By Jason McCormick, Psy.D.
As a neuropsychologist who has primarily focused on assessment of middle school, high school and college students, I have worked with many children, adolescents and young adults plagued with perfectionism. On the surface level, perfectionism is defined as a refusal to accept any standard short of perfection. Digging deeper, at the roots of perfection are fears of making mistakes, fears of being judged, and, ultimately, fears of being inadequate.
By definition, students with perfectionism hold impossibly high standards, which can severely undermine productivity and can lead to high levels of emotional distress. The adage, perfection is the enemy of the good, “perfectly” describes these students’ challenges. Students with perfectionism often run into “blank-screen syndrome,” presenting with such a harsh self-censor that they shoot down their own good ideas before they have a chance to develop them. Further, with the additional time needed to “gild the lily,” students often end up blowing past paper deadlines, thus undermining their grades.
Complicating treatment, many students – even those with recognition of their impossibly high standards – view a call to work on ameliorating their perfectionism as an intolerable directive to lower their standards or even as an affront to their intelligence and ability levels. Thus, despite the emotional distress and work production challenges perfectionism causes, many students with perfectionism present with insufficient motivation to change.
In response, treatment needs to begin with helping these students appreciate the negative impact perfectionism can have on their mental health, and, from a more mercenary standpoint, on their grades. Further, it will be important for these students to be able to broaden their definition of success beyond mere quality to include a balance of quality and efficiency. An A paper turned in two weeks late might earn a B, C or even (depending on the philosophy of the teacher or professor) a failing grade, due to its tardiness.
After securing some buy-in, work with a therapist or therapeutic tutor, with background in cognitive-behavioral therapy, is often needed to move the needle on perfectionism. More specifically, the use of exposure and response prevention (ERP) can be effective. Typically used to treat obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and phobias, ERP involves exposing an individual to their feared stimulus (e.g., heights, snakes and in this case sub-perfect work) and not allowing for the avoidant response (in this case, over-reviewing/over-thinking behaviors that are used to avoid the possibility of mistakes). For instance, an ERP assignment might involve a student setting a reasonable time limit to complete a given task and having the student pass in that work, no matter what final state it is in. Over time, such work can help a student progress toward their ultimate goal of producing “the good enough paper.”
To be clear, this progress does not happen overnight, and it can feel difficult and mentally painful. However, it is important work, as learning to strike a reasonable balance between quality and efficiency is a critical element of the “hidden curriculum,” needed for success in college and the workforce.
About the Author:
Dr. Jason McCormick is a senior clinician at NESCA, sees children, adolescents and young adults with a variety of presenting issues, including Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (AD/HD), dyslexia and non-verbal learning disability. He has expertise in Asperger’s Disorder and has volunteered at the Asperger’s Association of New England (AANE). Dr. McCormick mainly sees individuals ranging from age 10 through the college years, and he has a particular interest in the often difficult transition between high school and college. As part of his work with older students, Dr. McCormick is very familiar with the documentation requirements of standardized testing boards. He also holds an advisory and consultative role with a prestigious local university, assisting in the provision of appropriate academic accommodations to their students with learning disabilities and other issues complicating their education.
To book a consultation with Dr. McCormick or one of our many other expert neuropsychologists, complete NESCA’s online intake form.
Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents (NESCA) is a pediatric neuropsychology practice and integrative treatment center with offices in Newton, Massachusetts, Plainville, Massachusetts, and Londonderry, New Hampshire, serving clients from preschool through young adulthood and their families. For more information, please email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 617-658-9800.