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Perfectionists are more likely to suffer from mental health problems
"They are never satisfied and are very worried about failure," researcher Annett Stornæs says. She has been studying pupils in specialised lower secondary schools.
Annett Stornæs has followed and met some very ambitious lower secondary school pupils over the course of several years.
She has particularly focused on students engaged in specialised lower secondary schools for sports, music, and ballet, but has also compared these to ordinary pupils.
Does professionalisation affect mental health?
When the project started, not many studies had been carried out which looked at perfectionism and mental health among such young participants.
Both among researchers and in the field of practice, there was concern about whether the increasing professionalisation was having an impact on mental health.
Stornæs' findings show that there may be a correlation between setting high demands and expectations for oneself, and the mental health and well-being of young people.
“A lot of people just want to be the best. They have high expectations for themselves, but often have challenges in managing all the expectations from themselves and others in their daily lives. Then it can become too much and too great a burden, even if they love what they do. Setting limits for oneself as a teenager is far from simple," Stornæs says. She is a research fellow at the Department of Sports Medicine at the Norwegian School of Sport Sciences (NIH).
A myth that perfectionism is positive
Stornæs’ findings show that perfectionism has often been regarded as something positive, especially within sports, music, and dance.
Never being satisfied, constantly paying attention to detail, and doing one’s best to reach the top in their sport are qualities that are highly regarded by many.
No, it’s my career. It's my life, so in one way it means everything. So, if I don't succeed now, I'm going to think that "seven years of dancing and training every day have all been wasted". So I'm not going to stop until I've actually made it. And if I get an injury, I’ll push through that too. I'm not going to back down. No way.
Ballet pupil, age 15
However, research conducted among athletes in general and young people in particular over the last 10-15 years suggests that perfectionism can also be accompanied by many unfortunate factors that affect the health and well-being of athletes.
“Paying constant attention to detail and doing one’s utmost to reach the top in their sport are of course important qualities. But when we talk about perfectionism, especially among young people, it is important to be aware that we are not talking about simply setting high standards for oneself,” she says.
Stornæs says that for many, perfectionism is primarily about a feeling of never being good enough. It is closely tied to self-esteem.
In particular, a perfectionist will experience a great deal of shame and guilt if they fail. This has clearly been shown in several international studies.
Extreme standards and unrealistic expectations combined
with excessive self-critical evaluation.
“Both our findings and several other studies show that there is a connection between perfectionism and mental ill-health. We should therefore pay serious attention to young people's perfectionism. It can be really important for reducing the mental health challenges faced by young people,” Stornæs says.
She also emphasises that there has been a considerable increase in the number of specialised lower secondary schools.
During the 2015/2016 academic year, for example, there were three private sports schools at the lower secondary school level. In 2022, the number had increased to over 20.
When I have lots of rehearsals, presentations or performances and possibly also a competition at the same time, then obviously I have to practice for the competition so that I don’t lose my drive. And then at the same time I have to do my schoolwork, so I just have to: home-eat-school-training-school-sleep, and that's how it goes on every day. I can get very tired - both mentally and physically, and then I often have to take a break. Maybe up to several days.
Sports pupil, age 14
Most girls are affected
The researcher followed various groups of lower secondary school pupils over the course of three academic years and conducted both questionnaires and qualitative interviews with them.
In both the youth sports schools and the mainstream lower secondary schools there were many students who had a high degree of perfectionism that was probably difficult for most of them to handle.
Here are some of the main findings from the three studies:
- Perfectionism in 8th grade: 22 per cent of students in the specialised schools and 38 per cent of students in other schools had the most unfavourable perfectionist profiles. These students also reported having more symptoms of anxiety, depression and body dysmorphia, and lower self-esteem than students with few perfectionistic traits.
- Mental health profiles 8th-10th grade: 9-11 per cent were well above average for anxiety, depression and body dysmorphia, combined with below average self-esteem.
- A further 26-31 per cent had a combination of values moderately above average for anxiety, depression and body dysmorphia, combined with below average self-esteem.
