Under Pressure


High school students striving for perfection set an extremely high bar for themselves, which can cause stress and anxiety if such a bar isn’t met.

In many ways, the experience of a phobia is similar to that of a nightmare. Literally referred to as irrational fears, these anxieties are largely baseless, and on some level, those who suffer from them can even recognize this. Yet the fear remains just as real as any other. For high school students who struggle with perfectionism, any indication of room for improvement immediately morphs into a scathing declaration that they should have done better. An A- grade is subconsciously internalized as a permanent academic blight. An unliked photo is a forewarning of growing unpopularity. And a slip up at practice is treated as unforgivable instead of human. 

Knowledge surrounding the damaging effects of perfectionism has become more mainstream in recent years. Nevertheless, research in the fields of psychology and sociology reveals that each year, more and more high school students across the country struggle under the weight of unrealistically high expectations set by themselves and society at large.


An Appealing Trap

At first glance, the mindset of perfectionism can seem reasonable and even admirable. After all, why shouldn’t we hold ourselves to high standards so we can become better versions of ourselves and succeed?  

However, as Psychology Today reports, perfectionism diverges from healthy patterns of self-discipline and goal setting in that a perfectionist’s drive for success is built upon unrealistically high expectations and an almost paralyzing fear of failure.

Junior Charlotte Bossler elaborated on how the perfectionist mindset so effectively creates a set of unattainable goals, explaining, “I find that whenever I meet one of my goals, I’ll just heighten it again, so it’s like it’ll never be good enough.”

Brené Brown, a researcher at the University of Houston, emphasized that perfectionists often view themselves with a mindset of “I am what I accomplish and how well I accomplish it. Please. Perform. Perfect.” 

Thus, perfectionism can lead one’s entire self-worth to hinge upon a set of standards that are designed to be nearly impossible to reach. 

According to Medical News Today, these habits often lead perfectionists to struggle with serious mental health concerns including depression, eating disorders, and low self-esteem. 

Sophomore Ben McDonald mentioned that at the height of his perfectionism, “I was constantly staying up until 3 [a.m.], 4 [a.m.]” in an attempt to meet the high standards he had set for himself. 

And far from being a pathway to success, perfectionism can actually weaken one’s academic or athletic performance. 

 LHS Prevention and Wellness Coordinator Brenda Nelson stressed that perfectionism can actually lead to chronic procrastination because “we want things to be so perfect that we kind of give [up] and don’t even try…because [the first step] just feels overwhelming.” 


In a Hectic World 

Despite nationwide efforts to improve students’ mental health, national data suggests that the number of students experiencing perfectionism has skyrocketed in recent years.

For example, a landmark study from Thomas Curran and Andrew Hill found that college students in 2016 reported much higher levels of perfectionism than their counterparts in 1989. This discrepancy was highest in the category of socially prescribed perfectionism; growing 33%, the increase in this category reveals that many students are placing themselves under an immense amount of pressure because of the expectations they feel that others have of them. 

While there’s no doubt that rates of perfectionism among students are increasing rapidly, there is more uncertainty regarding what specific cultural and technological developments are most responsible for elevating students’ expectations for themselves to such unhealthy levels.

For example, Bossler attributed some of the growing pressure that teenagers are placing on themselves to have the “perfect” life on social media and the competition it creates, stating, “Every day, I see 10 TikToks that are [about] how you can get the perfect morning routine so that you can live a perfect life. […] We see other kids succeeding on social media, and we’re like ‘Oh, why can’t that be me?’ So we just feel like we should be working harder than we are.”  

Psychology teacher Kara Bosman expanded on this idea, expressing that as a high school student, she had less social anxiety than many teenagers today due to the absence of social media pressures. 

“I [didn’t] see a live highlight reel of my peers…most of my classmates had lives that I didn’t know about, which was awesome in hindsight [because] I didn’t know what I was missing out on,” she said.

In addition to the pressure to craft the perfect social life, many high school students also struggle with academic perfectionism. 

McDonald explained that because college admissions and the job market are so competitive today, “it feels like [success] isn’t attainable unless you ace all of your tests [and] you get into the best college imaginable. It just feels like if you don’t do everything right, then you’re not going to succeed.” 

Similarly, University of Michigan Professor Daniel P. Keating tied growing academic perfectionism to greater trends in social and economic inequality. 

He argued that the growing wealth gap in the U.S. “[heightens] the competition to achieve at ever-higher levels” because “the potential risks of sliding down the ‘social ladder’ are much higher when an ever-smaller percentage at the top can gain access to social and economic success.”


The Hope for Escape

For perfectionists searching to escape entrenched patterns of unhealthy pressure and low self-esteem, it’s essential to remember that you’re not alone and to have patience with yourself. 

According to the Harvard Business Review, making small efforts to slowly adjust your standards to meet more reasonable goals is much more effective in battling perfectionism than mulling on times in the past when you could have had a more positive outlook.    

McDonald echoed this idea, stating that in order to overcome his perfectionism, he consciously avoided using “should” statements such as “I should have done better on this test” because they “[keep] you in the past and kind of [prevent] you from doing anything more productive in the future.” 

While perfectionist students often feel as if they must dedicate all of their time to their schoolwork or a sport, Ms. Bosman emphasized the value of making sure “you’re still taking time for yourself…It’s okay to close your textbook and go for a walk or hang out with friends on a Friday night. Things like that are really important.” 

Finally, Dr. Nelson summarized both the challenge and hope ahead for students looking to overcome perfectionism, reassuring students that “you don’t have to live under this dark cloud of pressure and expectation…It’s not easy to step out from that, but I think we still gotta try.”