Starting a university is often a stressful time and can lead to perfectionist tendancies. If you 're a worried parent, here's how you can help.
Unmanageable to-do lists, working late into the night, an internal voice demanding success. These are all typical traits of a perfectionist student.
Myra Woolfson, of the University of Nottingham’s counselling service, says that perfectionists are often too overwhelmed by their own expectations to start work. “Perfectionism can lead to an almost complete withdrawal of study – and sometimes from everything else. It can involve procrastination until the deadline gets close,” she says.
“This behaviour is often not entirely conscious. One of the reasons for it is that the student can tell themselves that if they had worked harder or for longer, they might have achieved more.”
Many people spend their lives pursuing unattainable perfection. It’s a mission rooted in feelings of inferiority or the impact of bullying, says Woolfson. It could also be caused by a family that prioritises success and status or a school under pressure to deliver good grades. For self-confessed perfectionist Alice Lovatt, studying A-levels in Newcastle, it’s sibling rivalry: she wants to achieve at least as much as her sister.
“A perfectionist approach to studying is the only way I can succeed,” she says. “Errors mean failure, and failure means disappointment. Sometimes I worry that I need to learn how to fail and how to take to it better. If I was to suddenly suffer a slip in my standards it would come as a shock.”
The transition to higher education can be a turning point for perfectionists. Self-learning, independent living, a lack of structure, fewer and less obvious targets and more talented and competitive peers can all derail a student who has been used to excelling at school.
According to Alan Percy, head of counselling at the University of Oxford, perfectionism is “an increasingly insidious phenomenon” at UK universities. More students are taking smart drugs to get higher grades and universities are experiencing an increase in mental health problems. Meanwhile, the cost of tuition fees and living, along with the pressure to get jobs, can put strain on students.
Many parents want to help their children to deal with the pressures of university life, but it can feel like a thankless task. Percy explains why some perfectionists are difficult to help: they feel “constructive criticism is an unbearable personal attack”. Percy says they would “prefer to be constantly disappointed with themselves or others than to accept being mediocre”, and that university counsellors can help students understand that learning is about not knowing, struggling with new ideas and feeling confused, until new knowledge emerges.
Diane Thompson, a Newcastle-based civil servant, worries about her daughter Laura, whose “obsession with perfectionism” led her to cry uncontrollably and throw up before exams at school and university. “We felt so helpless. I too was a nervous wreck at the time of her exams,” says Thompson.
The pressure got too much for Laura during her second year of university, when she suffered badly from anxiety and panic attacks. “She obsessed about her work not being good enough. She would scrap work and have to start over, putting more pressure on herself to get it in on time,” says Thompson, who says she tried to remain supportive and not show her frustration.
It can be tempting to downplay a perfectionist’s concerns, but students say that this doesn’t always help. “When I’m told something’s not a big deal, it makes me question why I can’t cope with the tiniest thing, so it winds me up even more,” says Laura. She says she finds it helpful to break an issue down into manageable chunks.
Percy agrees that “chunking” is a useful strategy. He also says some statements that are meant to be comforting, such as “just do your best” or “I only want you to be happy”, can be interpreted badly by students with an all-or-nothing view in life.
Some anxiety is normal, but if it starts to affect sleep, appetite, concentration or mood, concerned parents could encourage students to see their GP or personal tutor, says Woolfson. She says perfectionism is unique to every person – and so are their ways of dealing with it. “Ask students what they would like from you. Do they want you to ring them up regularly, visit, or bring them home – or are they asking for space to sort it out in their own way?”
Woolfson tells students: “Remember: you are not your results. A degree classification is not a judgement of your merit or the guarantee of a terrific life. If you don’t do well, it doesn’t mean you won’t find interesting or satisfying work.”