Perfectionism: The New Age Disorder

By , Newburgh, IN
The pressure to be flawless in academia is not an uncommon theme to be found in one of the top ten high schools in America. When the month of May arrives, tensions are high and energy is low in all students. However, there are a handful of students that take it to the next level of stress and pressure to score the five on the AP test or the seven on the IB papers. In my research paper I will examine the question, What are the main sources for perfectionism in students and how can it affect the students physically, academically, and mentally? I chose this topic because I happen to attend the number seven school in the nation, and last May I took particular interest in the handful of students that can be classified as perfectionists.

I researched this topic by breaking down my topic into categories: perfectionism, health risks, how parents affect their children, gender differences, and academic related stress. I read teen magazines that discussed social and health related issue in young girls, went on line and read science journals and databases, and I also read articles and researched studies done on related topics. I found that perfectionism in students mainly originates from the parenting style and what gender the student is. Being a perfectionist has its benefits as far as doing the best a student can do. However when taken to the extreme, perfectionism can disable a student from achieving the simplest task in fear of failing, or even over stress the student to the point of sickness.
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In the month of May at the Signature School, tensions are high, sleep deprived students are walking the halls, and Princeton Review books can be found all over the school. It is AP and IB testing time, the most nerve-racking time of the year. At the Signature School there is a hand full of students that place an unreal amount of pressure on themselves because they all have one thing on their mind—getting into the best college. Observing these students in the classroom, one will find that a ninety-five percent on a test is not quite good enough, detailed notes are placed in organized subject binders, and the textbook is the most interesting item in the classroom. These students are noticeably different from the others and the defining characteristic is the desire to be perfect and receive the perfect score.
Psychologists and doctors began conducting studies and gathering research in the late 1970’s over the new age disorder “perfectionism” and how it is affecting people and students today. They have been exploring what psychologically motivates a student and its side effects, how parents influence the drive to be perfect tied together with the pressure to be accepted into the right college, and how the pull for perfectionism differs by gender.
There are two types of people, the self-motivated person and the perfectionist. The self motivated person is one that strives for excellence and learns from failure. He or she takes criticism well. The perfectionist is a person that is driven to succeed and gets defeated if he or she does anything les. Opposite of the self-motivated person, the perfectionist does not take criticism well; he or she feels like it is a personal attack. The technical working definition of perfectionism is the belief that anything short of perfection is unacceptable (Merriam-Webster Dictionary).
There are three categories of perfectionists: self-oriented, other oriented, and socially prescribed. Self-oriented perfectionists are the people who believe they, themselves, must be perfect. An other-oriented perfectionist wants others to be perfect. The third type of perfectionist is socially prescribed perfectionists. Socially prescribed perfectionists are people who feel pressure from others to be perfect (What Price Perfection Study Aims to Find out). As clinical psychologist Harriet Braiker said, “Striving for excellence motivates you; striving for perfection is demoralizing.”
Psychologically, perfectionism can be recognized as a form of fear. It can disable an individual from even trying in the slightest way just because of the fear of failure. Perfectionism can prevent an individual from making a long term commitment, which leads to procrastination. Some psychologists refer to perfectionists as “all or nothing” thinkers and when faced with a task they become overwhelmed with the pressure to do the absolute best because in their minds there is no median (Pawlik-Kienlen ). The perfectionist’s mindset is one that thinks that everything in life must be done to the individual’s standards which are most likely higher than anyone’s around them. A perfectionist might also think if a task is too difficult than why even attempt to complete it because there is no second place, only first. Not only do perfectionists hold themselves up to high standards but they also think that others around will not accept them if their work is less than perfect, which can be identified as socially prescribed perfectionism.
Being a perfectionist has its side effects, many of which are harmful to the individual. Perfectionists place constant strain on their health, due to setting impossible standards and pushing their bodies to the limits. Experiencing depression is not an unlikely side effect. In many cases a perfectionist has a low self-esteem which means that nothing is ever good enough. He or she never allows him or herself to enjoy his or her work, making depression inevitable. Higher levels of stress and anxiety are some of the other counterparts to perfectionism (Pawlik-Kienlen). A perfectionist can grow anxious, stressed, and uneasy due to the constantly changing world because he or she feels the pressure to keep rising and changing his or her standards. By living in an ever-changing environment, the fear of failing becomes more prominent. A perfectionist is thinking, “What if I cannot meet the new standard and what can I do to make it better?” All the fear can build up and drain an individual of energy making him or her frozen to the world and change, disabling them from even attempting a task.
