Perfectionism: What it is and 5 ways mentors can help their mentees shake it

Written by Justin Preston

“Anything worth doing, is worth doing right,” according to Hunter S. Thompson, and many would be inclined to agree. What happens, though, when we cross the line between wanting to do something right and needing to do it perfectly?

Unfortunately, according to a new study perfectionism is on the rise. In a multinational sample spanning almost 30 years, “self-oriented perfectionism, socially prescribed perfectionism, and other-oriented perfectionism have…increased” say the authors. This means, according to the authors, that “recent generations of young people perceive that others are more demanding of them, are more demanding of others, and are more demanding of themselves.”

But what is perfectionism? Well, it is not focusing on doing things “the right way”, although that may seem like it is a part of it. Rather, perfectionism is defined as “a combination of excessively high personal standards and overly critical self-evaluations” (Curran and Hill, 2017).

You may find yourself asking why it’s such a bad thing to want to complete a task as perfectly as possible. For many youth experiencing perfectionism, their struggles often are glossed over by high levels of academic performance. Perfectionism, though, is more problematic than just wanting to do something perfectly. It is often characterized by a black-and-white catastrophic mode of thought. That is, either something is a perfect success or an abject and utter failure. It can lead to a never-ending chase to attain perfection in all things, whether that’s the youth’s academics, their relationships, or their body image.

This pursuit can have spillover effects to the point where a perfectionist may avoid even starting a task for fear of not doing it perfectly. This is one of the ways that perfectionism can lead to an intense fear of failure in any task. From a mental health perspective, researchers have found that perfectionism correlates with depression, anxiety, eating disorders and other mental health problems (for more on this, click here).

So perfectionism can quickly spiral out of control, which can have consequences for your mental and physical health, and your connections with your peers and family.

With perfectionism on the rise, it is increasingly likely that, as a mentor, your mentee may be struggling with perfectionism and its related effects. Fortunately, there are some concrete steps that you can work with your mentee on to help them overcome the challenges that a societal preoccupation with perfection can bring about in their lives. These are adapted from advice provided by Dr. Olivia Remes in a previous column in Psychology Today.

1. Help your mentee shift their focus to what they enjoy in relation to the task they are doing.

As Remes says, “Being afraid of failure and constantly worrying about the topic/task which you want to tackle puts you in a negative frame of mine, increases your stress, anxiety, and makes you less happy overall.”

You may catch your mentee describing a task they need to accomplish as impossibly hard to do perfectly, and their anxiety they experience at the prospect of “failing” (or being anything less than 100% perfect). When you encounter these sorts of thoughts or patterns of behavior, help your mentee to focus on specific aspects of the task that they personally enjoy or find meaningful. The facilitates the mentee’s shift away from a dire, negative mindset and lets them focus on the aspects of a task they can take some joy from.

2. Ask your mentee to make decisions, and help to hold them accountable in sticking to those decisions.

One of the hallmarks of perfectionism is a difficulty in even starting a project or task, with hours spent fixating on specific details of the task without any forward progress being made. That lack of progress just creates more stress and anxiety for your mentee, so help them to set clear goals with regards to the task at hand. For example, “Today I will work on getting source information for my paper.”

By setting goals and sticking to them, your mentee is going to gain self-confidence and a more measured approach to their schoolwork and other tasks. It helps to put them back in control of their lives and time. One important note, though: Make sure your mentee knows that it is okay if they aren’t able to accomplish 100% of their goal they set. Rather than being a failure, it’s an opportunity to better understand their work capacity and process.

3. Spend some time outside with your mentee.

Exercise has a number of positive benefits, and can be a great way of connecting with your mentee. Just being outside in nature has been shown to help boost an individual’s creativity levels and ability to problem-solve. What may seem insurmountable or impossible to untangle may be more surmountable after a walk outside.

4. Perfectionism can lead to procrastination. Teaching your mentee the Pomodoro technique may help.

As Remes says, to do the Pomodoro technique “Take all the tasks you have and break them down into steps/smaller tasks that you have to do. Then work on each one for 15 minutes. After 1 hour take a break. Repeat. Example: Task 1 – 15 minutes (no more, you have to stop then and switch to the next task); task 2 – 15 minutes; task 3 – 15 minutes; task 4 – 15 minutes. Take a break. Repeat. Use a stopwatch.”

As your mentee gets better at this process, you can add more time to each task (20 minutes on a task before switching to the next; then each task for 30 minutes, etc.). Doing this helps your mentee to train themselves to focus on specific tasks for a set amount of time, which can help them address tasks that they would otherwise put off until tomorrow.

5. Swap out social media for meditation.

While our cell phones, laptops, and other electronic devices may feel inescapable, try and have your mentee set their phone down and instead take some time to meditate. If this is something you may not be as familiar with, here is a starter guide on meditation and mindfulness from the New York Times. Being mindful can help to keep your mentee centered in the present and more ready to focus on the tasks in front of them, whereas checking social media or browsing across websites serves to scatter their attention. Getting back up to speed to focus on a task can take time and effort, and your mentee can end up trapped in a loop of procrastination and task avoidance.

 

Perfectionism can have devastating consequences for youth, but with a mentor’s support and, critically important, opportunities to practice these skills, it is possible to help mentees find a healthier life balance before they get caught up in the perfectionism trap.

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