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How Smart Teens Use Disorder to Deal With Anxiety

Understanding the sloppy, perfectionist teen.

Key points

  • Sloppiness can be seen as a sign of perfectionism.
  • Perfectionism is an anxiety state.
  • Many smart teens manage their anxiety by creating and maintaining disorder.
Jesus Rodriguez/Unsplash
Understanding the Sloppy, Perfectionist Teen
Source: Jesus Rodriguez/Unsplash

Many smart teens do sloppy work because nothing less than perfect will do. This sounds upside-down, doesn’t it? But it makes perfect sense, psychologically.

If you know that perfect is unattainable, why expend all that energy doing something merely decent, which neither you nor the world will find acceptable, when you could just take it easy and skate along? Why spend hour after hour practicing the violin when you know that you are not going to sound like Isaac Stern at the end of all that practicing?

Why not just shrug instead? And maybe play a video game or read a good book? Internally, this sounds like, “If I can’t do it perfectly, why bother? Let me take it easy.” But a smart teen operating this way is more likely to end up feeling queasy rather than easy. Their rationale for doing a poor job ends up feeling like a rationalization. Deep down inside, they would really prefer to do good work rather than shoddy work. Harpooned by the word “perfect,” they now find themselves in one version of that anxiety state known as “perfectionism.”

In that state, they make a hash of things, lower their self-esteem, and heighten their anxiety. At the same time, they miss learning an important lesson about tolerating process, and begin to drop things at the first hint of hardness. They pick up tennis, find it hard, and drop it. They begin writing their first novel, hate the first paragraphs, and drop it. They finds it impossible to learn calculus without really studying, and, unpracticed at studying and currently incapable of studying, begin failing their calculus exams.

People accomplished at anything have learned that “perfect” is the enemy of the good. The smart teen I’m describing has made an enemy of “good” as well as “perfect” and has landed in the sad place of "shoddy." Little kids in team sports get participation trophies just for playing. Our smart teen has moved beyond participation trophies into the world of “since one error is a catastrophe, let me make countless errors and be done with the good.” So as to guard against the experience of failure, they stop participating.

Then there are the smart teens who actually and actively strive for perfection, who hunger to rid their work of every error and blemish, who will stay up until dawn getting their term paper just right, with no comma out of place and with every margin perfect. This teen puts themselves under the sort of enormous pressure that only the specter of flawlessness can produce.

The first teen suffers from one version of perfectionism, the “I’ve thrown in the towel” version. The second teen suffers from a different version, the “I will work myself to the bone.” Both are anxious in their own way, caught up in dramas created by the word “perfect.” The first, holding back, may never learn that good can lead to great. The second, striving forward, may achieve work of the highest order, but at what cost?

For parents

As an adult, you have learned that “perfect” is not the bullseye. Not only is virtually nothing ever perfect, not only are the majority of things average to mediocre, but even when something is, so-to-speak, perfect—that perfectly cooked piece of salmon, that perfect phrase for the wedding toast—it is lovely but ultimately of passing value. Values like love and freedom and engagement and happiness are many rungs higher up the ladder.

Yes, your business may require a kind of perfection, where the salmon had better come out to your diners “perfect” each time. But even then, you know what price is being paid for all that vigilance—the terribly tight rein you must keep on your staff, the lack of joy, the long hours, the monitoring of everything, the heavy drinking, the slinging of criticism. Are those Michelin stars worth it? You may decide that they are, but be honest about the cost. Being honest, you can then think more clearly about your answer to the question, “What do I want for my teen?”

Of course, you do not want to sell your teen on the idea that shoddy work is okay. But do you want to sell them on “perfect” as the way? Do you want your mantra to be, “Perfect or the highway!?” Or, do you want to paint a different picture of life, one where happiness counts, where showing up is its own kind of brilliance, and where excellence and not perfection is the high-bar setting? Doesn’t that sound better than a life of not trying, on the one hand, or frightful stress, on the other?

For teens

In Hope in the Dark, Rebecca Solnit coins a lovely phrase: “Perfection is a stick with which to beat the possible.” Got that image in mind, of the possible being abused by the stick of perfection? Let us chase that stick out of the room, chase it out of the house, and chase it right into that blazing fire burning in our backyard fire pit. Let perfection burn! We can still revere excellence, but we need never be beaten about the head and shoulders by perfection again.

If you would like to carve out a suitable place for yourself along the continuum from poor to perfect, where stops along the way have names like "mediocre," "average," "good," and "excellent," set your sights on the good and rest assured that the good will lead to the excellent. Your affirmation: “Let me do good work, let me allow for mistakes and messes, let me revere excellence without stressing out about it, and let me banish perfection from my vocabulary.” Turn that insidious “nothing less than perfect” into a rousing “something less than perfect!” Turn that stick of perfection into smoldering ashes.

This post is excerpted from Why Smart Teens Hurt.


Guare, Kevin (2012). Smart But Scattered Teens. New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Jensen, Frances (2015). The Teenage Brain. New York, NY: Harper.

McRaney, David (2011). You Are Not So Smart. New York, NY: Avery.

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