Opinion Madonna King: Perfectionism is hurting our teenagers. What’s wrong with being ‘ordinary’?

Madonna King: Perfectionism is hurting our teenagers. What’s wrong with being ‘ordinary’?

perfectionism madonna king
Perfectionism is leading to higher rates of anxiety and depression among teenagers, writes Madonna King. Photo: TND
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When did being ‘ordinary’ become such a pejorative term?

When did coming in the top third of the class, or making it into the second top netball team, or being runner-up in a state debate not equal success?

School principals have been seeing the trend for a while, particularly among teen girls. A push for perfectionism. The need to win. The sense of failure, when their mark doesn’t meet their expectation.

It’s a scary trajectory, and one we need to call out, and work out, and address.

Writing in The Economist recently, psychoanalyst Josh Cohen warns that “perfectionism is not solely a malign force’’.

It was stifling, too, and those chasing the ‘perfect’ could feel that their achievements were “the only thing holding’’ them together.

“When we’re overwhelmed by life and chastise ourselves for our inadequacies, a stellar test score or 1000 Instagram likes can deliver the fleeting sensation that everything is under control,’’ he writes.

Unrealistic goalposts

Just think of our teens, and many young parents too, judging their looks and bodies and even their parenting prowess based on the doctored images on Instagram.

Babies looking happy and neat and healthy, always. Teens, who look like models, always. Clothes that magically fit. Hair that doesn’t move in the breeze.

The bid to be like those fake images can be all encompassing, and experts are seeing it happen earlier and earlier in girls.

One teen psychologist says he sees a marked difference between the anxiety levels in young girls and young boys – with girls having a different version of what they need to do, to succeed.

They are looking into the future and believing they have to meet big milestones, along the way, to remain competitive. And they’re still in primary school.

Cohen, in The Economist, says the road to perfectionism was slippery, and clinically seen in symptoms ranging from anxiety to depression, obsessional disorders, body dysmorphia and eating disorders.

“Perfectionism has a chameleonic ability to adapt itself to different character types and vulnerabilities, which is perhaps why it has never been categorised as a discrete mental disorder,’’ he says.

In Melbourne and Sydney and Brisbane and across the nation, teachers are seeing it in the classroom. Students ask for an extension to rewrite their assignment with better handwriting. Later they might seek extension after extension, in a bid to “perfect’’ their work.

And then, as educators explain, they might not even hand it in at all.

Why? Because then the teen can say to themselves that they didn’t get a good mark because they didn’t submit it, not because they submitted it, and it was not up to scratch.

Outside the classroom, it’s seen in the 12-year-old who pulls out of the violin eisteddfod or the ballet performance, doubting themselves and wondering if they can possibly perform without mistakes. They’re not sure they will win.

One of my friends says her parents always called her achievements ‘ordinary’. The first time she said it, I was startled, but she is so self-assured and accomplished – and she puts it down to how her parents viewed success.

Reclaiming ‘ordinary’

In her world, growing up, being ordinary was being accomplished, being adequate, being able to take on a task and complete it.

As a result, she tried all sorts of different activities.

She never represented the state or the nation in any of them – but as an adult remains accomplished in interests ranging from dancing to speaking a second language.

Do we want our children to be the best at chess in their school? Or would coming sixth suffice if they could also get 80 per cent on their history test, compete in a triathlon, and not need the wisdom of a teen psychologist to navigate these years?

Years ago, it might have been parents putting pressure on their teens to succeed.

A fundamental change has happened and now, often, it is teens themselves. That might be even harder to address.

But perhaps we can start with redefining ‘ordinary’ to its dictionary definition. Normal. Standard. Average. OK.

Is there anything wrong with those descriptions?

Absolutely not. And wouldn’t it be wonderful if our teens could see that too?