Rooted in the idea of being perfect, society struggles to see itself as adequate in everyday life. We absorb the value of establishing goals and exceeding expectations from a young age. In school, we are compared and judged based on a grading system that strives to push students to be impossibly perfect, with anything below an A+ as unworthy of gratification. Further, in life, adults experience the same struggle as they meet needs with an urgency to practice excellency, resulting in the despair of reality and failure. Unable to reach the goals we’ve set for ourselves, it can become impossible to imagine a world in which we are content. So, why do we set such high standards for ourselves, and why do they become so difficult to achieve?
To answer this question, I reached out to Cora Orme, an Academic Support Specialist who helps students at a college preparatory high school in Oregon. They work closely with students to share study strategies, support academic plans, and supply students with tutoring to ensure students can achieve their academic goals. The main reason I reached out to Cora, however, was because of a perfectionism workshop she prepared for students. In this workshop, they explained the role perfectionism plays in student well-being, so I reached out for a conversation to dive deeper into how this affects humanity in the long run.
In this discussion, Cora described to me that there are two types of perfectionism: maladaptive perfectionism and adaptive perfectionism. Maladaptive perfectionism is the belief that one should never make a mistake and that complete correctness, perfection, and precision are always essential. Adaptive perfectionism is a much different approach. Also known as healthy striving, adaptive perfectionism is the concept that when setting high goals, one allows for fluctuation and avoids self-pity when there is a different result than previously expected. Cora also suggests that with an adaptive method “you’ll still reflect on why you didn't achieve your goals, and use that to motivate you, but it's not the be-all-end-all when you didn't achieve that”. She explained that many studies have shown that maladaptive perfectionism can be extremely damaging to a person’s health as they are constantly searching for results that are often impossible. Despite this, many still find themselves searching for the maladaptive approach.
Students are a large piece of this group as they find themselves wanting to achieve absolute excellence in their school environments. With a GPA number to define their achievements, it can become scarily easy to get lost in the picture of perfectionism. Not just academics but even extracurricular activities at school may serve as a persistent reminder of failure and a lack of abilities that appear to necessitate perfection. While thinking of all the ways students become compared to each other and forced into the maladaptive practice, Cora reminded me that “students will be a maladaptive perfectionist when it comes to school, and grades, and school culture, but much more of an adaptive perfectionist when it comes to their hobbies”. As sports and types of art are viewed as processes that require trial and error, students often perceive these as goals to be met along the way. These exercises, which take a more adaptive approach, encourage kids to be kinder and more patient with themselves. Why can’t students perceive their schoolwork and learning as goals to be achieved rather than intense tasks that require completion?
Students investing in their education to advance may find school environments demanding and stressful. Cora described to me the way she evolved in college and her discovery that “grades are not necessarily the most accurate representation or indication of intelligence or effort”. They emphasized the value of being kind to oneself when beginning to battle the deeply rooted principle of perfectionism. She continued to explain the importance of meta-cognition, or the reflection of one’s thinking, to understand the reasons for placing high standards rather than flexible goal setting. Self-reflection can be used to recognize the standard not achieved while simultaneously celebrating the accomplishments that were. Meta-cognition allows a person to recognize the feeling of shame and self-pity that maladaptive perfectionism often develops. This self-reflection can be achieved alone by journaling, talking to another person, or seeing a trained therapist. There are many options.
By recognizing the habits of perfectionism in school, many are beginning to avoid the same habits when entering the workforce. Adults still struggle with the idea of meeting unachievable standards as perfectionism spreads from schools. By acknowledging such goals we set for ourselves, we may begin to set more reasonable and attainable objectives. Recognizing and combating maladaptive perfectionism tendencies is a lifelong endeavor through which humans may begin to discover more love and tolerance in their lives.
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