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Perfectionism in Teens | How CBT Can Help

The end of the academic year may come with many stressors for teens, such as worries about final exams, standardized tests, and college acceptance. Dedicated studying and pride in one’s work are healthy and necessary behaviors for a successful academic career; however, when academic outcomes begin to define a teen’s self-worth and cause significant distress, this can lead to unhelpful perfectionistic behaviors.

Perfectionism occurs when a person’s self-esteem is overly dependent upon perceived success and outside praise, the standards of this success are nearly impossible to consitantly measure up to, which can cause challenges with self-esteem and increased levels of anxiety. For a teen in school, this could mean perfect grades on every assignment, peak performance in athletics, or the highest scores on a standardized test, such as the SAT. The process of attaining these goals often causes high levels of anxiety, and failure to achieve them may be devastating. A key component of perfectionism is that perceived achievement of perfection has a profound effect on a person’s self-esteem and self-worth. For example, a teen who does not get the grade she wanted on an assignment may interpret it as meaning that she is unintelligent or worthless. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy aims to address these unhelpful thought patterns, and help increase teens self-acceptance, and ability to tolerate shortcomings.

Pressure to attain perfection may come from a teen internally or be imagined from others. A teen may only accept themselves if they matches their own standards of excellence, or they may believe that their parents or friends require only the best from them. A teen may also experience significant distress if she/he feels she is “letting down” the people important to them, by being less than perfect. Perfectionism in teens may even extend to loved ones, as they may have unrealistic expectations about friends and family, feeling they must be the “perfect” friend, daughter, son, etc. They may constantly review and ruminate on perceived shortcomings in social interactions. Additionally, perfectionism can cause mental and behavioral inflexibility, further leading to feelings of self-doubt, anxiety, and depression.
Common unhelpful thinking patterns common to teens who suffer from perfectionism:

  • Black and white thinking. Teens may believe that their performance can either be perfect or a complete failure, with no space in between.
  • Mental biases. Perfectionist teens often view their past behavior much more negatively than it actually was, or they may focus on what they failed to achieve rather than understand the “big picture.”
  • Catastrophic thinking. Perceiving one mistake/shortcoming as a catastrophic event
  • All or Nothing Thinking. Teens may harbor perfectionist beliefs such as “I can only be successful if everything I do is perfect,” or “my performance determines my worth as a person.” These false beliefs will be a cause of stress in a teen’s life.
  • Double standards. Perfectionism can result in having stricter rules and standards for oneself than for others.

As a result of these problematic and anxiety inducing thought patterns, perfectionist teens will often experience / engage in the following: 

  • Test anxiety. Teens may be so concerned with achieving a perfect score on an exam that it will cause extreme distress while taking it, even to the point that it will interfere with their success on the exam.
  • Avoidance. Teens who suffer from perfectionism may avoid situations in which they believe they would not be able to perform perfectly, such as giving a presentation or engaging in an extracurricular.
  • Reassurance seeking. This can involve constantly asking someone their opinion about one’s performance and its effect on one’s worth.
  • Procrastination. There are some experts who believe that impossible standards for assignments can cause teens to put off doing them because they feel they cannot meet these standards. Procrastination becomes counterproductive and causes even more distress.

It is important to remember that striving toward goals is an important component to a teen’s successful academic career. However, when the pursuit of perfection begins to interfere with one’s self-worth and ability to cope, therapy may be helpful to manage anxiety and correct unhelpful beliefs and expectations. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is an effective form of treatment than can help teens who are suffering from perfectionism; CBT works to help problematic thinking and behaviors, helping teens tolerate shortcomings and increase healthy balance in their life.

Therapists at GroundWork Counseling in Orlando specialize in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and offer evidence-based treatment specifically suited for teenagers struggling with perfectionism and anxiety.


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