Our son is starting university this year and we are a little concerned because he’s a perfectionist. He puts so much pressure on himself to be perfect at everything he does, we fear he might crack. He studies late into the night and rarely relaxes.
Whilst it’s easy to imagine the ‘cliché student’ as a young person who sleeps in and leaves everything to the last minute, it’s often not the case for our modern and determined university goers.
The pressure to land a good career and reap the benefits from a fantastic degree can leave many students struggling; overwork can eventually lead to grades tumbling because of burn out. For students to be successful they should try to understand that the motivation to succeed needs to be balanced with a healthy dose of ‘self-care’. Your son sounds truly dedicated, but I completely understand your worries as parents. It’s wonderful to see a young person so committed to doing well, but when it comes at the expense of their health alarm bells start to ring.
I think it’s important to be clear about something – ‘perfection’ does not exist for humans and striving for it can become very burdensome indeed. Perfectionists strive for success (and often achieve!), but the thought or experience of failure can be devastating. And one thing is certain; he will experience failure at some point in his life, not necessarily academically, but it’s a common human experience and a fact. Perfectionists often lack that resilience to ‘bounce back’ and that’s when the lows can become very low indeed. Fear of failure can cause intense feelings of exhaustion and low self-esteem. Repeated assessments maximise the chances of failure and so this is a real concern for people with perfectionist tendencies.
So, to really understand how your son is functioning, it’s important to understand the why of the situation. What is it he is afraid of? Because I guarantee, fear is at the heart of it. Getting him to explore the root cause of his high standards will help your son to be able to manage those fears in a healthier balanced way.
While your son is at university, he is at a stage of his life where he’s transitioning from being at home to fully ‘flying the nest’ – an adjustment period for both of you. As a parent, boundaries can at first feel a little awkward. Do you call him up every night or leave a couple of days gap? Do you allow him as much freedom as possible to be independent and make his own mistakes or do you intervene when you’re worried? It’s the ‘parent dilemma’ and it can feel like a rocky road initially. Finding out what feels comfortable for you and your son is vital – he has to let you know what exactly is it that he needs you for. My feeling is that you need to achieve balance. Be the safety net and sounding board – but let him explore the world and encourage him to make new friendships.
Emotional support is what he needs from you and the green light to say that taking a break and achieving success are not mutually exclusive, but rather mutually beneficial. Be ready with the fanfare when he does well and the tissues if things don’t go to plan. The most important thing any parent can do is to be there for the times when it falls apart a little. Your experience and wisdom about how the world works will help guide him to a successful future that can accommodate life’s twists and turns. Your pride in him regardless will go a long way in teaching him that it’s ok not to be perfect and that failure can sometimes teach us a great deal more than success.
Russell Hemmings is a life coach, and clinical and cognitive behavioural hypnotherapist