Unfortunately perfectionists can place a toll on their all together life-span. Prem Fry, a psychology professor at Trinity Western University conducted a study involving 450 adults age 65 or older. The participants completed a survey about how they perceive themselves, ranking them from high perfectionists to none at all. Those who ranked as high perfectionists rates had a 51 percent increased risk of death than those of low perfectionists’ rates. This is hypothesized to be because of the higher levels of stress and anxiety felt by the high perfectionists (Rettner ).
Unfortunately perfectionism is a rising problem in students today. Scientists have been trying to figure out what fuels a student to become like that and one factor they have found is the student’s parents. A character trait of most all parents is the desire for their child, or children, to excel at all challenges and tasks, not only in school course work and grades, but in sports and extracurricular activities as well. What parents do not realize is that instead of pushing their children to do their best, they could be pushing their children to the edge. Parents can be the main source for “socially prescribed perfectionism” in children. Children form habits from what they observe. Parents who tend to be obsessive and high-strung about mistakes often raise children who are as well, which is one of the key character traits of a perfectionist. If a child is always criticized for mistakes then he or she can develop the mindset of “my parents want me to be the best at everything.” Also, parents that are overly obsessive about mistakes, to the point of disciplinary actions, can raise a child to think making mistakes is unacceptable, therefore leading the children to believe that any mistake will lead to punishment.
In 1995, Gordon L. Flett, Paul L. Hewitt, and Anna Singer conducted a study examining the relationship between parenting styles and perfectionism in students. The study evaluated three main types of parenting styles: authoritarian, permissive, and authoritative. The first type of parent was the authoritarian parent. The authoritarian parent is restrictive, overly disciplinary, and over controlling. This parenting style tends to have a negative effect on the child which leads to low self-esteem and poor development in the social and scholarly aspects of life. The children see their authoritarian parents as unfair and over controlling. The second type of parent was the permissive parent. A permissive parent tends to show little to no interest in his or her child’s life. This style has a negative effect on the child as well. The last type of parent was the authoritative parent. The authoritative parent is strict but not to the extent of the authoritarian style. He or she uses discipline in a warm and constructive way. This style of parenting neither encourages nor discourages mistakes (Flett).
The study was conducted with one hundred students, chosen at random, from York University. The students were given the MPS survey and their parents were given the PAQ survey. MPS stands for “Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale,” the questionnaire has three sections with fifteen statements. Each section is dedicated to one of the following categories: self-oriented perfectionism, pressure resulting from one’s self, other-oriented perfectionism, and pressure for those in a person’s life to be perfect, and lastly, socially prescribed perfectionism. The students rated each statement to how it applies to their lives. The other half of the study involving the parents of the students involved the PAQ, “Parental Authority Questionnaire,” which has three sections dedicated to each of the three parenting styles. The parents were asked to rate the statements on the questionnaire in which they agree with. For example, one statement may have been “As I was growing up my mother/father would get very upset if I tried to disagree with her/him” which would apply to the authoritarian style category (Flett).
The results of the study confirmed that perfectionism in children is closely linked with parenting styles. Socially prescribed perfectionism was found significantly in the male gender with parents that rated highly in the authoritarian style. The findings with the female gender were not significant to the study. The socially prescribed perfectionism in boys stems from a higher pressure to be competitive in sports and school. The parents of boys also tend to reward for the success therefore developing the concept that winning is all that can be rewarded. Self-oriented perfectionism was found in both male and females with authoritative parents ( Flett).
Similarly to the difference in parenting styles, gender also plays a significant role in how serious a student’s perfectionism is. Males and females are different in the ways that they approach a challenging task, and studies have shown that in many cases boys and girls take completely opposite routes. In another study conducted in 1995 by Hewitt, Flett, Turnbull-Donovan, and Mikail, they studied the difference between males and females when it comes to two different ways a person can be self-handicapping. Self-handicapping is a defense mechanism that a person uses to excuse poor work. The difference between acquired self-handicapping and claimed self-handicapping is that one involves the physical being and the other involves the emotional mentality. Acquired self-handicapping is when an individual actually does something that might damage the work like setting unobtainable goals, using drugs or alcohol, or resulting to procrastination and claimed self-handicapping is when an individual uses mental or emotional excuses to justify poor work like test anxiety, emotional or physical ailments, or even just being bad mood (Astor-Stetson).
