Perfectionism, grades, and hollowing out.


Photo shared on Flickr by Roni Rosen

The thing that is really hard, and really amazing, is giving up on being perfect and beginning the work of becoming yourself.
                                                                                                                                                    Anna Quindlen

Over the years as a senior science teacher, I have noticed a trend among high achieving girls* (read note below on why only girls) that I call “hollowing out”.

Hollowing out is when the student shows up in the physical sense but “they are not there”; their soul, spirit, joie de vivre has disappeared and shut down. I have observed hollowing out in seniors who were previously dynamic, outgoing, and high functioning. I have no data to support this, only anecdotal conversations I’ve had with students and their parents over the years about this change in attitude, energy and grades.

A quote from a student struggling to hang in during her grad year after a successful high school career, has stuck with me:

“I am just so tired Ms. Durley, so tired of making everyone else happy, I just can’t do it anymore.”

Not only does the comment break my heart but it captures the emotional cost of being a high flyer and the burn out or “hollowing out” that can result. More haunting than her words, is the memory of the vacant and disconnected look that replaced the once curious twinkling bright eyes from years past.

This alone might make for a good write, but this year my observations moved from moderately concerned teacher to highly concerned parent, as I watched my 16-year-old daughter begin to hollow out.

I did not realize (or admit) what I was watching, until I read Scott McLeod’s post, My Son is a Maker, which hit me like a ton of bricks right in the gut. Part of the reason I avoided examining my feelings is I teach at the same school as my daughter and I felt conflicted. After months of reflection, I understand this issue is not school specific but rather a symptom of the system as a whole. I now feel comfortable discussing it openly; I do not specifically blame our school or staff and accept that I am part of the problem too (more conflict).

Down the proverbial garden path my mind has wandered over several months. Watchful for clues, of my daughter, of the children I work with. I began to wonder if other aspects of school culture are related to perfectionism.


Brené Brown describes perfectionists as: “raised being praised for achievement and performance (grades, manners, rule-following, people pleasing, appearance, sports)”. This description makes me think of our school environments, especially in senior years when 90% of what we do with our students is focused on their grades (quizzes, tests, GPA, college/university entrance, scholarships, honour roll, career choices etc.).

Senior years in high school academics are like the training grounds of thoroughbreds for the Kentucky Derby: how you get there does not matter as long as you bring home a ribbon. The drive to hyper-prepare students pointedly for post-secondary education comes at a cost I am not sure we have yet honestly accessed.

As Marc Prensky points out: It’s not that we did education wrong in the past; it’s that our past education no longer works in today’s context. What we did in the past is no longer working.

We can do better.

We need to do better.

We need to do so NOW.

As Brené Brown makes clear: “perfectionism hampers success. In fact it’s often the path to depression, anxiety, addiction and life paralysis”. The irony is in our drive make our children “successful” we drive them away from it. Studies such as Women do better on math tests when they fake their names suggest that girls who feel they will be judged are negatively impacted.

Are challenges we face in our schools consequences of this perfectionist culture found in both schools and society at large?

Such as:

1. Fear of sharing and openness – To share is to be vulnerable. To share is to open oneself up to potential criticism. The risk is great. To share risks that the world will potentially know that: I am not perfect and therefore not lovable.  Brown states: “Belonging is in our DNA, most likely connected to our most primitive survival instinct. Given how difficult it is to cultivate self-acceptance in our perfectionist society and how our need for belonging is hardwired, it’s no wonder that we spend our lives trying to fit in and gain approval.”

Simon Sinek explains it as “Our need to belong is not rational, but it is a constant that exist across all peoples, in all cultures…When we feel like we belong we feel connected and we feel safe.  As humans we crave the feeling and we seek it out.”

2. Lack of a unified consistent identityDr Alec Couros talks about the importance of a unified online identity. I wonder where and how do children develop a unified identity? Can they decide who they should be if they feel they first must know who WE want them to be?

