Thrive on Campus//

College Students and Destructive Perfectionism

Generation Z can struggle to bounce back from the first failures they experience in college. Here's how to help them thrive.

Courtesy of Tim Gouw / Unsplash
Courtesy of Tim Gouw / Unsplash

Welcome to our new section, Thrive on Campus, devoted to covering the urgent issue of mental health among college and university students from all angles. If you are a college student, we invite you to apply to be an Editor-at-Large, or to simply contribute (please tag your pieces ThriveOnCampus). We welcome faculty, clinicians and graduates to contribute as well. Read more here.

We are witnessing a generation of young adults who are willingly stepping into the stressful environment that is higher education, which can also be referenced as a pressure cooker. High school students are led to believe that upon admission into college that they are ready for the rigor. Academically speaking, for the most part that’s accurate. However, the emotional and social rollercoaster they just bought a ticket for is far from what they’re prepared to experience. Even if they had a solid friend group in high school, realistically college is a different ball game altogether. A young adult’s pride in their acceptance to <insert name of school they care about>, along with their parents’ pride in the efforts paid off by their soon-to-be college student, are blindly setting them up. 

No one means ill. Especially when we think about the parents, the last thing they want to do is step in a confront their young adult about possibly deferring their admission. No matter how well-intentioned, every young adult would immediately feel wounded by that suggestion. The catch is, though, that as soon as the students step foot on campus and the parents drive away, the emotional reality for that young adult sinks in. Their situation is about to get real. Again, yes we believe they are academically capable, but so are the other 5,000 first-year students on campus. The competition, although real or imagined, primes these not-yet-fully-developed minds to put even more pressure on themselves to succeed. They did get into <insert name of school they care about> after all!

The semester kicks off with a slow start. Little to no immediate homework. Experiencing a collegiate classroom for the first time and navigating how to study and take notes differently than they’re used to. Then something happens. Something that you or I may feel is a minor issue is, in fact, a major issue for some of these college students. They decided to skip a class and missed a pop-quiz. All of a sudden in the online student grade system it says they have a “F” in the class. Or, they get a D on their first lab assignment and realize in doing the calculation that the highest grade they could get overall for the semester would be a B-, and that’s if they get 100 percent on the next, and only two remaining, assignments. This could be catastrophic.   

All the sudden, the voice of shame begins to speak a little louder with this student. It tends to only play along with the voice of self-doubt is also alive and well. They hear things like:

“What’s going to happen if I don’t get an A in this class?”

“How will my parents react when they learn that I am failing?”

“No one else in my classes are struggling like I am. I must not be cut out for <insert name of school they care about>.”

“How do I convince my professor to let me change my grade?”

“I am a failure.”

The shame spiral takes ahold quickly. This academic underachievement, whether real or imagined, is the hole that many students slip into quickly and can’t climb out of. A hole that may appear to be miniature, but to the student feels like they’ve just been dropped into the deepest cave in the world with no rope to ascend out. Being in this spot, at the depths of that imagined cave is where students truly self-destruct. 

Dr. B. Janet Hibbs and Dr. Anthony Rostain recently published The Stressed Years of Their Lives, which is meant to be a guide for parents to help their young adult survive and thrive during their college years. In it they write about this destructive perfectionism:

This destructive perfectionism distorts self-worth, making it nearly impossible for young people to tolerate personal flaws, take reasonable risks, or face the failures they will inevitably encounter on the road to maturity. Of far graver important, it undermines students’ willingness to seek help when needed.

p. 16

These students, although truly capable academically, struggle significantly as a whole. In that struggle, they see themselves as less than. Because they are fighting so hard to present as being perfect, it ends up suffocating their success in the end. 

One quick note: I think it’s important to highlight again that often times the parents are also a part of this process. Parents place pressure on their young adult to succeed in college. Sometimes even a simple “I’m proud of you” comment can crush the soul of their young adult if they aren’t aware of the reality of their child’s situation. If at that point they’ve dug themselves a whole academically, the last thing the young adult will do is admit to their parent that they’re failing their classes. It’s a perceived bringing shame on the family for their failures. Can you see how this is mildly destructive?

To suggest that parents be more involved in communication with their young adults is not enough. We have to suggest that parents share messages with their young adults that may feel unusual or uncomfortable. Something like this:

“I just want you to know I’m proud of you no matter how well you do, or what you decide to do.”

“I just want you to know that you may not do as well in your college classes as you originally anticipated. If that happens, just know it’s ok. Let me know. I’m here to support you!”

“Failing a class is OK. It doesn’t feel good, and also know that I struggled in some of my classes in college, too.”

“You are a very brave person for tackling college head on. I’m proud of you in the person you’re becoming.”

Now, if your young adult is not open to communication with you and is struggling academically, these messages could actually do more harm than good. Please use with discretion. Our young people are putting pressure on themselves, as they believe that everyone else is putting pressure on them as well. We need to rise up as a community to help these young people move away from this destructive perfectionism. It’s not realistic. We need to help them understand what their future could truly be.

For more information, check out my post on Lilley Consulting Facebook page.

For anyone looking for additional resources around mental health, substance abuse, college transition coaching, or parent resources you can find them on: https://www.lilley-consulting.com/ or follow @lilleyconsulting, or https://www.facebook.com/LilleyConsultingLLC/.

Subscribe here for all the latest news on how you can keep Thriving.

More on Mental Health on Campus:

What Campus Mental Health Centers Are Doing to Keep Up With Student Need

If You’re a Student Who’s Struggling With Mental Health, These 7 Tips Will Help

The Hidden Stress of RAs in the Student Mental Health Crisis

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