the last few weeks I’ve been having very similar conversations with quite a few different people. They’re parents, and it’s normally, but not always, mum instead of dad that I speak to. It’s about their son or daughter, normally at university but sometimes at college, but always the effect that their perfectionism is having on them.
“It’s our oldest girl Sophie*” her dad told me. “It’s her first year at uni and we’ve noticed her mood getting more and more downhill lately. Her work isn’t suffering but she seems to be dropping friends and activities, and she seems more and more anxious. Would you be able to help her?”
A week and a half later Sophie was sat in front of me, and we were taking the time to find out what was going on, and when it started. “I’ve always had perfectionism, ever since high school. I always wanted to get top marks, and that used to mean trying to get A’s. But then anything else than an A* was a failure, and since I’ve been at uni it’s worse.”
“I’m becoming obsessed with the work being perfect when I hand it in. I’ll sit in the library for hours and I’ll come out with hardly anything written at all – sometimes only a sentence. It feels as if I’ve been banging my head against the wall trying to shake out just the right words, but they never come. I’m worried now that I’ll always be this ill if I’ve been like this for years.”
As I assured Sophie, perfectionism isn’t a mental illness, it’s a personality trait. Sometimes the behaviours perfectionism encourages are useful to us – working hard, getting good grades. Sometimes though they’re not useful, as in Sophie’s case where it was making her anxious and withdrawn, and was stopping her from producing work.
Like a lot of other people Sophie’s perfectionism came from her own expectations, and not from what she thought other people expected of her. And like a lot of other people, that natural tendency had started to grow when she started university. In a new environment, away from family and friends, the fear of failure had grown to the point where the idea became unbearable.
Fighting that fear of failure had led Sophie to spend more and more time working and in the library. That meant spending less and less time on other interests, or with friends, which made the work have even more weight in her life. Increasingly tired from longer hours, that harder she tried the more Sophie found herself in a ‘perfect storm’.
The key for Sophie was to find ways, including working with me, to bolster her self-esteem. She needed to believe that she was already good enough without needing perfect scores as well. Being kinder to herself also meant learning when she was being unreasonable when she continually asked herself ‘could this be better?’.
Perfect wasn’t just the enemy of good for Sophie, it was becoming the enemy of producing anything at all. Teaching her to accept and manage the anxiety she was trying to avoid through her perfectionism were what she needed to break the log-jam and start working and living again.
The last time I spoke to her she told me that she had been given a merit, and missed out on a distinction, on her last assignment. “I’m happy with that though” she said, “after all there are other things in life you know.”
* Sophie’s real identities has been protected, and she is happy to share her story.
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