Perfectionism is about trying to be flawless, without fault. The problem is that it is unreachable and can get in the way of growth.
Perfectionists often face life by either over-achieving or under-achieving:
- The overachieving perfectionist can wind up with deep seated anxiety and profound discouragement because her goals continually remain out of reach.
- The underachieving perfectionist feels utter helplessness and settles for low effort hiding his fear of failure with an “I don’t care” mask.
My youngest daughter gave early indications that she was an overachieving perfectionist. She grew frustrated and crumpled her artwork each time it did not look just right. She would ask, “Is it possible to be perfect?” I pondered the studies indicating perfectionism was fostered by parents (we likely were part of the problem) but I also believe it to be a natural bent for some kids, like Alisa. She certainly was not the stereo typical youngest child, competing fiercely even with her older siblings. With her own peers, only the highest outcomes were acceptable in everything she set out to do.
Our concerns were buried in the delight we found in her achievements. What parent doesn’t enjoy success with their children. In time however, we began to see signs of deep seated anxiety. As soon as she reached one goal, her joy was short lived, as she would soon begin to drive herself to still a higher goal. Failure to Alisa was getting second place at the State swim meet or failing to break a state record in her best events or not getting the highest score on a math exam. She authentically felt like a failure when she did not reach the very highest marks she set for herself.
Achievement and reaching high goals however was not the issue.
Kids need to set high aims. The problem for Alisa was in how she perceived herself in the process, by basing her worth entirely on whether she accomplished what she set out to do. Alisa likely would have achieved even more with a healthy outlook. That’s the difference between a perfectionist and striving for excellence. (Click here for tips on fostering excellence and not perfection)
Many kids who tend towards perfectionism go the opposite way of Alisa.
They simply give up and set low aims because the risk of not reaching their goals is too terrifying even to try. Don’t believe their “I don’t care” guise as it is merely in place to hide deep fear and discouragement. In addition, they are prone to procrastinate which gives them a handy reason why outcomes are less than desired. (click here for tips on beating procrastination)
Whether your child is an over achieving or an under achieving perfectionist, the issue of perfectionism needs to be addressed. When performance is the end all and be all, the process of growth will not hold up.
God used what mattered most to Alisa -high pressured swimming at the University of Texas – to move her identity in performance to one rooted in Him. After a successful freshman year in which she broke a conference record, Alisa came down with a debilitating illness that would last the next two years. No matter how hard she tried, her body would not perform. She was now in her worst nightmare: on a swim scholarship but unable to carry out her team’s expectations.
I thank her coach to this day for not only selecting Alisa as team captain in that difficult season but speaking truth to her by saying “swimming does not define you. It is merely going back and forth in the water.” In the midst of a high powered swim program, this woman illustrated grace to Alisa, breaking down the misconceived image she held of herself. What a life changing message my daughter gained through this difficult season, in discovering she had worth despite her inability to perform.
God used this “failure” in the natural for Alisa to bring about victory in her spirit.
Alisa finished out her senior year as a Longhorn swimmer and for the first time actually enjoyed swimming. Although her body was still recovering, she swam better than expected in her final year because anxiety did not weigh her down. The two year illness put an end to her lifelong dream of swimming in the Olympics but it paved the way for more important dreams to be realized within. She finally found peace and contentment apart from performance.
And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.