What happens to identity when they expend a large portion of their energy trying to anticipate what identity will help them fit in, help them be perfect, help them be lovable? I see many young females you are hyper socialized; they are nice (as compared to kind), aware of their image and scripted in public.

3. Product over process: When results matter more than learning it does not matter HOW you get the “right” answer, it just matters that you get it. Academic integrity goes out the window, cheating, and copying are quickly justified.

4. External rewards over internal ones: Only what others see matter: report cards, honour roll, awards, student of the year.

5. Competition over collaboration: Work with others opens students up to the risk that the work will be less than perfect. From the student’s perspective when they work alone they control the work and it WILL be perfect.

As Johnny Bevacqua references in his post Collaboration AND Competition:

In societies where competition is encouraged, children associated competition with greater self-esteem. However, in societies where cooperation was encouraged, children tended to associate cooperation with greater self-esteem. In either case, it was not some inherent quality of the child, but rather the culture itself that most influenced self-esteem.

6. Increased absenteeism: As students hollow out, they increasingly game the system. They feel lack of control over the meaningless of what they are doing and so in reaction they try to take control by maximizing their energies and only attending when “it counts”.

7. Fear of connection: Connection requires honesty and with a perfectionist mindset the thought that the real me might never be liked, instead I will show you what I think you will like.


We could simply “flip” the above statements around, and say let’s work towards that! I have only just begun to collect clues in earnest and to make sense of the translation into actions and processes would look like in our schools.

Below are some starting points for further exploration using the stem provided by brilliant teacher Tom Barrett at #BLC13 in his Design Thinking sessions.

How might we:

1. Develop self-regulation and mindfulness.

2. Cultivate creativity: Let go of comparison, ranking and embrace uncertainty. Could we admit we don’t know what the future will hold but admit that what we are doing is not it?

3. Create white space for goal-less learning and ownership: This Joe Bower post hints at this.

4. Focus on questions instead of answers.

5. Process vs. end point: Give value to getting there, the effort and the skills used in the learning journey, that is continuous and ongoing.

6. Value understanding over knowledge: Move away from that which is Googlable.

7. Celebrate Openness.

I know I can’t turn this ship around for my daughter. But I am so up for helping to turn it around for yours, your sister, your cousin, your wife to be, your granddaughter, your girlfriend.

In closing, I offer this beautifully simple video by Ron Berger on feedback (make if kind, make it specific, and make it useful):

”  . . . and if you can’t see anything beautiful about yourself, get a better mirror, look a little closer, stare a little longer, because there’s something inside you that made you keep trying despite everyone who told you to quit.”  

                                                                                                                                                       Shane Koyczan

Further resources:

The Gifts of Imperfection by Brené Brown

No Tosh’s:  Design Thinking 

The Challenges and Realities of Inquiry Based Learning

*My observations pertain to girls not because I believe girls to be the only victims of perfectionism but primarily because as a mother of a girl I spend more time observing trends that relate to her development. Most students I have become close to over the years have stayed in touch with, got to know their families, are also mainly female.

12 thoughts on “Perfectionism, grades, and hollowing out.

  1. Thank you for your post. I am an educator. I am also the mother of 2 daughters. My oldest daughter is a high achiever across the board. Thank you for nailing something extremely important.

    • Hi Janet, It is such a double edged sword as we all at some level want “success” for our children and at some level we feel happy when they do well in school. But at what cost and is it worth it? I see many girls with anxiety and stress and think we must put way too much pressure on them.
      It is tricky!

  2. Thanks, Carolyn. Eloquently described and captured! I will send to my daughters…. to help understand the system they have now come through. Hoping for better…. as you have outlined.

    • Hi Sheila, thanks for comment. My daughter would be mortified if she knew I had referenced her in my blog (good thing she does not think it interesting!). Girls can be such permeable souls, can we develop resilience in them? Or is it hard wired? I too hope for some change, just hope it is soon!!