- More girls than boys had both the least favourable perfectionist profiles and the least favourable mental health profiles. This means they were far above average in symptoms for anxiety, depression and body dysmorphia, and far below average for self-esteem.
- The mental health profiles were fairly stable from 8th to 10th grade, but the girls whose profiles changed switched to more unhealthy profiles, while the boys in the specialised sports schools did the opposite.
Two forms of perfectionism
Socially prescribed perfectionism
The individual feels that others require one to be perfect. It might be their trainer, their parents, the community around them, social media, etc.
Previous studies show a clear connection
between socially prescribed perfectionism and ill health.
- Example: "Other people will think that I've failed if I don’t do my best all the time." (Flett et al., 2016)
As the findings have emerged and Stornæs has published articles, she has spoken about the figures in her lectures.
Many people are concerned about what she says.
“They're so young. That's the impression that people are left with after a lecture. That, and the combination of perfectionism and mental health problems. It’s important to acquire knowledge,” she says.
But what does it actually mean to be a perfectionist?
When Stornæs and her co-authors studied perfectionism among young people, they looked at two forms of perfectionism:
Socially prescribed perfectionism and self-oriented perfectionism.
What should parents look for?
Perfectionism is aimed at oneself.
The individual demands perfection of himself/herself and does not
perceive that he/she is being influenced by others.
- Example: "It really bothers me if I'm not doing my best all the time." (Flett et al, 2016)
If you are someone who is close to adolescents of this age, whether as a parent, teacher, or trainer, what should you look for?
“Young people with a high degree of perfectionism are extremely conscientious and rarely ask for help. If someone asks if they need help, they will often find it difficult to accept. They might be worried that accepting help is a sign of weakness and that they aren't capable,” says Stornæs.
The overall goal of the study was to gain more knowledge about perfectionism and mental health, and how it affects pupils. So that those around them can become more aware of how young people experience the demands and expectations of both themselves and others.
And in the next step, to facilitate the prevention of students developing mental health challenges
Create room for failure
Stornæs thinks that one of the most important things you can do is create room for failure.
“Young people must feel that they are allowed to make mistakes. They must experience trainers, teachers, and parents who allow them to feel that it is okay to fail and not master everything all the time,” says Stornæs.
There is a lot of talk about 'Success-Oriented Generation' and the pressures they feel. But Stornæs feels that there hasn't been as much focus on perfectionism as there perhaps should have been.
“I know from other studies that suicide and attempted suicide are also closely associated with perfectionism. This is also one of the reasons why it is such an important topic,” she concludes.
Stornæs, A. 'Så flink at en blir syk?' (Too perfect to be healthy?), Doctoral dissertation, Norwegian School of Sport Sciences, 2023. (The dissertation)
Stornæs et al. Mental health profiles among 13-16-year-Old Norwegian talent and mainstream students - A prospective person-centered analytical approach, Psychology of Sport and Exercise, vol. 68, 2023. DOI: 10.1016/j.psychsport.2023.102474
Stornæs et al. Profiles of Perfectionism Among Adolescents Attending Specialized Elite- and Ordinary Lower Secondary Schools: A Norwegian Cross-Sectional Comparative Study, Frontiers in Psychology, vol. 10, 2019. DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2019.02039
Stornæs et al. Self-Expectations, Socially Prescribed Expectations, and Wellness in 14- to 15-Year-Old Athletes, Ballet, and Music Students in Norwegian Talent Schools—An Interview Study, The Sport Psychologist, vol. 37, 2023. DOI: 10.1123/tsp.2022-0133
About the study
- Annett Stornæs defended her thesis on 13 October: Too perfect to be healthy?
- A quantitative and qualitative study about perfectionism, expectations, and mental health among 13-16-year-old lower secondary school pupils at specialised schools for sports, ballet, and music, as well as pupils from mainstream lower secondary schools.
- This project is fully funded by the Dam Foundation through the Norwegian Council for Mental Health.
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