School success often leads to ‘vicious cycle’ of perfectionism, depression

OTTAWA, Ontario — Many high school students feel unyielding pressure to succeed academically. This leads to a constant pursuit of educational perfection that inevitably leads to anxiety and full-blown depression in many cases, according to a new study. Researchers from the University of Ottawa report that while some students are able to brush off the importance society places on grades, others can’t help but feel like they’re fighting a never-ending scholarly battle just to prove they’re “good enough.”

Students constantly hear from their parents, coaches, and teachers that the decisions they make and the grades they attain in high school will dictate how the rest of their lives go. It’s a slippery slope, and often told as a cautionary tale. “If you don’t get an A+, you won’t get into the college you want, and then you’ll never land your dream job!”

While all of that may be somewhat true to a certain extent, that’s an incredible amount of pressure to place on a 15 or 16 year-old’s shoulders.

“High academic achievement is lauded and celebrated across the globe,” says lead study author Dr. Tracy Vaillancourt in a university release. “Doing well in high school is linked to future academic opportunities like attending university, which increases job prospects and earnings. There is a lot on the line and teens are feeling the pressure. What is not clear, however, is whether there is a dark side to high academic achievement, and this was the focus of our research.”

The drive for perfection gets worse with age

Study authors tracked 604 Canadian teens from seventh to 12th grade and looked to examine both the relationship and typical sequence of events between academic achievement and perfectionism. Researchers defined perfectionism as a “maladaptive personality style” involving self-imposed high standards that have a link to the development of anxiety and depression.

That analysis led to the troubling conclusion that most if not all teens who consistently achieve very good grades end up developing an unhealthy degree of perfectionism as well. Across the board, researchers say good grades predicted higher perfectionism. So, if a student achieves great grades in the seventh grade, they will likely show greater perfectionism in the eighth grade, which leads to strong grades in high school, and on and on.

“Although achieving good grades seems fine on the surface, its link to increased perfectionism is worrisome because high perfectionism often leads to higher academic burnout, lower school engagement, and lower semester GPA in the long run, as well as increased anxiety and depression,” Dr. Vaillancourt adds. “As much as it feels good to do well and be praised for it, youth need to accept that achieving perfection is not possible. It is important for them to understand that everyone has strengths and weaknesses, and that is what makes us human.”

Remember that no one is perfect

Study authors say it’s important for the adults in a teen’s life to remind them that no one is perfect and academic perfection isn’t realistic. In other words, foster an environment of self-acceptance, not self-loathing.

“Avoid putting pressure on youth to be perfect and instead acknowledge their successes, even the little ones, as well as their effort. Also, work to counteract ‘all-or-nothing’ thinking (i.e., standards are either met or not met). Not attaining perfection does not mean one is a failure,” Dr. Vaillancourt concludes.

The study appears in the International Journal of Behavioral Development.