What do you say when a bright, motivated, energetic student dissolves in tears in your office, panicked because she got her first “C”? When your proud college graduate hyperventilates before his first job interview? Parents and teachers have reason to be concerned, because the evidence is in and the kids are not alright. Across the planet, depression and anxiety are skyrocketing among young adults. And a recent study published by the American Psychological Association pinpoints one possible factor: a hidden epidemic of perfectionism.
We asked Thomas Curran — lead author on the study and professor at the University of Bath — how to help.
How do you go about trying to help a young person in the throes of perfectionism?
Thomas Curran: With perfectionists, indirect actions are far more effective than direct actions. Unlike depression or anxiety, which people recognize as something bad that they need to address, perfectionism isn’t something people instantly recognize as causing them problems. Here at a high ranking university in the UK, we have very high standards for students, and to get here means they’ve done exceptionally well. They tend to see perfectionism as the trait that got them to this stage. But the problem is, as soon as they encounter setbacks – which may be for the first time in their lives — they start to catastrophize.
What happens then?
TC: It’s really sad. I have a lot of students come to me in distress, a lot of tears are shed in my office. And this is not at all unusual. Talk to many professors — across the US, Canada and the UK — and they’ll tell you similar stories.
What do you say to these student? What helps?
TC: Rather than trying to change their thoughts and feelings, I try to acknowledge them. It’s important to show empathy – “I know these aren’t the results you wanted, and these negative emotions and feelings you’re having are completely understandable.” Perfectionists blame themselves for their failures. So it’s important to encourage them to be more self-compassionate, not to be so harshly self-critical when they haven’t met a goal.
I also try to emphasize things like flexibility, diligence, perseverance, conscientiousness – all things perfectionists are very good at! Those are far more important goals than perfection. “Focus on working hard,” I tell them, “read and enjoy reading and learning about the topic you came here to study. Don’t worry about the test results or the grade, just worry about how hard you’re working.” It’s about trying to de-emphasize the outcome.
Do you have perfectionistic tendencies yourself?
TC: Oh absolutely, we all do. It’s very common in contemporary culture: we all work really hard, and sometimes we put too much pressure on ourselves to perform well. We don’t always have positive outcomes; we all have failures along the way.
So yes, when something isn’t going well, when a paper is rejected, I can get into the same cycles my students do, and start ruminating and blaming myself.
And what do you do for yourself in those situations?
You have to remember to check in with yourself. When you catch yourself in negative, self-blaming habits, it’s important to remember to be more self-compassionate and to keep things in perspective. As with anything — studies, work, professional life — it’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon. The setbacks along the way are opportunities to learn, to grow, to put things right, and not to make the same mistake. So it’s important to hold onto that mindset rather than catastrophizing or thinking I’m useless.