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'Perfectionism is dangerous – it damages students' mental health and restricts their learning'

Tes' mental health columnist asks: With relentless testing, social media scrutiny and the changing job market, is it any wonder we've seen a worrying rise in children aiming for perfection?

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Tes' mental health columnist asks: With relentless testing, social media scrutiny and the changing job market, is it any wonder we've seen a worrying rise in children aiming for perfection?

Last week, the University of Bath and York St John University published a study showing that perfectionism in young people has risen by more than a third over the past three decades, and attributing the phenomenon to "neoliberalism". Lead author Dr Thomas Curran said that he hoped schools, universities and policymakers would “resist the promotion of competitiveness at the expense of young people’s psychological health”.

I’m confident that a large proportion of education professionals share Dr Curran’s view. Those who do not have, in my experience, fundamentally misunderstood the nature of "perfectionism". For those people, what follows is my attempt to enlighten you.

Much like the irritating tendency for people who enjoy a tidy environment to declare that they are "a little bit OCD", "perfectionism" has a colloquial and somewhat misleading use. Most of us imagine that "perfectionists" are dedicated, passionate and dissatisfied unless they are sure they have given their absolute best to any project they’re working on. These are, arguably, character traits that should be encouraged in students.

In reality, being a perfectionist looks very different. I am a classic perfectionist and enlisted the help of a therapist to quiet the screaming inner critic, which can, if I’m not careful, dominate every waking moment.

I promise that the following is not boasting, but simply an attempt to convey a typical scenario.

I recently received an email informing me that 95 per cent of the 200 delegates at a conference I recently spoke at fed back that I was the best speaker at the event. My immediate response? "I wonder why 10 people didn’t like it? Maybe they hate me. Maybe they were all talking about me at lunch. Maybe they will tell other people I was rubbish..."

At this point I had to make a conscious effort to tell my narrative brain, the one that takes information from my experiencing brain and uses it to weave elaborate yarns based on nothing more than paranoia, to shut the hell up. If I do not do this, the sensations of inadequacy can spiral until they become physically painful (see Nigel the Throat Lump as described in previous columns).

I have been this way for as long as I can remember. Just this Christmas, my Mum was telling some family friends about how she "never had to remind" me to do my homework when I was at school. I was entirely self-motivated and often did more work than had been asked of me, to the extent that the first question teachers would ask my Mum at parents' evening was, "How have you done it?" Mum doesn’t, however, say this proudly. She has learned, correctly, to be concerned about this quality in me and even now will point out if she thinks I’ve become obsessed with my latest project and am not giving myself enough credit, rest or respite.

The fear of failure

Contrary to popular belief, perfectionism doesn’t necessarily make you perform any better. It can make you dwell on the past instead of learning and moving on. It can also prevent you from trying anything you aren’t completely assured you will be good at. Invisible and immeasurable are all the activities perfectionists won’t even attempt because failure is anathema to them. It can also lead to a fear of extending outside of one’s "comfort zone". When I was in Year 11, I remember being desperate to remain in steam "B" for maths, where I was one of the "best" in my class, and I came up with all kinds of inventive excuses when my teacher suggested I should be moved up to the top stream, where I would have been challenged more.

The solution, I have learned, is twofold. The first is to realise that the reason you are loved and valued has nothing to do with your objective achievements, or where you sit within an imagined hierarchy. I take care to spend time with friends who would list their favourite thing about me as my innate Tashness and nothing more. The second is to force yourself to partake of activities which you will never realistically excel at. One of mine is running. I enjoy it, it keeps me fit physically and is one of my mindfulness activities, but my times and distances are, frankly, embarrassing. That’s OK.  

In this context, the structure of the education system has, for at least as long as I was in it, encouraged perfectionism. It’s not that my individual teachers ever said or did anything to fuel this way of thinking, it was more the existence of factors such as dropping more and more subjects from Year 9 onward based on what I was "best" at, the existence of streams and the ferocious competitiveness of the Ucas process.

Today, ever more stringent testing regimes now extending into the primary and early years sectors, the existence of social media platforms in which every minor mistake is documented forever and the way the job market has changed mean it is little wonder we have seen a steep rise in perfectionism.  

Clearly, this isn’t a mission that can be undertaken by individual schools, but something that requires a fundamental change in the way society views and values individuals – it currently prioritises consumerist capitalism over wellbeing. Nothing short of a revolution can change the indoctrination of children into a mindset that conspires to convince them they are fundamentally lacking and can only "fix" this by consuming and achieving.

Natasha Devon MBE is the former government mental health champion. She is a writer and campaigner and visits an average of three schools per week all over the UK. She tweets @_natashadevon. Find out more about her work here

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