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Adolescent Overachievers: Stress, Perfectionism, and Mental Health

There’s a lot of pressure on teenagers these days. Pressure from parents, pressure from society, and pressure from peers. Parents pressure teens to get good grades, get into college, or find a vocation suitable to their natural skills and talents. Society pressures teens to work hard, get ahead, and more and more, do something amazing like invent a crafty app and become a tech gazillionaire and retire before thirty. Peers pressure one another without always realizing it: obsessive, excessive social media posts of meticulously planned and staged “oh hi no makeup lol” force kids into thinking that even while relaxing and keeping it casual, they need to look hot, hip, and ready for the cover of a magazine.

Here’s a news flash: all that pressure can backfire, cause unnecessary stress, and lead to real mental health problems such as anxiety, depression, and a host of anxiety-related clinical disorders.

Perfectionism: The Real Culprit

There’s nothing wrong with being an overachiever. But the drive to achieve must be tempered by one simple fact: perfection does not exist. A person who spends their life chasing perfection is bound to be disappointed, because no one can win everything and no one can be perfect all the time.

There’s also nothing wrong with wanting to do something perfectly. The desire to get a perfect score on a test is a good thing. The desire(s) to play a perfect game of soccer, present a perfect science project, or produce a perfect short story or painting are all good things.

The downside happens when the impossible – perfection – doesn’t happen, and a teenager starts beating themselves up about it. Therefore, it’s not the drive for perfection or need to overachieve that causes problems. It’s how a teenager reacts to not being perfect and not being in the top one percent of the top once percent that causes issues. And here’s the thing: anxiety can creep in before, during, and after the task or goal in question.

Teens start to stress out that they won’t be perfect, and that drive mirrors almost perfectly (no pun intended) the symptoms of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). The obsession – perfection – causes the compulsion – studying or practicing twenty-five hours a day, eight days a week – which is supposed to alleviate worry and fear associated with failure. The problem is that perfection does not exist and no one is perfect. Therefore, the stress and anxiety is like a snowball rolling downhill. The expectation of failure is reinforced by actual failure (because perfection is impossible), which causes more stress over obsessions, which causes more compulsive behavior, which – well, the result is clear: disappointment, negative self-talk, and oftetn, some sort of clinical anxiety disorder.

The Types of Perfectionists

A recent study examined evidence from over a hundred fifty studies conducted across three decades that included data on over 40,000 American, Canadian, and British students. They identified three types of perfectionists:

  • Self-oriented perfectionists: perfection internally motivated.
  • Other-oriented perfectionists: an individual expects other people to be perfect.
  • Socially-prescribed perfectionists: perfection externally motivated.

The three types of perfectionists are associated with different categories of  internal and external outcomes:

  • Self-oriented perfectionists typically have higher levels of productivity, career success, and conscientiousness.
  • Other-oriented perfectionists may have difficulties delegating tasks to others. Also, others may perceive them as critical and/or judgmental.
  • Socially-prescribed perfectionists have increased risk of anxiety and depression. On a scary note, individuals most driven by external forces also show an elevated risk of future suicide attempts.

Researchers theorize that anxiety, depression, and increased risk of suicide attempts in socially-prescribed perfectionists happen because these individuals have difficulty putting setbacks, bumps in the road, and obstacles in perspective, which can cause them become anxious, depressed, or in extreme cases, take drastic measures to relieve the uncomfortable emotions associated with not living up to impossibly high expectations or achieving their lofty – and often out-of-reach – goals.

But there’s more to the perfectionism story.

The Types of Perfectionism

Research identifies two types of perfectionism within the three types of perfectionists: adaptive perfectionism and maladaptive perfectionism:

  • Adaptive perfectionism means the individual has their perfectionism under control. They tune their expectations to each situation, they have realistic standards for themselves, their self-esteem exists independent of their achievements, and they can see the subtleties in various circumstances, which means they avoid the extreme thinking – i.e. I’m all good or I’m all bad ­– that often accompanies perfectionism.
  • Maladaptive perfectionism means the individual lets their drive for perfection control their emotional well-being. They have unreasonably high standards for themselves. Their fear of failure often cripples them into inaction. They have a disproportionate fear of failure and their self-esteem depends almost entirely on being perfect. They have a tough time seeing subtlety or finding middle ground: if something they do is not perfect, then it’s a total failure. There’s no in-between.

Perspective is Everything

The desire to achieve, to perfect, and to be superior is not a bad thing at all. It drives many of the greatest accomplishments known to humankind. It’s something our culture celebrates every day. We give out awards for the best performers in virtually every area of endeavor. Best Actor, Best Song, Best Athlete. It’s not only pop culture and sports: it’s just as common in business. Top Sellers get awards in real estate, banking, and retail. Look on the wall at the grocery store and you’ll probably find a picture of their Employee of the Month. Schools do it, too. They give out awards for students who get the best grades, win academic and sports competitions, and do the most community service work.

Again, there’s nothing wrong with all that.

It’s natural and healthy to want to do well and succeed. It only causes a problem when the drive to achieve and be perfect interferes with personal stability and overall well-being. Especially in adolescents. They’re creating emotional and psychological templates for the rest of their lives. If those templates require total success at everything all the time, they’re setting themselves up for a rough road: while we shy away from making statements like this, we’re confident in stating that never happens for anyone.

Long-term happiness means understanding your worth as a human does not hinge on your GPA. Nor does it mean getting into an Ivy League school or winning state. It comes not from the outside, but from the inside. It comes from your family, your personal values, and how well you treat other people. Teenagers might not understand that, yet – many adults still don’t – but with time, and with perspective, they will.

Our Behavioral Health Content Team

We are an expert team of behavioral health professionals who are united in our commitment to adolescent recovery and well-being.

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