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In reality, nothing is more unattainable than perfection. Jessica, a former Blue Stars student, learned this lesson last spring when planning her passion project to gain distinction in admissions. Jessica wanted to combine her interest in art with community service involving underserved youth. A bright, creative student with a busy extracurricular schedule and solid grades, Jessica made little progress on her project because, in her opinion, her ideas were never good enough to move forward. While Jessica excelled at school where assignments were structured, she felt stuck in this new, more-open-ended arena.

Severe self-criticism can be debilitating, and this can be especially true for college-bound teens like Jessica. But it can be overcome.

stressed teen

First, it’s important to note some critical signs. Students with a tendency towards perfectionism might have unrealistically high standards and a heightened sensitivity to mistakes or flaws, often catastrophizing mistakes as failure. This rigid all-or-nothing thinking can lead to  feelings of shame when their work is perceived as even slightly less than perfect.

Luckily, Jessica was able to work through her problem with the Blue Stars team and, of course, her parents. Curbing perfectionist thinking takes time, practice and encouragement.

“Parents can help temper perfectionist tendencies by bringing ‘perfectionist thinking’ out into the open, helping an adolescent regain perspective and learn to accept their limitations,” says Dr. Gordon L. Flett PhD, co-author with Professor Paul L. Hewitt of “Perfectionism in Childhood and Adolescence: A Developmental Approach.” Young people need to hear that it is typical and normal to feel distress from time to time, that negative emotions are a normal part of life and not a sign of personal defect.

Here are a few suggestions that helped Jessica recognize and adjust the perfectionist tendencies getting in her way.

Most essential was to make major changes to her internal dialogue, clearing out the negativity blocking the flow of good ideas. Jessica also created a checklist identifying each step needed to accomplish her goals.  Here are some additional tips that all students can take to avoid the perfectionist trap and get great work done:

  1. Avoid “black or white” thinking. One mistake does not ruin the achievability of a goal. Seek progress, not perfection.
  2. Notice the internal monologue, especially repetitive negative thought patterns. Are students constantly thinking of what they “should” or “must,” accomplish? Do they put themselves down? How can they reframe or reject these negative thoughts?
  3. Identify an activity or hobby that perfectionism has caused the student to avoid. Engage in it energetically. Learn from mistakes and failures. Stick with it, and get better over time.
  4. Create checklists. This helps by breaking down complex projects into manageable tasks. It’s therapeutic to cross off a small task and then move on to the next without hesitation.
  5. Remember: perfection is subjective. Learn to envision your desired outcome not as an ideal form but as the best that you’re capable of producing at this moment.
  6. Find role models who have “failed” at some point but persisted.

art studentsThrough engaging with the steps above, students can set themselves free from the need to attain the unattainable. They can instead focus on the enjoyment that comes from doing their best and moving forward. When Jessica accepted the goal of progress rather than perfection, she was able to give herself the space to try, confront challenges and, most important to learn. Jessica launched “Garage Art,” an art workshop that she ran out of her family’s garage. Her students came from various parts of the city, many of whom had never been exposed to art. Through Jessica, these kids found a hobby and some found a passion; they all gained confidence because Jessica passed along the concept of “progress, not perfection.”

These days the life of a teen is built around striving to build the perfect college resume, attaining the highest test scores, finding ways to earn grades far beyond the basic 4.0 GPA. Teens are balancing sports, extracurricular activities and community service obligations. The more we can all encourage balance in our teens, the more they will grow into thriving adults well beyond college.

At Blue Stars, we value having these important conversations with our teens (and their parents) as they navigate the complicated and often pressure-filled path of preparing for college. Setting realistic, attainable SMART goals while maintaining balance and confidence, is a key part of our College Planning process. Get started with a Blue Stars counselor today!

Works Cited: Flett, Dr. Gordon L and Hewitt, Paul L. Perfectionism in Childhood and Adolescence: A Developmental Approach Paperback, American Psychological Association, 2022

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About the Author: Amy Morgenstern

Dr. Amy Morgenstern, affectionately known as Dr. M, is the founder and CEO of Blue Stars Admissions Consulting. She holds a Ph.D. in philosophy and an MFA in contemporary art. A former professor of philosophy, honors program associate director, and assistant to the director of the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture, Dr. M brings a wealth of academic and multicultural experience to her practice.

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