Understanding Perfectionism At School: What Else Is Going On?


It’s okay for young people to want to do well at school, whether that’s in exams, sports, or other activities. Setting high targets can be motivating and help some adolescents to realise their potential.

But when standards become exceedingly high, it can start to affect a young person’s well-being – particularly if they tend to focus on their mistakes and are self-critical when standards are not met. Perfectionism is a risk factor for eating disorders and can help maintain anxiety, depression, and OCD. 

Perfectionism at school can sometimes be a clue that a young person is facing other mental health challenges. This blog explores what perfectionism is, why it develops, and how it can affect young people’s mental health. It also touches on how therapy can treat and address perfectionism to help young people recover and thrive. 

What Is Perfectionism?

Perfectionism isn’t an easy concept to define. Most experts think that there are several different concepts within perfectionism that may come together or separately.

Some different dimensions of perfectionism include:

  • Self-orientated perfectionism, when someone sets themself exceedingly high standards for achievements and is self-critical for not achieving them
  • Socially-prescribed perfectionism, when someone perceives pressure or expectations from other people to be perfect
  • Personal standards, when someone sets high personal standards
  • Concern over mistakes, when someone focuses on their mistakes and is very self-critical when standards aren’t met

Sometimes, young people are perfectionists about a few specific aspects of their lives, while others may set perfectionist standards in almost everything they do. These might include school work, organization and tidiness, extracurricular activities, appearance, and social interactions.

Recognising Perfectionism

Some of the signs of perfectionism in a young person include:

  • Struggling to cope with making mistakes
  • Feeling like a failure unless they meet their expectations
  • Focusing on imperfections and short-comings rather than strengths
  • Being driven by a fear of failure
  • Focusing more on results than on processes, learning, or other parts of an experience
  • Procrastinating to avoid trying or doing something because they are worried they won’t meet their standards
  • Responding defensively to constructive criticism
  • Excessively checking assignments or tasks

School and academics are often some of the settings where perfectionist traits are most obvious. You might notice that a young person becomes upset, angry, or frustrated over small mistakes in tests or classwork despite doing well overall. They might also obsess over small details in their work, sometimes causing them to miss deadlines or not hand it in at all.

Perfectionism in school is often one part of broader perfectionist traits and can have a big impact on a young person’s life. When a young person is a perfectionist about school work, it can be a clue that they’re facing other challenges, including mental health problems. If you notice a young person is a perfectionist at school, it’s important to be attentive to other aspects of their well-being, too.

Perfectionism and Mental Health Concerns

Perfectionist traits are linked to several mental health symptoms and disorders. Research suggests that perfectionism is a risk factor for eating disorders and can help to maintain anxiety, depression, and OCD. 

Moreover, people with mental health disorders tend to have more perfectionist traits than those who don’t.

Eating Disorders and Perfectionism

Young people with eating disorders often have perfectionist traits. These traits can interact with other attitudes and behaviours to cause and maintain disordered eating behaviours.

Eating disorders, including anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorders, usually share an underlying pathology of an over-evaluation of shape or weight. Young people may place a lot of their self-value on their body shape or weight against their perceived ‘ideal’. This ideal is typically a specific, unrealistic standard influenced by media and social norms around beauty or, more recently, health and fitness.

Teenagers with perfectionist traits who share these thinking patterns may find it especially difficult if they perceive their bodies to be different from their ideal. They may struggle with intense feelings of failure and low self-worth. These feelings can drive disordered eating behaviours such as diet restriction, binge eating, and excessive exercise that continue despite serious negative effects for their health and well-being.

Research shows that people with anorexia and bulimia have significantly higher levels of perfectionism than those without eating disorders. Levels of perfectionism also predict the development of bulimia symptoms among female students. 

Both the ‘concern over mistakes’ and ‘high personal standards’ dimensions of perfectionism are linked to eating disorders.

Anxiety and Perfectionist Traits

Perfectionism is also associated with increased anxiety and anxiety disorders. Teenagers who have perfectionist traits may experience distress and worry about not achieving their standards. Sometimes, this anxiety can cause them to avoid situations that involve these standards completely.

