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Academic Perfectionism: Staying Healthy While Striving for Excellence


In today’s highly competitive academic world, striving for excellence is encouraged and rewarded.


Young Asian elementary school boy taking an exam in a classroomm

Students as early as elementary school face pressure to achieve the best of the best in terms of grades and academic achievement to boost their college applications. While the pursuit of perfection is admirable and will land a small percentage of students in the top, it often comes at a price and can be counterproductive to performance, especially when it begins to disrupt sleep, focus, self-esteem, and overall mental health.

 

In my work with students in highly competitive public and independent school environments, I’ve found the following points to be helpful in drawing the important distinction between healthy commitment to greatness and counterproductive, harmful perfectionism. Here are some reminders to give yourself, your student, or your child/teen in the face of academic pressure and perfectionism:

 

Validate the Importance of School

School weighs so heavily and activates so much worry and panic because academics are important to you, your family, your community, and your future. It is okay to care and to care deeply.


Validate yourself, your student, or your classmates by offering verbal reminders:

o    “I know this feels so stressful because it matters to you.”

o    “I hear you when you say how stressed you are. You’re doing so much.”

o    “You’re working so hard. I just want you to know I see you and support you.”

o    “Give yourself some credit and some grace here, man.”

 

Prioritize Health

It likely feels as if you cannot spare a single second or brain cell for anything other than studying or life’s other important tasks. Yet, consider the question: What good are perfect grades if I’m not okay enough to reap the benefits of them? Also, if we are not okay physically or emotionally, we are likely unable to focus or perform our best. Do your best to reallocate your energy to leave at a little in the tank for:

  • Sufficient sleep

  • Nutrition—Ideally 3 meals per day

  • Connection to family and/or friends

  • Physical activity

  • Some form of emotional processing like journaling, talking with a loved one, or a therapy session

  • Screen-free downtime


Young Afrian-American high school student stressed out with school deadlines and school work

Reevaluate What “Success” Means to You

Check in with yourself or have open discussion with your loved ones about what “success” means to you. This might prompt you to redistribute your time/energy and reframe your thoughts. Consider ALL the components that could constitute a successful or meaningful life, such as:

  • Education for knowledge’s sake

  • Prestige and accomplishment

  • Financial stability

  • Physical health and wellness

  • Spirituality

  • Mental healthiness and resilience

  • Connection and relationships

  • Charity, volunteering, and generosity

  • Passions

  • Hobbies, interest, and enjoyment

 

Commit to being a HEALTHY “Perfectionist”

Most “perfectionists” wear the badge proudly and will not relent in their pursuit. If, after reflecting on all these factors, you or your student would like to continue chasing excellence, consider what it will take to do so in a way that is sustainable and conducive to a physically, emotionally, and relationally healthy life.

 

A healthy perfectionist…


A healthy perfectionist values and strives for achievement, but focuses on their version of success.

 

 

 

 

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