      • I think temperament is “hard-wired”, and maybe resilience somewhat too. I would think resilience would be difficult to develop and grow if one can’t be who they are…. or they are adjusting to fit the environment or expectations much more than the environment adjusting to support them. We need to see the pressures that become too much for the “being” maybe.
        Just some unclear thoughts for now… still thinking 🙂

  3. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and concerns on girls and perfectionism. Brene Brown, in Daring Greatly, also addresses this at great length as she discusses the bigger idea of shame. She certainly knows how to stir up our thoughts.
    As a grade 7 teacher I talk often with my students, but especially the girls, on how they need to stay true to themselves as they make their way through high school. They have learned to value the process, not the end, they have learned to question and reflect, they have learned to value who they are as people and not what others want them to be. But I know only too well that so many get lost in the 5 years as I too maintain relationships with so many of my students, the girls in particular. I worry as I send them on their way and hope they do not ‘hollow out’ due to pressures.
    I will be sharing this post with other educators but also parents in my class; lots to think about as we raise our children. Thank you again.

    • Hi Anne-Marie,
      Yes Brene does an amazing job of moving deeply held assumptions out into the open. Her book Gifts of Imperfection sure tied many things together for me. I now want to read her other books!
      I have also seen this hollowing out in young female teachers who have incredibly high perfect standards for themselves which leads to eventual burn out so it seems to span all ages. But for whatever reason it is not something I have heard discussed very frequently.
      Thanks for the comment and your readership, I appreciate your input.

  4. What a thought provoking blog! As a male junior high teacher in a K to 9 school, I have noticed this same phenomenon in my students however it has mostly been with the boys. This year I noticed it again (I refer to it as “shutting down”), but this time is was with some of the most successful girls. I noticed that they appeared to be there physically, but were not as high achieving as they were even a week or two before. Part of it, I believe, is that such an enormous part of their school life is coming to an end and the thought of the unknown adds to the pressure. The end of the year struggles is now multiplied by the thoughts of moving on in their lives, heading to high school, and leaving behind the comfort of our school which has been a part of their lives for up to 10 years of their short life. I believe if we can get the students to believe in themselves through discussion in our teacher/student relationships by providing positive and inspiring projects (like being involved in their graduation ceremonies). These students have shown to be more “tuned in” and persevere through this time of “hollowing out”. Sometimes the students tend to be more focused on these projects, but it provides an outlet for them to be more creative! The academics may suffer a bit, but their sense of self-worth seems to improve. Just my thoughts….

    • Kelly, appreciate your insights. I think you might be on to something with noticing that the transition might exacerbate the situation. This is true with graduates as the future can look exciting but as it looms closer it can be overwhelming. I think the uncertainty of the future is difficult for students to process, who in their short lives have had lots of certainty. I love the idea of meaningful projects to focus on during this transitional time. I continue to hope that we can shift our emphasis in senior grades away for 90% grade focused and keep the love of learning that students enter school with alive.

  5. Great post! I have struggled with my now 18 year old daughter since elementary she is definitely a maker. I am a high school librarian in a “high achieving” school and the last 5 years I have definitely seen an increase of “hollowing out” the anxiety levels are not acceptable for people their age. I think social media has had a big impact on these girls. They live in a fishbowl so the pressure to be “perfect” is always there. Boys as well.

    Thank you for sharing

    • I am with you on the anxiety levels among teens as being unacceptable. I wonder why it is not more of our mainstream conversations? I wonder how we can work to help reduce these levels? How can we work with students to reduce the stress caused by increased pressure to be perfect everywhere? It would seem though that our systems obsession with grades and performance will continue to push this mindset.
      Appreciate your readership and taking the time to comment.

  6. Thank you for this fantastic post, Carolyn. It definitely gives me a lot to think about especially given that I teach in a very academic school where there is immense pressure on students by their peers, their teachers, and their parents, in addition to what they put on themselves. I have always thought that it was great that our students think it is cool to be successful but you provide a good reminder that they need to be driven for the right reasons. It is also so important for the parents to understand their influence. The school recently moved away from percentage marks and parents were the first to ask how we would determine the honor roll. In order to make a true change, all stakeholders will need to play a role.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s