We Are Westridge

A community blog featuring Head of School Elizabeth J. McGregor, the Westridge Leadership Team, our esteemed faculty members and occasional special guests

 

Jim Holland, Ed.D., on the Perils of Perfectionism

 

(Image source: The New York Times)

At Westridge, we seek to nurture a sense of inner authority in our students as an antidote to the invasive power of perfectionism based on the expectations of others.

In a recent article in Psychological Bulletin, Thomas Curran and Andrew Hill published the results of a meta-analysis of 27 years of data on perfectionism in college students. Their analysis shows a 33% increase since 1989. Read more about their findings in Jane Adams’ informative article in the New York Times here. In a school with high-achieving students such as Westridge, the line between healthy striving and perfectionism can easily become blurred. 

Brene Brown observes, “Healthy striving is self-focused: "How can I improve?" Perfectionism is other-focused: "What will they think?” The University of Texas Counseling and Mental Health Center (UTCMHC) provides additional dimensions of healthy striving and perfectionism (click here). Of the various dimensions identified, the most important is that in healthy striving, a person enjoys the process as much as the outcome. If students can remain focused on the process of learning and derive pleasure from that process, they will not be subject to the tyranny of outcome-based evaluations.  According to the UTCMHC, the perfectionist’s obsession with fear of failure and disapproval impedes achievement. 

One key path to healthy striving rather than perfectionism lies in authority. Claiming the authority to set and strive for one’s own goals requires self-knowledge, self-respect, and courage. Joan Didion, in her essay “On Self-Respect” begins by recounting her disappointment at not being selected for Phi Beta Kappa. In retrospect, she identifies her disappointment as “a matter of misplaced self-respect.” She ends her exploration of the roots of genuine self-respect by observing, “To assign unanswered letters their proper weight, to free us from the expectations of others, to give us back to ourselves – there lies the great, the singular power of self-respect. Without it, one eventually discovers the final turn of the screw: one runs away to find oneself, and finds no one at home.”  

In a similar vein, the philosopher Stanley Cavell writes, “without trust in one’s experience, expressed as a willingness to find words for it, without thus taking an interest in it, one is without authority in one’s own experience. In a similar mood, in The Claim of Reason, I speak of being without a voice in one’s own history. I think of this authority as the right to take an interest in your own experience. I suppose the primary good of a teacher is to prompt his or her students to find their way to that authority.” At Westridge, we seek to nurture a sense of inner authority in our students as an antidote to the invasive power of perfectionism based on the expectations of others.

A key example of this process is our use of the program Story Tribe, developed by Arrowyn Ambrose, with first semester juniors in Human Development. This program embraces the principle that “finding one's individual voice is a path to discovering and embracing one's worth, values, ideals, and purpose. By sharing our stories and listening to each other without judgment we create meaningful connections and a deeper sense of humanity.” Grounded in writing and reflection, this program focuses on precisely the kind of self-respect and authority espoused by Didion and Cavell. Equally important, the program builds a sense of community based on empathy that celebrates the collective wisdom and connections that sustain healthy striving rather than the perilous pursuit of perfection. 

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Link to New York Times article: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/18/well/family/more-college-students-seem-to-be-majoring-in-perfectionism.html

Link to University of Texas Counseling and Mental Health Center: https://cmhc.utexas.edu/perfectionism.html 

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