I Want To Be Perfect. What’s Wrong With That?
What is Maladaptive Perfectionism (MP)?
Most kids want to do well. There is nothing wrong with having high standards and wanting to be the best you can be. In fact, research shows us that having a small degree of anxiety before preparing for some type of event or performance, or schoolwork, can actually help us perform better on the task. The problem comes when the desire to be “perfect” all the time creates so much anxiety that we begin to be held back or start to feel bad about ourselves. In the school setting, this is often showcased with children and adolescents who do not hand in assignments because they never reach a “perfect” standard. Or in those that stay up all night in preparation for exams or in anticipation of tasks. We know that when anxiety gets to this level that our brains are not actually in the best place they can be for learning and feeling good. Perfectionism at this level is what we call maladaptive. This means that we are not being as healthy as we can be in our environment.
Importance of Noticing Maladaptive Perfectionism in the School Setting
Maladaptive Perfectionism in the school setting is particularly tricky as the behaviours of MP are not often flagged as problematic. In other words, individuals who are troubled with MP often display behaviours that are highly desired and looked well upon in our society. For example, putting in a lot of work for an assignment, or doing well on an exam, are not typically the kind of behaviours that a teacher or a parent would automatically notice as a “problem.” Unfortunately, what may not be noticed is that this individual spent a lot of time worrying about handing in their work, possibly made several versions of it (or avoided handing it in altogether), lost sleep, and, in some cases, may be beginning to feel bad about themselves. These types of thoughts and behaviours are not good for us for many reasons. Here are some of the biggest reasons that the research tells us:
- When we work this hard, we know that we are more likely to “burn-out” in our school-work.
- We also know that it begins to make us want to avoid or “give-up” on our school-work.
- Perhaps most importantly, it starts to make us feel really bad about ourselves. We know that for some individuals, they are at a higher risk of developing many psychological concerns, including anxiety and depression.
- You may be surprised to know that MP also puts adolescents at higher risk of suicide.
Why Does Maladaptive Perfectionism Occur?
Most researchers believe that MP develops because of unhelpful thoughts that have begun to occur in our brains. Without wanting to, we may start to believe things that are untrue. For example, we might think that there is only one way to look at something (without thinking about other possibilities). Or, we might start to blame ourselves for everything that is going wrong. We might also start to think that if something bad happens in one situation, that it is going to be bad in ALL situations. We call these “unhelpful” thoughts because they are untrue, and they do not make us feel good. Unfortunately, the more we have these thoughts, the more likely we are to give in to them, and the more likely we are to trick ourselves into thinking that they are true. This reinforces our beliefs (or makes them stronger), and they then can become automatic in our brain. This can make them really hard to get rid of.
Maladaptive Perfectionism in Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and Learning Disabilities (LD)
While research is less developed in the area specific to MP in ADHD and LD, individuals with these diagnoses can most certainly be impacted by perfectionism. In fact, since these disabilities often involve weaker executive functioning abilities (i.e., our “brain boss” in charge of planning, organization, memory, starting and/or finishing tasks, as well as managing our emotions etc.), it can be particularly challenging. One area in which perfectionism tends to show up for children and adolescents who have ADHD is in their written expression work. These individuals may have even more challenges with getting “stuck” on their work due to the difficulty in being able to shift, initiate and/or plan their writing. Executive functions are also in charge of managing our emotional control. If we are focused on needing to do something “just the right way”, we can become frustrated. Since children and adolescents with ADHD and LD often have difficulty managing their emotions, this feeling may be particularly intense.
How can I get help with Maladaptive Perfectionism?
The great news is that research keeps showing us that we are able to re-train our brains and start to get rid of those “unhelpful thoughts”! Right now, most researchers agree that the best way to do this is a type of therapy called Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). Psychologists can work with individuals to challenge some of these false beliefs and unhelpful thinking styles. This is typically done one-on-one, over about 8-16 sessions. The initial stages would be first to identify various anxious feelings and unrealistic expectations, followed by developing healthy coping strategies, and finally practicing being exposed to situations that create anxiety (to ultimately become more aware and comfortable in these situations). Having parents involved in this process can be particularly important for MP. Although parents usually have the best intentions, sometimes different parenting styles can contribute to the problem (i.e., over-controlling or demanding parenting). Thus, having the family involved can help everyone understand and work together to support goals. This process will not be the same for everyone, as we all have different reasons for feeling the way we do.
Given the rise of perfectionism in young people and associated negative mental health concerns attached to Maladaptive Perfectionism, it is useful for parents, teachers, educational assistants and administrators to be aware of possible warning signs of its development. These signs can include a fear of failure, procrastination, avoidance of their school work, all-or-none thinking and/or unrealistic expectations.
- Anxiety Canada - Overcoming Perfectionism
- Understood.org – Understanding ADHD and Perfectionism
- Book: What to Do When Good Enough Isn't Good Enough: The Real Deal on Perfectionism by Thomas S., Ph.D. Greenspon (Free Spirit Publishing)
- “Why Children with Learning Challenges Struggle with Perfectionism”