Recent Victoria University of Wellington PhD graduate Dr Madeleine Brocklesby is one of the first to acknowledge that nobody’s perfect—and her research shows we should be putting less pressure on young people to strive for unattainable ideals of perfection.
Graduating with a PhD in Psychology and a postgraduate diploma in Clinical Psychology, Madeleine’s research was part of the broader Youth Wellbeing Study led by Professor Marc Wilson, which aims to better understand the wellbeing of youth and rangatahi in New Zealand.
As part of the study more than 1,000 adolescents in the Wellington region were surveyed each year for four years in order to understand why some young people intentionally hurt themselves.
Madeleine’s research used data from the surveys to explore the relationship between perfectionism and non-suicidal self-injury among young New Zealanders, specifically Year 10 and 11 students, and her findings shed light on a little spoken-about topic.
She says that there are two types of perfectionism—positive perfectionism, which relates to conscientiousness and setting high standards for yourself, and negative perfectionism, which is associated with shame, guilt and concern about making mistakes.
“We found that negative perfectionism was related to greater self-injury in females only—the more girls were exhibiting negative perfectionism the more likely they were to engage in self-injury in the future.”
Madeleine also examined the functions of the behaviour, exploring the different reasons people self-injure. “For perfectionistic adolescents, they are especially likely to be engaging in self-injury to punish themselves for perceived mistakes or failures,” she says.
While Madeleine had expected to see a relationship between negative perfectionism and self-injury, she says one aspect of her findings surprised her.
“Positive perfectionism is often thought of as a beneficial trait that helps you achieve high standards… but my research showed that adolescents who are positively perfectionistic can transform into negative perfectionists over time.
“What might initially seem like positive behaviour can turn into negative patterns, which can then have negative outcomes.”
Madeleine says that her research and the Youth Wellbeing Study have received a lot of positive feedback from the communities involved. “There’s a push from the community to keep it going. They take the findings in with open arms—they’re searching for any information available.”
Madeleine’s supervisor, Professor Marc Wilson, says that the issue of perfectionism is sometimes exacerbated by miscommunication.
“Parents typically want the very best for their children, and may not be aware that the way they communicate this might be experienced as pressure to do well, rather than the desire for children to do well.
“Madeleine’s research is the most comprehensive investigation to date into the relationship between perfectionism and mental health outcomes broadly, and self-injury specifically.”
The Youth Wellbeing Study also provides resources for the communities it works with, including graphic novels about self-injury, information pamphlets and a short film created by young mothers about challenges they’ve faced.
Looking to the future, Madeleine sees the potential for broad applications for her research and the work of the Youth Wellbeing Study, including perfectionism intervention programmes in schools.
“I think it’s really important for schools, teachers and parents to be aware of perfectionism. Today’s adolescents are under a huge amount of pressure with social media and constant assessments at school—and that pressure is potentially causing quite a lot of distress.”
She says it’s also important to remove the stigma from talking about these issues, and to debunk the common myth that adolescents who engage in self-injury do so for attention-seeking reasons.
“The thing with perfectionists is that quite often people won’t know that they’re engaging in self-injury. They want to present a perfect front and appear flawless, which might mean that a perfectionistic adolescent is in a lot of distress but no one knows—they tend to think of it as a dent in their armour to ask for help.”