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Helping Students Thrive Now

Angela Duckworth and other behavioral-science experts offer advice to teachers based on scientific research. Read more from this blog.

Student Well-Being Opinion

How to Help Students Back Off From Their Perfectionism

Getting comfortable with “good enough”
By Thomas Curran — October 04, 2023 1 min read
What's the problem with perfectionism?
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How do I help students who are perfectionists?

Students with perfectionistic tendencies often don’t think they have a problem. Here’s something I wrote about the topic for Character Lab as a Tip of the Week:

“To get ahead in this world, don’t we need a little bit of perfectionism?”

As someone who has researched perfectionism for over a decade, I’m asked this question a lot. And I used to think that was true. It’s hard to succeed nowadays. You’ve got to sacrifice yourself, keep pushing well beyond comfort, and live life on your tiptoes. That’s just the zero-sum nature in a lopsided society where there are only a few winners, I believed.

Yet, research finds that perfectionism has no relationship with performance. Perfectionistic people strive really hard, but they’re no more likely to be successful.

One reason is that perfectionistic people work hard but unsustainably so. They often find themselves in the sapping zone of diminishing and inverse returns to their efforts.

Another is that many perfectionists are world champions at self-sabotage. When things get tough, when it looks like failure is heading their way, the anticipated shame and embarrassment are so fierce that perfectionistic people are reluctant to put forth any further effort that might allow others to discover their shortcomings. So, they procrastinate or simply give up to ward off fears of failure.

In trying to avoid failure, perfectionists often do the very things that make failure more likely.

For perfectionists, dialing down goals and aiming for excellence instead doesn’t usually work. Rather, it’s important to learn to embrace the inevitability of setbacks, failures, and things not going quite as planned. And being able to sit comfortably with these humanizing experiences, to let them be, not needing to rehabilitate them or drive them out of existence.

Don’t strive to be perfect.

Do recognize that perfectionism doesn’t lead to success. And help the young people in your life embrace all of themselves, including their imperfections, for the astonishing little explosions of humanity that they are.

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