I am definitely a ‘type A’ personality; growing up, perfectionism was a trait I had early on. Trying to be the smartest in my class started when I was in kindergarten. My mom still has a picture of me at age 5 with my first student of the month award. I’m not sure why I tried so hard to be perfect; maybe it was being the first born that drove me to dread disappointing my parents or maybe it was just my temperament. My parents had expectations that I would be courteous and obey rules at school as well as finish my homework on time, but never did they tell me I needed to be number one. That was something I came up with all on my own.
Perfectionism may not sound like such a terrible trait. When we hear that term, we think of people who are smart and successful, but as I work with teens more and more, I’ve noticed that perfectionism is not without some downsides. Those teens who strive to be ‘perfect’ may naturally be the most intelligent or the best athletes, but often they are overextending themselves with homework and advanced placement courses or extracurricular activities at the expense of sleep and friendships.
I have known teens who are addicted to caffeine and other stimulants in order to stay awake to study for classes because they spent the entire afternoon and evening participating in 3 separate sports (all during the same season). The desire to be the ‘perfect’ student can extend into the desire to have the ‘perfect’ body as well. This can lead to over exercising, under eating, and use of diet pills, laxatives, or vomiting in order to lose weight. These behaviors can lead to eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia that can have serious health consequences, including hospitals stays and even death.
Perfectionism may also mean that a teen does not learn how to accept criticism or learn what to do if they fail a task. This lack of coping mechanisms may lead to depression, feelings of helplessness, or even suicidal thoughts. My own experience included developing the somatic complaint of chronic abdominal pain as a 4th grader because I was stressed over school work. Fortunately, my parents told me often that they loved me no matter what. That included unconditional love regardless of whether or not I received an A- or an A+in social studies. What mattered to them was that I gave my best effort, asked for help if I needed it, and remained a happy child. When I did not live up to my own expectations, they did not see that as a failure, but as an opportunity to learn or try something different. As I became a teen, I did not skip out on taking difficult courses (yes, I took calculus and my fair share of college level courses in high school), but I was able to accept not being number one. As a teen, having friends and a social life was balanced with school work mainly due to my parents good communication about their expectations of me, communication about my value to them, and the flexibility they had with me choosing the interests I wanted to pursue.
So emerging into adulthood I remained a bit of a ‘type A’ personality (that was required to go through medical school, residency, fellowship, and graduate school), but being a good student did not come at the expense of my happiness and learning to be ok with a few mistakes along the way.