Sheila Achar Josephs, PhD is a licensed psychologist in Princeton, New Jersey and the author of Helping Your Anxious Teen: Positive Parenting Strategies to Help Your Teen Beat Anxiety, Stress, and Worry. She specializes in state-of-the-art cognitive-behavioral therapy for anxiety and OCD in children, adolescents and adults. www.princetoncognitivetherapy.com
Perfectionistic teens are on a mission to demonstrate perfection in everything that they do. This coping style, though, often results in debilitating anxiety. Such teens constantly fear making even the smallest of mistakes, fearing that this signifies failure and worthlessness. How can we help anxious teens reduce their unhealthy perfectionism?
Highlight the Downsides of Perfectionism
The myth of perfectionism is that it will lead to spectacular success. However, the hard truth is that perfectionism often gets in the way of task performance. Encourage perfectionistic teens to analyze the way that their perfectionistic behavior harms rather than helps:
* Does it make it hard to finish school assignments on time because nothing is ever good enough?
* Does it trigger test anxiety, which disrupts performance?
* Does it cause avoidance of situations for fear of making a mistake?
* Does it prevent one from trying new challenges to avoid the risk of failure?
Shining a light on the way perfectionism specifically hurts them will help foster a willingness towards trying something new.
Encourage Positive Striving Versus Perfectionism
Perfectionists often set unrealistically high standards for themselves and tie all results to their intrinsic self-worth. In contrast, what I call “positive strivers” set realistic goals, enjoy challenging themselves and see mistakes as task-specific rather than as a blow to their self-esteem. Practicing this new approach to success means making sure goals are doable, changing the level of effort depending upon the importance of the task and finding satisfaction in the process of doing a task, not just in perfect outcomes.
Help Your Teen Challenge Perfectionistic Thoughts
Perfectionism tends to trigger a great deal of irrational thinking, which in turn serves to increase anxiety. The hallmark of perfectionism is “black and white thinking” – the tendency to see things as all good or bad, perfect or a failure. Perfectionists will often dismiss positive facts about their performance and catastrophize, fearing that small mistakes will result in disaster. To change such irrational thinking, use targeted questions to challenge specific thoughts. For example, to modify the view that one’s performance is a failure, ask, “What are some ways that your performance was not all bad?” Nudging a perfectionist to challenge their own irrational thoughts will help them develop more realistic thinking over time. The bonus in this strategy is that teens are much more likely to respond to this approach rather than when told not to think a certain way.
Encourage the Practice of Non-Perfectionistic Behavior
Challenging irrational thoughts is a powerful way to reduce perfectionism, however, it is often not enough. This is because perfectionists follow a rigid set of rules about how to behave and believe that deviating from such rules will result in disaster. So, to truly modify perfectionism, encourage a gradual change in perfectionistic behavior. This will initially result in higher anxiety, but over time will decrease both anxiety as well as perfectionism. For example, if a teen revises work excessively, encourage a gradual decrease in the revisions to an acceptable level. When perfectionists repeatedly practice less perfectionistic behavior they become more tolerant of imperfections. Along the way, they also notice that imperfect performances don’t result in disaster.
Acknowledge and Support Efforts to Be Non-Perfectionistic
The competitiveness of the school environment along with parental pressure to succeed can be a good recipe for perfectionism. To combat this, make an effort to acknowledge positive efforts even if the outcome is not as desired. As well, encourage the right level of effort for the right task. A powerful way to instill this learning is to model this behavior directly. Demonstrate how you choose to put less effort into some tasks and do not see your imperfections or mistakes as a sign of a character defect.
Remember that high-achieving teens may feel periodically anxious, however, chronic anxiety about performance is a red flag for perfectionism. Perfectionistic teens are at risk to become perfectionistic adults, so there is no time like the present to intervene and foster a healthier, happier future.