Earlier this summer, we published a pair of blog articles featuring the ways perfectionist tendencies in students can result in academic anxiety for those with executive function challenges. These articles featured helpful tips for students who become paralyzed when attempting to initiate a task out of fear that it may not be “good enough”. For some students, however, the problem isn’t in getting started, but rather the dilemma lies in not knowing how to stop the worrisome thoughts once things get going! Perhaps they take on too many things at once because they are eager to have a perfect array of activities and accomplishments for college applications - or perhaps they can get started on writing an important essay, but due to negative self-talk and self-doubt, end up struggling to complete it. If these situations sound familiar, here are some strategies you can try to alleviate the constant state of stress in which many perfectionistic students find themselves.
Demystify The Self: Examine Personal Strengths
If you ask a perfectionist to describe her weaknesses to you, she likely will need both hands (and maybe feet!) to count the ways in which she falls short of her own expectations. However, ask her to list her personal strengths and she may be stumped. Anxious students tend to focus on what they are not doing well enough instead of the things they are good at or enjoy. Try some of these activities to get your worrier thinking about her personal attributes a bit more:
1) Divide a piece of paper into two columns. Label one “Things I am good at” and the other “Things I could improve”. Help your child to think of specific examples of when he demonstrated strengths or skills. Aim for at least an even number of entries in each column - even better if he can be prompted to recall more strengths than weaknesses. This activity sets the stage for a discussion about the fact that everyone has strengths and areas for growth and that our strengths can define us more than our weaknesses.
2) Complete an online learning strengths inventory such as the one at LiteracyNet.org. Discuss the results and how they might help your child make decisions like how to best study for tests or comprehend literature.
Teach Prioritization Skills
One of the manifestations of perfectionism in students is the endless pursuit of crafting the ultimate resume or college application. When this is the goal, teens inevitably find themselves with too much on their plates. These students tend to get involved in many different activities, extracurriculars, and personal projects, leaving them constantly in crisis mode trying to “get it all done.” While it can be difficult to convince a student who feels everything is essential that some things may not, in fact, be as essential as others, here are a few tips for how you might begin that conversation:
1) Complete a Priorities Matrix guide together to determine worthy and top priorities (see link to the guide at the bottom of this post). Anything that scores on the lower end as compared to the other activities could be up for debate!
2) Ask: “Is this essential to what I really want to accomplish and my larger goals? Does it build my strengths or develop an area of weakness? Will the outcome of this lead me to a direct and desirable result?”
3) Use a calendar app such as iCal, Google Calendar, or Microsoft Outlook. Manually entering tasks into the app and examining a visual of what the day/week will look like might help make the abstract concept of time more concrete. Though it may appear subtle, there is a difference between the calendar on the left and the one on the right.
Making sure there is a reasonable amount of “white space” on your calendar will avoid that go-go-go approach that leaves many students feeling that it’s impossible to ever catch up. With the example above, only two activities were removed - yet that provides a breathing area to recharge during the day, while still maintaining a productive schedule.
Express the Worry, Then Allow it to Pass
One of our creative coaches, Stephanie Caruso, shares a story about how she helped a student gain some mastery over his worry.
“One of my younger students is having incredible stress and anxiety around school; he is worried about new teachers and making new friends as he starts at a new school next week. He is tactile and needed to make something physical. We made a Worry Box, which is proving to be a great tool for him to expel his worries from his mind, talk it out, write it down, and put them away in another physical space. And, he had fun making it and really took ownership over its use!”
Additionally, an organization called “The Quiet Place Project” has created a private online forum where you can type in your worrisome thoughts and watch them turn into stars, drifting off once you press enter in front of your very eyes. This is a great way to visually show students how anxious thoughts can pass by just as quickly easily as they come, while also allowing them space and time to express those feelings and thoughts.
It is difficult, some might say impossible, to get a worrier to stop worrying entirely. Learning to manage and cope with feelings of stress and doubt when they arise is an invaluable skill that will serve students well throughout high school, college, and beyond.
Download our Priorities Matrix step-by-step guide below. This guide helps students and parents carefully evaluate which activities are the most meaningful, as a way to make mindful decisions about how to spend time.