Perfectionism: a blessing or a curse?
I consider myself fortunate. I don’t need to be perfect! (That is a really good thing, because I am so far from it!). But some adults and children suffer from the need to be flawless. In theory, we all know that it is impossible to be faultless. But that doesn’t stop some people from trying!
Ashley, 10 years old, spends hours on school projects. Every poster has to be picture perfect! Reports have to look like works of art. The problem for Ashley is when she makes a mistake, tears flood the bathroom floor. She has to start all over if one pencil line isn’t completely straight! Some nights she looks like a nervous wreck.
Other times, she can’t seem to start a school project. What if it isn’t perfect? What if I don’t get an A? What if she makes a mistake? These anxieties can cause the child to put off starting an assignment. They feel overwhelmed by the prospect of failure.
Her parents worry. Sure she gets straight A’s (it’s hard to complain about that), but she doesn’t seem to be happy. So much of the time she is tense and miserable.
Her dad can fly in that direction too. He likes the house to always be picked up, even when Ashley has her friends over. And, he often expresses how proud he is of Ashley's good grades.
So what is this all about? Is it a healthy trait or not? Often, adults and kids with this personality feature don’t see themselves as perfectionists. They think that their expectations of themselves are reasonable. They just think they have “high standards”.
The problem for perfectionists is that their world is defined by “absolutes”--there are few shades of gray. Anything less than an A (even an A-) feels like an F. A job that isn’t “perfect” is worthless. This generates a lot of worry about the future.
To some degree, these individuals suffer from “performance” anxiety. They judge, evaluate, compare and contrast everything that they do. They feel that their value is based on how they perform. They are on stage 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. It can be exhausting.
Our society tends to “over value” high achievers. We revere the football star, the valedictorian, the lead in the class play, and the rich and famous. We overlook the capable and competent person who loves his job or enjoys school, but doesn’t “stand out”. They show up every day, get decent grades, are good citizens, are kind to others, but rarely shine. These are my heroes.
So what can parents do?
Be aware of what you are reinforcing. Some parents are so pleased with their child’s good grades, that they make a super big deal out of it. Without realizing it, they may be reinforcing their child’s desire to “please” them. They decide that if they don’t get A’s they won’t be as valued by their parents. They may start to feel that their self-worth and their grade point average are the same thing. They are not. I tried to focus the spotlight of my attention on what I felt was “intellectual honesty” or on what my children learned, not on how well they did.
Emphasize balance. This is an important component of happiness. A balance of activities, interests, and relationships makes for a better life. Putting all your eggs in one basket can be dangerous if that basket develops a hole. If you have balance in your life, your children will model themselves after you.
Focus on experience as much as outcome. Enjoyment of life comes from living in the moment and having realistic expectations of yourself. Achievement comes from having a goal and pursing it. It is important to cultivate the concept that something can be “good enough” without it have less value. Helping your child celebrate the process can help them understand the value of “playing” rather than “winning”.
Don’t make a big deal over making mistakes.We all make mistakes. What‘s important? Did we learn something from them? View slip-ups as opportunities, not as tragedies.
Share your experiences!