Dawn Starley is an educational psychologist with experience in mental
health support work and forensic psychology experience. Her doctoral
research was on perfectionism and she has published an academic article
on this in Educational Psychology in Practice.
In this article she explores how to best deal with stressful situations and challenging
perfectionism. Read more about her book, Challenging Perfectionism here.

As I write this, schools have now fully reopened and colleagues are returning to face-to-face working with schools and families. I remain shielding for a little while longer to keep my daughter – who is clinically vulnerable – extra safe. It has been a long road, and a strange twelve months, to put it mildly. Education and mental wellbeing has undoubtedly been affected on a scale never before seen by generations. Many of our young people along with key adults in their lives have been significantly socially isolated, their ‘normality’ halted or even turned upside down, and sadly many have lost loved ones without the opportunity to have said goodbye or attend a funeral.

Some of these young people will have experienced perfectionism, some more so than ever and some for perhaps the first time in their lives. Perfectionism is a set of beliefs and related behaviours providing a person the illusion of some sense of control over their life, even if this results in a stressful way of being (perfectionism is linked with increased feelings of tension, stress, anxiety and low mood). When the outside world seems out of control, or the inner world (the person’s emotions, ideas and fantasies) become overwhelming and chaotic, perfectionism can be activated as a way to manage these. It is a coping skill of sorts, but not one that is healthy either in the short or long term as it is linked with a negative impact on relationships and health (both physical and mental). A global pandemic and significant changes to normality including a real threat of harm to loved ones and the self is a very good example of ‘out of control’ and why perfectionism may be triggered for many people at this time.

Those high in perfectionism may have experienced increased critical thoughts and controlling behaviour; the change from the ‘norm’ and all the frightening ‘unknowns’ or losses may have been so overwhelmingly stressful that their minds needed a way to manage this experience. However, some people high in perfectionism, based on the fact that life-changing experiences can often alter a person’s thinking for the better, or the person may have been removed from the environments triggering their perfectionism (e.g. education/social expectations), may have experienced some respite from their perfectionism. Whether the return to ‘a new normal’ will undo this good work is yet to be seen. The transition period is likely to be particularly challenging for many and those high in perfectionism may find this particularly so. We must take extra care to tune into our young people at this time as they may not necessarily be the ones showing obvious signs of ‘not coping’. There is a concerning correlation between perfectionism and suicide, due in no small part to the tendency of individuals high in perfectionism to strive to preserve a ‘flawless’ public persona in spite of unrelenting high levels of internalised distress, and the attention to detail likely to be involved in mentally preparing a suicide plan.

During lockdown I noticed many ‘perfectionist’-type thoughts creeping back in for me; I consider myself a ‘recovering perfectionist’ and have worked hard to replace some unhelpful ways of thinking with more ‘optimalist’ attitudes. Optimalism is a way of having high standards and feeling in control without the stress of self-criticism. It values excellence, beauty and achievement, but also places importance on the journey towards these things and ensures that in times of challenge, ‘failure’ and not reaching self-imposed (or perceived socially-prescribed) high standards, the person remains stable and ‘okay’; their self-esteem, skill-set and identity intact. Reflecting on my lockdown experience I am aware that there were considerable triggers for a need to control what was happening for me. This is not always easy to see at the time and our young people are likely to need extra support to recognise when they may be experiencing very understandable and typical stress responses, and to feel okay about this. What this year has reminded me of is the necessity to build in some of the ‘ABC’s of optimalism to our lives, particularly when things are beginning to feel stressful and less under our control, and to practice these regularly. Three that particularly stand out for me at this time are ACCEPTANCE, BALANCE, and COMPASSION.

  • Part of coping with stressful situations is to accept what we can and cannot change, to accept the things we do or do not have control over, and to accept the reality that things have changed and will likely never fully go back to how they were. Acceptance is a radical and powerful way to reduce our suffering in stressful times. ‘Naming’ what has happened, what is going on currently and what is likely to happen next can be a helpful way to begin the process of acceptance for our young people, by providing them with a healing and affirmative script.
  • Balancing work and family responsibilities has been challenging for many, and the need to build in ways to experience fresh air, exercise, social connection and self-care have been vital and prompted creativity and resourcefulness amongst many. We must now help our young people (and ourselves!) not race back into old ways of doing things which may have neglected some of these crucial areas for wellbeing.
  • Compassion; perhaps the most challenging of the ‘ABC’s for those high in perfectionism, refers to the need to be kind and understanding to ourselves. We must reflect on the messages we are giving ourselves and talk to ourselves as we would a friend or child, rather than being so very self-critical and judgemental. We can help young people develop this skill by modelling it to them, relentlessly, reliably and with the recognition that this is the foundation of true recovery from perfectionism.

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