Students, Academics, and the Problem with Perfectionism

By AJ Hofstetter

At Liberty Classical, we often find ourselves in conversations about perfectionism. These interactions, when they occur, tend to happen naturally. Sometimes it’s as a staff, discussing how to help families navigate the academic rigor of a Liberty Classical education. Sometimes a casual conversation with a parent turns into a talk about the pressure their young person feels. Sometimes the conversation is with students facing adulthood, with the enormous life decisions that are just ahead of them and the pressure they’re putting on themselves to do something that matters.

Whatever the response to this pressure may be, perfectionism is toxic for a young person. It’s toxic for anyone. As it relates to young people, however, perfectionism is especially lethal. It exploits the vulnerabilities that already accompany the adolescent years. Perfectionism is closely linked to a child’s sense of self worth and how acceptable they are to their peers, their parents, their teachers, society, and God. It is often linked to codependency and leads to anxiety, depression, and suicidal tendencies. 

Ultimately, perfectionism links people to a reality that does not exist, one where mistakes aren’t acceptable and therefore can’t be made. The problem with that, of course, is that they’ll still make mistakes, they’ll just be more strategic in how they hide them. The assumptions that the perfectionist makes are rooted in fear: Fear that failure will mean rejection; Fear that a lack of performance ultimately will mean a lack of purpose or acceptance; Fear that mistakes diminish value. 

But Now for the Good News

The problem with perfectionism is that it removes mystery from life, deceiving a person into believing that thirst should alway be quenched, that mistakes are of no use, and that performance is better than pursuit. But for the true student, learning never stops. And if learning never stops, that must mean that mystery always remains. It must mean that there is always more we could learn and farther we could go. There are some thirsts that will always exist, says Solomon (Ecclesiastes 3:11). 

This means that perfection and performance are the wrong goal. 

When it comes to a student who can’ t bear the thought of a ‘B,’ or when we’re looking at a student who is losing sleep or suffering from anxiety over the pressure to perform, it’s up to us to step in. It’s up to us to help them open their eyes to something bigger. It’s up to us to help them see themselves, and the world, accurately. It’s up to us to help them see that even flawless performance wouldn’t ultimately be enough, because they’re going after the wrong things. 

Helping our Students Be Human

The beauty of helping our students let go of perfectionism is in the opportunity we have to reintroduce them to the excitement that exists in life. It’s in helping them see that greatness isn’t found in doing things perfectly. As long as they’re thinking mistakes are bad, they’re unwilling to make them. But when they discover that education isn’t about straight A’s or flawless performance but about learning, exploration, and discovery, mistakes become part of what it means to be human; what it means to learn.  

Perfectionism isn’t the same as having high standards. Perfectionism is linked to a person’s sense of identity, value, and purpose. As long as our students buy into the lie that how acceptable they are is directly proportional to how presentable they are, they’ll continue to misunderstand the value – and the beauty – of their journey, imperfections and all. They’ll miss the joy in discovery. They’ll work too hard for too many hours trying to accomplish perfection, thinking that’s the goal. 

As we launch into another school year at Liberty Classical Academy, let’s watch for perfectionism in the lives of our students. And if we see it, let’s gently remind them that the beauty in who they are and what they contribute to this world isn’t found in being perfect, in being the best, or in never making a mistake. Let’s give them permission to be imperfect…just like we are. And let’s point them to the Only One who ever really was perfect. 

If we can do that, perhaps we can free them to start enjoying the journey.