Back to school blues


Stu­dents are ready to get back to the books and one of the is­sues they could face is the sense that their work has to be per­fect.

As stu­dents pre­pare to go back to school, a clin­i­cal psy­chol­o­gist warns they should beware of the pit­falls of per­fec­tion­ism.

“I sup­pose that in some ways, Au­gust is the calm be­fore the aca­demic storm for per­fec­tion­ists,” said Dr. Si­mon Sherry, who has done ex­ten­sive re­search on per­fec­tion­ism in his post with Dal­housie Uni­ver­sity.

Sherry said the over­ar­ch­ing need to be per­fect can cre­ate a mul­ti­tude of aca­demic prob­lems for suf­fer­ers across a wide age range, from public school to med­i­cal school.

“Per­fec­tion­ism is as­so­ci­ated with a lot of an­tic­i­pa­tory anx­i­ety,” he said. “In other words, in ad­vance of events, per­fec­tion­ists are of­ten pro­foundly stressed by those events. They anx­iously an­tic­i­pate cat­a­strophic out­comes and this can be re­ally wor­ry­ing, re­ally stress­ing for the per­fec­tion­ist.”

Those stresses can lead to pro­cras­ti­na­tion, public speak­ing anx­i­ety, anx­i­ety about stats or math, fear of fail­ure, even fear of suc­cess.

“Stressed out hu­mans — be it stressed out in the aca­demic do­main or oth­er­wise — are vul­ner­a­ble to de­pres­sion, anx­i­ety, binge eat­ing and some of the other prob­lems we’ve men­tioned.”

Sherry de­scribed per­fec­tion­ism as a “core vul­ner­a­bil­ity,” a trait that can be part of what makes you what you are. Un­for­tu­nately, his re­search team has found that on the tragic side it can also lead to think­ing about and/or com­mit­ting sui­cide.

Sherry has been at Dal since 2007, in the depart­ment of psy­chol­ogy and neu­ro­science. While he is pri­mar­ily in­volved in re­search, he also is a prac­tis­ing clin­i­cal psy­chol­o­gist.

“With­out get­ting into the specifics of any one per­son’s dif­fi­cul­ties, I can tell you that ev­ery

Au­gust and Septem­ber my clin­i­cal time gets es­pe­cially busy and a lot of it has to do with per­fec­tion­ists strug­gling to ad­just to the stress and strain of re­turn­ing to school.”

School per­for­mance has a huge im­pact. Sherry said a per­fec­tion­ist uses aca­demic per­for­mance as a mea­sure of their self-worth. Added to that, they have crip­pling anx­i­ety over er­rors.

“It’s not the as­pi­ra­tions, it’s not the striv­ing that seems to put per­fec­tion­ists into dif­fi­culty, rather it’s the ex­treme fear over mak­ing a mis­take along the way. And it’s of­ten the in­tense crit­i­cism that fol­lows any­thing less than per­ceived per­fect per­for­mance.”

So how do you help or sup­port some­one who is bat­tling the prob­lem­atic as­pects of per­fec­tion­ism?

“This is a word of ad­vice not so much for stu­dents but rather for their par­ents. We know that parental con­trol and parental crit­i­cism are im­pli­cated in the de­vel­op­ment of per­fec­tion­ism.

“We’re talk­ing about par­ents who mi­cro­man­age what their chil­dren think, feel and do,” he

said. “A lot of par­ents can be harsh and hy­per­crit­i­cal and that tends, not sur­pris­ingly, to re­sult in kids that are more per­fec­tion­is­tic.

“So, any­one look­ing to help their child go back to school could cer­tainly help that kid by be­ing less con­trol­ling, less in­tru­sive, less hy­per­crit­i­cal.”

Sherry also said that par­ents and ed­u­ca­tors alike can help per­fec­tion­ists try to change their per­cep­tions, to see what they think of as mis­takes as learn­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties in­stead of catas­tro­phes.

Stu­dents should also be en­cour­aged to di­ver­sify their in­ter­est so that they don’t have such a nar­row fo­cus on academics. They could look at so­cial­iz­ing more, par­tic­i­pa­tion in sports, learn­ing to re­lax and en­joy­ing play time.

He also rec­om­mends some should “seek help from a well­cre­den­tialed pro­fes­sional who could help them with ad­just­ing to an aca­demic en­vi­ron­ment for the stress they may feel in that aca­demic en­vi­ron­ment.”

“Per­fec­tion­ism is some­thing that is a treat­able prob­lem.”


Dal­housie re­searcher Si­mon Sherry and a group of re­searchers have found, in a re­cent study, links be­tween per­fec­tion­ism and sui­cide.

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