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.