Toxic perfectionism

How do you feel about making mistakes? Are you a perfectionist? Do perfectionists give up earlier than others?

This term we have been fortunate to have parenting expert Dr Justin Coulson CSP provide engaging and thought-provoking online presentations to staff and parents of Ascham girls. Dr Coulson posed challenging questions as he led us on a deep dive into perfectionism and how it is affecting girls and young women.

We know that our girls aren’t trying to be perfect–they just want to get everything right.

At times, perfectionism can create anxiety that stunts growth, learning, and development. Studies highlight that perfectionism affects females disproportionately and up to 40% of children and adolescents can be described as perfectionists.  Dr Coulson explained that perfectionists have excessively high personal standards which includes overly critical self-evaluations…..  “I must be the best but never am”. This toxic perfectionism is anxiety-inducing and can be crippling. In contrast, conscientious people want to do well and strive for excellence, but their concern around evaluation and identity is low, which means that they are satisfied with their best effort.

As educators, we all want our students to maximize their lives, yet over the past decade, positive psychology has been telling us to celebrate failure. We know that we learn by making mistakes and that it is important to recognise opportunity in failure. Paradoxically, perfectionists hate making mistakes, so they can’t learn.  If they can’t learn, they can’t be perfect.

Perfectionists tend to have a fixed mindset and often avoid goals that they don’t think they can achieve or do well at. They set unrealistically high expectations for themselves and others. They are quick to find fault and are overly critical of mistakes. They tend to procrastinate out of their fear of failure. They shrug off compliments and forget to celebrate their success. Instead, they look to specific people in their life for approval and validation. Perfectionists have performance goal orientation (Fixed mindset) “If I can, I will, and I will look good.” Perfectionists stop when not reaching perfection or they will destroy themselves trying to be perfect.

Dr Coulson described three types of perfectionists:

  • Self-orientated perfectionism – “I strive to be as perfect as I can be”.  “My value is attributed to an outcome.”
  • Socially-prescribed perfectionism – “I find it difficult to meet others’ expectations of me.”
  • Other-orientated perfectionism – “If I ask someone to do something, I expect it to be done perfectly”.


Students with healthy perfectionism have high standards, are not too vigilant and also not too concerned about what others say.

Dr Coulson presented some effective strategies teachers and parents can use to reduce perfectionistic tendencies and encourage girls to take risks, make mistakes, and become more resilient and adaptive in the face of academic, social and physical challenges. His reflections on altered parent practice sparked interest, particularly the drop in autonomy supportive parenting and how this increases a child’s risk of developing perfectionist tendencies. At Ascham School, we strongly encourage autonomy both in the classroom and beyond. We continually encourage independence and responsibility, and we work to foster the girls’ sense of ‘mattering’ by building solid relationships with our students.

One solution to perfectionism is self-compassion. Dr Coulson said that it is important to remind our girls to be kind to themselves, and to others. We must continue to remind our girls to speak to each other in a constructive and positive way, so that they are building a culture of encouragement and reassurance.

We thank Dr Coulson for his engaging presentations, and for inspiring us to encourage our girls to be conscientious, curious and unafraid of making mistakes.

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