The results of the study show that males are more likely to resort to acquired self-handicapping and that women are more prone to claimed self-handicapping. This is due to the fact that males look at success as a skill, and it is easier to claim a failure at a skill that a person knowingly cannot achieve. Women choose to lean in the direction of claimed self-handicapping because they are less motivated to perform a task that appears to be impossibly achievable. That is why it is easier for girls to just say “I have a headache so I cannot possibly try to accomplish this” than try and risk failing (Astor-Stetson).
A similar study is done comparing gender and how it is linked to test anxiety and perfectionism. Done in cooperation with the freshmen at the University of Liege with Vasev, the researchers reviewed 616 students using the TASTE questionnaire. The TASTE questionnaire, which is the English name for the questionnaire, is similar to the MPS survey given above in the study testing the effect of parenting styles. The TASTE questionnaire assessed the participants in how they handle anxiety, self-confidence, and procrastination and performance value. The results of the study show that girls are more prone to test anxiety. This is relatable to the results involving claimed self-handicapping because if she already feels incompetent and like she cannot begin to think that she can pass the test in front of her. The researchers say that this is due to the fact that girls operate on a sense of incompetence which then results in accepting failure easier because they never thought they could do well in the first place (Mason).
Perfectionists can take an exciting event and turn it in to a nightmare and some perfectionist students are guilty of this. One of the most common time periods for a perfectionist student to fall into a downward spiral is when he or she is beginning to prepare and apply to college. This is a time when a perfectionist student can hurt his or herself the most physically and emotionally all because he or she feels the need to get into the “right college.” Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s admissions dean, Marilee Jones admits that colleges set such high admissions standards that they are “sending out the message that kids need to be perfect” (Marklein). The pressure for children to “get on the right track” begins as early as kindergarten beginning with the parents. Some parents go to the extent to enroll their kindergartener in a foreign language just to make sure that their seven year-old is society’s definition of “well rounded,” carting them around from piano lessons to soccer practice (Jeweler-Bentz). This pressure that children begin to feel at such a young age is very relatable to socially prescribed perfectionism. They take on the pressure from their parents thinking that they have to do everything right and have to be active; if not they will be set up for failure.
It is not until middle school and junior high that the kids begin to develop the “Ivy or bust” mentality. A common phrase that can be heard in a classroom is the concept of the “dream school.” Kids begin selecting the best colleges, or the ones that appear the best in the rankings early on in their education career. A college’s ranking is one defining factor of what makes a college “dream school” worthy. Schools like University of Pennsylvania, Princeton, and Brown all saw an increase of up to twenty percent in 2010 in applications (Lakhani). This makes the application process more selective and highly competitive. For a family, parents and children focus on the schools with the highest rankings, because they are the best, look the best, and sound the best. The rankings can be a way to validate that something is finally good enough in a perfectionist’s life, whether he or she is socially prescribed or self-oriented.
To get into the competitive arena for the Ivy League schools, students push themselves to the limit resulting in sickness, depression, and migraines, all because the colleges and adults are “holding them up to such high standards” (Marklein). The students partake in community service, take as many AP classes they can, are involved in as many extracurricular activities that their time allows, and receive extra help from a tutor for the SAT and ACT just to be the perfect candidate for a college. The biggest problem that arises with the rise of applicants to “the right schools” is the growing skewed perception of what makes up “the perfect candidate.” Jones says, “From my perspective at MIT, I have deep fears for the future. I don’t see as much individual creativity anymore among applicants.” Some students are not taking time to live and learn, because in the perfectionist mind set, there is no such thing as time to dream, that would be a waste.

In this battle for perfection, students can lose sight of what is important, what makes a healthy life style, and in general how to enjoy high school. However, there are ways that teachers and parents can help these students cope with their stress and desire to be perfect. The first being to refrain from criticism, the student is already criticizing his or herself enough. The second major strategy is to empathize with the student; a little empathy can go a long way (Six Strategies for Soothing a Perfectionist).
Unfortunately, perfectionism is becoming a common mental illness, showing up more frequently in high school students and affecting when the time comes to apply to colleges. Based on research, assumptions can be made that perfectionism in students buds from parenting styles and gender. Students that have parents that practice either authoritarian or permissive parenting styles are more likely to become perfectionists which can affect the college application process. What these students do not realize is that by stressing over the “right college” and the perfect test scores is that they are really hurting themselves. They make themselves sick and some even remove themselves from everyday life. Perfectionist students need a support system to keep them from going completely over board, especially when it comes to applying to college. This up and coming mental illness is one to be aware of because there is nothing perfect about a perfectionist.





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