perfectionism

My Letter to College Admissions Officers

The recent college admissions scandal has generated lots of discussion. I chose to focus on the point that I know best as a mental health counselor- this process is taking a toll on students’ mental health.

Dear College Admissions Officers:

I write this letter from the perspective of someone who works with lots of high school students and sees how your acceptance process leaves students perplexed at best and suicidal at worst. I started undergrad 18 years ago and sure there were times when I felt frustrated during the process but I still got to be a teenager. In my downtime I’d listen to Jewel’s latest album, go to movies with my friends, and watch Dawson’s Creek. My admissions experience was quite a simple one because of the privilege I was afforded. So why am I concerned?

I am concerned for the mental health of our students. Do you know that the prefrontal cortex, responsible for decision making, planning, and judgement, starts developing at age twelve and isn’t fully formed until mid-late twenties? The excessive scheduling of sports, music lessons, and tutoring means either a still-functioning teenage brain has to manage that OR a parent steps in. When I was in high school, the “talk” was to find something you’re good at. I liked writing so I did that and I also liked helping people so I volunteered at the hospital after school. Now, it’s simply not good enough to have one thing you’re good at, you must have many. You must be popular but kind, athletic but well-rounded, make good grades but also volunteer and if you’ve already founded your own nonprofit or learned four languages then WOW! Is that picture that I just described really attainable? Where is there time in that picture for self-care? For the recommended 8-9 hours of sleep? For time to connect with friends and family that doesn’t involve a screen? 

I don’t know if you realize this but the competitive nature of college admissions means that students now associate asking for help with failure and struggling with a mental illness as a sign of weakness. When I missed school because I was sick, I’d call up my friend on her land line and asked her if I could I borrow the notes that I missed in class. During 11th grade, two of my closest friends tutored me in calculus because I was so confused. Do you think that same mentality happens now? Sometimes yes, but I think you would be shocked to hear that students don’t share their notes now because “tough luck that person was sick. They should’ve stuck it out like I did.” Can you imagine how it feels to be struggling with depression and feel totally alone because society tells you it’s a weakness? Don’t you think that everyone would benefit if there wasn’t this mentality of “taking away from me in order to give to someone else?” 

Not that you’ve asked but I’d love to offer you some possible essay topics for those applications of yours. 

·     What do you do for self-care?

·     What would you give up for someone else?

·     If a camera crew followed you around all day, would they see that you are the bully, the bullied, or a bystander? If you are a bystander, would they see you stand up for the kid who’s bullied or turn away and act as if nothing happened because it doesn’t affect you directly?

If you ever want to trade places for a day, give me a call. I think you’ll find the issues facing teens today very eye opening.

The Pressure of Being a College Athlete

Recently I read the book What Made Maddy Run by Kate Fagan that recounts the life and suicide of college athlete, Madison Holleran. I found it fascinating and couldn’t put the book down. Many of the comments that Maddy made throughout the book were reminiscent of what I’ve heard as a high school counselor- the pressure to perform, the allure of a name brand school, feeling trapped and unable to quit something that you don’t love doing anymore, etc. Reading this prompted me to dig deeper into research done specifically on perfectionism and college athletes.

Elison and Partridge (2012) published an article in the Journal of Sport Behavior that looked at the relationships of shame-coping, fear of failure, and perfectionism in college athletes. Their study found that female athletes tend to employ internalizing forms of shame coping (attacking self and withdrawal) more than males. One of the key highlights of this article for me was when the researchers said, “if shame is elicited by devaluation then shame and fear of failure can be lessened by reducing athletes’ perceptions that their shortcomings make them less worthy as a person” (2012). This got me to thinking how relatable that statement is to what I often see in terms of grades and personal value. Many students attach their self-worth to their grades. “If I get a B or a C, I am not a good person or unworthy” is often the negative self-talk going on inside their heads.

So how do we as parents and educators help? First, consider how you viewed your own success and failure? Did you tie your grades or success to your self-worth? If not, it’s important to share that with your child. You might say, “you know what I got lots of B’s or lots of C’s and while I might have wished they would’ve been A’s I also knew I tried my hardest.” You might also engage in a deeper discussion about personal values and how sometimes values aren’t measured by grades or trophies; they’re measured by how we treat people.

Know of a child or teen struggling with perfectionism or negative self-talk? I’d be happy to help!

Combatting Perfectionism

Let’s talk for a moment about perfectionism and the rise of perfectionism in our society today. What exactly is perfectionism? The simplest definition is the fear of making mistakes or the belief that making mistakes is unacceptable. Perfectionists also tend to be procrastinators- why is that you ask? Well if you have to make sure it’s perfect, then you might avoid the task altogether.

Having spent ten years in a school, I heard over and over again students who would re-write essays two, three times before turning it in because they had to make sure it was perfect. These students turned assignments in late because their first one or two attempts weren’t good enough. This example also demonstrates how perfectionists internalize feedback and how a grade less than an A signals a value judgement made about them. More often than not, if a perfectionist receives a “C” on an assignment, she’ll say “I’m not smart” or “I’ll never succeed” whereas a healthy response to receiving a “C” would say “I should ask my teacher where I could improve for the next time.”

What I’ve noticed over the years is that anxiety and perfectionism go hand in hand. A perfectionist has “what if” statements that control his mind. “What if I fail this class?” “What if I fail all my classes?” “What if I don’t graduate?” “What if I don’t get into college?” These thought processes create a spiraling effect where a student goes from fearing failing a test to that one test suddenly affecting the rest of his life.

So how can we as educators and parents help?

  • First, take a moment to notice in yourself if you are okay with making mistakes. When you make a mistake at home or at work, how do you handle it? Do you internalize it and allow it to make a value judgement? Model for yourself and for your children that making mistakes is okay. This is HARD work especially in a society that celebrates curated social media profiles and says, “Look everyone else is doing it so much better/easier/faster.”

  • Second, poke holes in the “all or nothing” thinking. If your child says, “if I fail this test I’ll never get into college,” poke holes in those fear statements. “I’m hearing you say that you are afraid this one test will affect your future and I’m wondering about the other assessments in your class that provide opportunities for you to show your knowledge in other ways.” You might also offer a moment of perspective taking and ask, “can you think of a time when you were afraid to take a risk? how did that work out for you?”

  • Third, adopt a growth mindset. Carol Dweck’s work talks about fixed versus growth mindset. What is a fixed mindset? Perfectionism is a fixed mindset. A growth mindset says, “this feedback will help me improve in the future” rather than “mistakes are to be feared.” Growth mindset encourages us to take feedback and apply it to what was presented/turned in versus internalizing feedback as a judgement on ourselves.

Interested in learning more about how changing thought patterns can affect perfectionism? I’d be happy to help!

Written by Kathleen Goodman

Written by Kathleen Goodman