Perfectionism and well-being among youth the focus of free public event

The pandemic has inspired many people to take up a new hobby, but for people with perfectionist tendencies, these new endeavours aren’t just a pastime.

“Young perfectionists feel the need to be productive, so they’re putting this pressure on themselves,” says Danielle Sirianni Molnar, perfectionism researcher and Associate Professor in Brock’s Department of Child and Youth Studies. “It’s not just that they want to bake a cake — it’s that they need to be a world-class baker.”

Molnar, along with first-year Child and Youth Studies master’s student Melissa Blackburn (BA ’19) and Research Associate Tabitha Methot-Jones (BA ’11, MA ’15, PhD ’19) from the Developmental Processes in Health and Well-being Lab, will share recent findings and offer tips for coping in “Perfectionism and youth well-being,” a free public webinar hosted by the Institute for Lifespan Development Research Thursday, March 11 from 6 to 7 p.m.

Their talk will cover why so many youths feel pressured to be perfect, how young perfectionists are experiencing the pandemic and how teachers, educators and youth-focused practitioners can support youth who are struggling with perfectionism.

Perfectionism is a struggle, even if caregivers aren’t always aware of it, Molnar says.

“People higher in perfectionism tend to be really high in what we call ‘perfectionistic self-presentation.’ They’re the master of wearing masks,” says Molnar. “These particular individuals, especially the extreme perfectionists, always need to act like everything’s OK.”

The researchers say young perfectionists can think it is a weakness to show they’re having a hard time or to ask for help, which means caregivers have to be vigilant, especially in a challenging time like the current pandemic.

School can be an area of particular concern, especially for students in transition years preparing to move on to the next level of their education. Molnar says clearer messaging is needed about how the pandemic will be accounted for when it comes to things like assessing applications for university.

Dawn Zinga, Professor of Child and Youth Studies and collaborator on this research, points out that young people who identify as perfectionists don’t cut themselves slack for the fact that online learning during a global crisis isn’t something anyone expected or chose to be doing.

“Even though the circumstance is unusual — if you’re learning biology without a biology lab, you have to expect that things are going to be a bit different — perfectionists don’t accept that they don’t need to excel anyway,” says Zinga. “They can see the logic, but it doesn’t necessarily change their behaviour or the feelings that go with it.”

Methot-Jones says teachers have an important role to play in “treading a line” between encouraging students to do their best and supporting students with perfectionistic tendencies who may not be able to set healthy limits for themselves.

“Youth are telling us they keep going back to their projects and fidgeting with them, playing with them, trying to make them better,” says Methot-Jones. “It causes anxiety, and they feel a need to keep coming back to it because they want their teacher to tell them they’re doing well.”

Blackburn agrees educators should keep an eye out for opportunities to help young perfectionists learn to prioritize their own well-being over positive feedback.

“Young people are aware that their perfectionism is causing them stress and anxiety, but their success in evaluative components is more important to them, so they say they wouldn’t get rid of their perfectionism even if they could,” says Blackburn. “It’s important for teachers or coaches — the people who are making those evaluations — to tell them that sometimes their own well-being is worth more than the evaluation.”

Blackburn says she would like more people to understand that there are effective ways of coping with perfectionistic tendencies.

“Having strategies to help deal with perfectionism doesn’t impact levels of success,” she says. “It might even help improve them, because sometimes a person’s perfectionism can get in their way.”

Zinga takes this idea a step further.

“People often believe they succeed to the level they do because of their perfectionism, when research is showing they succeed to that level despite their perfectionism,” she says.

Methot-Jones says the notion that perfectionism can be a positive trait doesn’t account for its potential negative impacts.

“This misconstrual of perfectionism being a good thing is even prominent among perfectionists. Although it does motivate you and it can force you to do your best, it’s also associated with so many negative outcomes like depression and anxiety,” she says. “It seems on the surface to be a positive quality, but it does cause a lot of damage for individuals who are perfectionistic.”

Molnar, who describes perfectionism as “an evil form of self-sabotage,” concurs that the costs of perfectionism far outweigh any benefits.

“Perfectionism often impedes performance more than enhances it, and it strips people of joy by not allowing them to appreciate their successes and the positives of a performance or experience because they are weighed down and ultra-focused on what is not perfect instead,” says Molnar. “It can also steal opportunities from people by keeping them paralyzed with fear because they are afraid of not doing things perfectly the first time.”

Everyone is welcome to attend “Perfectionism and Youth Well-being.” Those interested in joining are asked to please register online to access login details.

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