Driving pupils to be perfect is damaging mental health

Today's pupils are constantly striving for perfection: academically, physically and on social media. It's leading to a clinical obsession, says Chris Ward

Chris Ward

Man with scissors snips at one blade of grass that's taller than the others

We are all aware that there are pressures throughout society to look perfect and achieve perfection. But the reality of the situation is far worse than most people realise. 

We have all seen children in classrooms, procrastinating for so long that they can’t complete (or even start) their task. They are so scared their work isn’t good enough that they can’t face handing it in. 

These children are on target with their grades in the classroom but stand alone at lunch break, too scared to interact with classmates. 

Others are top of the class, but believe their future happiness is purely about a ladder they need to climb.

Children are made to feel that they can achieve only through academic success. They are judged on trying to achieve perfection in their results and not by being real. 

Practice makes perfect,” they are told. It gets hardwired into their subconscious that this is how you achieve success: by being perfect.

And we’ve all read the depressing news stories about students who took their own lives, because – despite being at a top university, despite being in the top half a per cent globally – they still felt that nothing they did was ever good enough.

Driving children to achieve perfection

This is happening. It is happening everywhere. But still we drive children on to achieve perfection – not just in school, but through social media, in the adverts they see, and even in the messages they receive from their own parents and carers.

After 30 hours a week of demands to achieve grade A in every piece of work, children are exposed to YouTubers selling them products that can make them look and feel perfect. So many adverts promise that only by buying one specific product can consumers begin to feel perfectly human.

This feeling of inadequacy doesn’t just disappear when pupils grow up. It embeds itself into their heads and influences all their thinking and behaviour.

And it’s not just children. Teachers, too, are suffering anxiety and depression as they struggle to achieve the results demanded of them, simply in order to keep their jobs, let alone rewarded with a promotion. 

Anything less than perfect is a failure

We have created a society which demands perfection from us at every turn. Anything less is failure.

The incessant pressure for perfection from advertising, social media and schooling had to have a negative effect eventually. We can’t keep demanding more and more from children – and adults – without its affecting our mental health

Well, here it is. We have a mental-health epidemic of something almost no one has heard of: obsessive-compulsive personality disorder (OCPD), which is actually perfectionism by another name. 

And we are really obsessed. Clinically obsessed. We don’t feel loved unconditionally, and we believe that only by making aspects of our life perfect can we be fully loved.

Millions of people now reach adulthood feeling that they are not good enough, because it is now almost impossible for anyone to feel good enough. 

When you tell that child that their work is good enough, that getting 60 per cent is fine, they are unable to hear you. It’s like telling a clinically depressed person to cheer up.

In the words of the philosopher and author Alain de Botton: “The single greatest enemy of contemporary satisfaction maybe the belief in human perfectibility but we are encouraged to seek perfection in every single area of life.

"Such efforts are impossible and likely to result in more harm than good.” 

Traits of someone suffering from perfectionism or OCPD

  • Extreme attention to detail
  • Devoted to tasks at the expense of relationships
  • Believes their way is the only way and that everyone else is wrong
  • Believes nothing they do is ever good enough
  • Always distracted (by a task or worry in their head)
  • Procrastinates
  • Has an all-or-nothing mindset
  • Has no idea there could be anything wrong with the way they think or behave
  • Struggles to share emotions
  • Solitary in their hobbies

Meanwhile, a perfectionist feels:

  • Misunderstood
  • Constantly anxious about things going wrong
  • Disinclined to share concerns, so can become (unknowingly) depressed
  • Wants to prove other people wrong
  • Often conflicted or disordered in their relationship to food

A perfectionist can suffer from:

  • Depression
  • Eating disorders
  • Suicide ideation
  • Anxiety
  • Self-harm
  • Social-anxiety disorder and agoraphobia
  • Chronic-fatigue syndrome
  • Insomnia 
  • A desire to hoard

Reducing the pressure

I have spent the last three years researching what perfectionism really is, for my book Less Perfect, More Happy

As well as the book, I am trying to help reduce these pressures and lead the way to a society where the demand for perfection is felt less, and is less damaging to mental health. 

Supported by the NSPCC, MPs, champion sports players, wellbeing experts and charities, I have submitted an application asking the Advertising Standards Authority to consider creating a new ruling that marketing communications must not include subjective (unsubstantiated) claims that a product is “perfect” or suggest (by wording or imagery) that, by purchasing it, a consumer will achieve perfection in an activity, task or in their appearance.

Meanwhile, in schools and colleges, we can only deal with the symptoms and not the causes, desperately looking the budget to pay for counsellors for children – and, if the budget stretches, maybe for a few teachers too.

So, what can we do? How can we change this? If we were submitting a similar application to the government to achieve the same aims – of reducing the pressure on everybody to achieve perfection – what should it ask for?

Let me know, and I promise to bring it to the attention of the people who can make change happen.

Chris Ward is the author of Less Perfect, More Happy. He can be reached at: chris@bluedotworld.com, on Twitter @chriswardauthor, or via his website

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Chris Ward

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