teen perfectionism

High-Achiever or Perfectionist? Knowing the difference can have an important impact on your teen’s mental health.

By Jamie Doak, MA, LPCC

I clutched my report card in my hand as I confronted my unsuspecting 11th grade Chemistry teacher after school.  I showed him the B on the report card, my first B and only B.  I begged for extra credit, offered to clean the lab, pleaded to retake the test or do an extra project or something- anything!  I just needed 0.5 points to push me to an A.  By this point in my monologue I had started sobbing.  I was sure that every employer for the rest of my life would ask to see my report card, note the B in Chemistry that blighted my otherwise pristine record and refuse to hire me because obviously I was incompetent and couldn’t explain modern atomic theory and therefore, conclude that the only career I was fit for was a circus clown.   (In addition to seven other extracurricular activities, I was very involved in theater and thus, my penchant for the dramatic…)

This wasn’t just a B.  This was my identity.  All my life, I was the “smart girl.”  My parents, teachers, friends and classmates all knew me as “smart” and in American schools, students are taught that intelligence is demonstrated through grades.  If I got a B, who was I? I definitely didn’t believe I was “smart” anymore. It was unsafe and unsettling to realize that one letter could completely shatter my concept of self.

The wise Mr. Farrar told me that he could bump my grade up, but he felt that the more important lesson for me to learn was that I could get a B and survive and that it was imperative that I realized this in high school before I left for college.  I wish I could say that this was an “aha” moment for me.  That I shed a last, single tear, nodded and left cured of my perfectionism after his sage advice.  I didn’t.  I was livid and fairly certain that Mr. Farrar was an agent of Satan sent to destroy me.

As a recovering perfectionist, I can look back on this now and be grateful that Mr. Farrar identified some seriously unhealthy mindsets and pushed me to confront them earlier rather than later.  Perfectionism exists on a spectrum.  On one end you have admirable and healthy mindsets and behavior: ambition, setting and achieving goals, hard work, and motivation.  On the other end you have toxic mindsets and behavior: unrealistic or unattainable goals, tying identity to performance, and never feeling good enough.  I don’t believe that perfectionism is something to be cured, but rather something to be managed with a goal of staying on the healthier side of the spectrum.

Perfectionism is linked to both anxiety and depression, so it’s important that teenagers learn to manage perfectionism by first increasing their self-awareness and then strengthening their sense of self.  In order to start to managing perfectionism effectively, teens need to analyze what factors from their past and present have contributed to their desire to be perfect, recognize which situations trigger their perfectionism most, and identify the physical and mental signals their body and brains send them when they are approaching the unhealthy side of the perfectionism spectrum.    Secondly, teens need to develop a strong sense of their own identities.  What are their values? Who do they want to be in the future? What are they passionate about?  By having a strong concept of self, teens who tend toward perfectionism are empowered to stand up to a society that often tries to define them by what they do rather than who they are.

Your teen might be struggling with perfectionism if they demonstrate the following mindsets or behaviors:

  • Unrealistic expectations for performance in school, athletics or extracurricular activities
  • Avoidance of activities if they feel they might not be “the best”
  • Feeling like a failure unless they achieve perfection
  • Preoccupation with food; controlling food; diets; disordered eating
  • Procrastination
  • Redoing an entire assignment because of one mistake
  • Hiding school work; refusing to turn in school work; missing assignments
  • People pleasing
  • Refusing or trying to get out of going to school
  • Somatic complaints
  • Never feeling “good enough”
  • Extreme anxiety over tests or assignments
  • Dwelling on past failures; refusing to “let go”

If you believe that your teen is struggling with toxic perfectionism, we would love to help!  Contact us today to set up an intake with one of our teen counseling specialists.

Click here to learn more about Jamie and her work with teens struggling with anxiety and perfectionism.

Jamie Doak

Jamie Doak

I'm a former English teacher, school mental health counselor, recovering perfectionist and therapist at Colorado Teen Therapy. I love working with middle and high school girls who struggle with stress, anxiety, body image and perfectionism to help them shed the pressures of who they think they are supposed to be and embrace the strong, confident young woman they already are! When I'm not working with teens, I enjoy camping, reading, hanging out with my dog, Hudson, and watching movies and/or shows that feature Benedict Cumberbatch.

About Jamie Doak

I'm a former English teacher, school mental health counselor, recovering perfectionist and therapist at Colorado Teen Therapy. I love working with middle and high school girls who struggle with stress, anxiety, body image and perfectionism to help them shed the pressures of who they think they are supposed to be and embrace the strong, confident young woman they already are! When I'm not working with teens, I enjoy camping, reading, hanging out with my dog, Hudson, and watching movies and/or shows that feature Benedict Cumberbatch.

Leave a Comment