Experts also think that perfectionism can cause young people to experience social anxiety, especially if they tend to be anxious around other people anyway. Perfectionism makes teenagers focus on their ‘imperfections’ and mistakes, sometimes relating to social skills and social interactions. Teenagers with socially-prescribed perfectionism also feel that other people have exceedingly high expectations of them.

These thoughts can cause young people to have negative experiences and expectations of social interactions, where they may feel like they act in a way that causes others to judge them. They may avoid social situations because they are afraid to say or do something ‘wrong’, making it more difficult to form and maintain friendships.

Depression and Perfectionism

Research shows that people with depression are more likely to have certain perfectionist traits. Perfectionist ‘concern over mistakes’ (when someone is highly self-critical and experiences distress over small mistakes) is linked to depressive symptoms, including major depressive disorder and bipolar. 

One study found that among college students, young people with academic perfectionism tended to have worse psychological well-being overall.

Perfectionism may maintain depression in many different ways. It can cause low self-esteem and self-criticism, reinforcing negative and distressing thought patterns. It may also cause young people to doubt their ability to recover from depression. 

Perfectionism can make teenagers feel worthless because of perceived ‘imperfections’, despite their many assets and strengths. In some cases, this can lead to suicidal thoughts and behaviours and self-harm.

For young people with depression and perfectionism, accessing professional support is the most important step to recovery. With the right treatment, teenagers can change perfectionist thinking patterns to more positive ones and improve their self-worth, mood, and well-being.

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)

Teenagers with OCD experience repeated obsessions – unwanted and unpleasant thoughts that cause anxiety and distress. OCD obsessions are often related to tidiness, order, and mistakes. For example, a teenager with OCD may repeatedly check that they have not made mistakes in a calculation in school or feel distressed when a desk is not tidy.

These kinds of obsessions are closely linked to perfectionist thinking, causing distress and anxiety when things are not perfect. In fact, some experts think that perfectionism is one of the key cognitive factors in OCD. It’s also been connected to the treatment and recovery process.

Why Does Perfectionism Develop?

There are several different factors that might contribute to perfectionism. High expectations from family members or wider society may cause teenagers to place perfectionist standards on themselves. Teenagers may internalise criticism from others to become overly self-critical of their own mistakes.

Perfectionism can also develop from excessive praise of young people’s achievements. This kind of praise can cause teenagers to predominately value themselves on their achievements rather than realising their value as a whole person and the multiple parts of their identity.

Treating Perfectionism in Teens

Perfectionist traits may contribute to several different mental health disorders, including anxiety, eating disorders, and depression. However, treating perfectionism is possible, helping to prevent mental health disorders from developing and supporting the recovery process. 

Interventions for perfectionism usually involve behavioural therapy, such as cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT). In CBT sessions, young people work with a therapist to identify unhelpful thinking patterns and replace them with more positive ones. This might include learning coping mechanisms for making mistakes and changing their own personal standards. It can also involve interrupting thoughts of self-criticism and creating narratives of self-worth.

Understanding perfectionism in teens can help to identify young people who are facing mental health challenges and get them the support they need. Addressing perfectionism early can also help to protect against mental health symptoms and support young people in maintaining psychological and physical well-being.

The Wave Clinic: A Private Treatment and Education Space for Young People

The Wave Clinic is a dedicated treatment space for young people. We aim to change the way a generation experiences treatment, adding to the lives of teenagers and young adults without taking anything away.

Our world-leading programs combine exceptional clinical care with education, experiences, and community responsibility. We give young people the space to learn, explore, and build their identities.

Our trauma-focused programs are led and implemented by experts from around the world who specialise in child and adolescent mental health. We make sure young people receive the best treatment for their needs as they plan and build their futures.

If you’re interested in finding out more about our programs, get in touch today. We’re here.

Fiona - The Wave Clinic

Fiona Yassin is the founder and clinical director at The Wave Clinic. She is a U.K. and International registered Psychotherapist and Accredited Clinical Supervisor (U.K. and UNCG).

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