When asked at a conference I recently attended what I see as the most common issues played out in parent/child relationships today, it takes me no time to identify perfectionism as one of the top three. For that reason, I decided to post notes below from a presentation I gave at our school’s conference for parents last summer.
During the slower pace of the summer months, I encourage you to read through the information below to determine if any of it applies to you or your children. Addressing this one somewhat complex issue will go a long way in establishing growth and helping your children realize their potential. Plus it will go a long way in guiding your children to comprehend the unconditional love of Jesus, which is not rooted in our performance but in His perfection.
What is perfectionism?
“‘Good enough’ may be good enough for other people, but it’s never good enough for me.”
“When I make a mistake, I feel like a failure.”
Perfectionists either perfect themselves to death or they give up and barely try at all. Perfectionists respond to life’s challenges either by over performing or under performing. A perfectionist rarely tries to be perfect in all things. Instead they choose areas or an area to be perfect in. They can be a perfectionist with studies and a slob in their room or they can be a perfectionist in their sport and put little effort into studies. Some will only try at things they know they can be good at. Everything else is off limits.
A perfectionist connects being perfect with their self-esteem. Being perfect means they are a valuable person, worthy of love and respect.
Perfectionists fear failure: Striving for perfection is a recipe for failure because it can’t be attained. When perfectionists invariably fail, they experience feelings of helplessness, guilt, anxiety, anger, frustration, and sadness.
The over-performing perfectionist is continually anxious over performance and never free to stop striving. If they do, they somehow think failure will catch up to them so they keep running and barely resting. When they achieve high standards, they don’t experience elation. Rather they experience relief because they “dodged a bullet” and have reprieve at least for a moment. Failure on the other hand is devastating because it is seen as an attack on their value as an individual.
The under-performing perfectionist remains in a “safety net”, where they can feel OK about their performance by trying just hard enough not to fail, but they remain stuck a frustrating distance from success. Failure is not an option but neither is taking a risk to actually succeed.
What are the signs of perfectionism?
- Fear of failure. The single motivation of a perfectionist is to avoid failure because it is connected to feelings of worthlessness and loss of love.
- Perpetual self-evaluation. They are absorbed with a never-ending internal report card which results in frustration, anxiety and depression. They worry about mistakes and don’t give themselves credit for successes.
- Even when a task is completed well, they are still haunted with uncertainty: “Was it good enough?” “What will others think of me?”
- Little joy in day-to-day living. They consume their days with worry and anxiety.
- Pre-occupied with self. Envy and despair are the reactions when others rise or threaten to rise above them in some area. They tend to be fretful and easily offended.
Potential pitfalls for children with a perfectionist bent
- They will be less likely to engage in challenging experiences or try new things. This can result in diminished creativity and innovation; to be creative, one must get over the fear of begin wrong.
- They will struggle to ask for help because doing so is admitting they need it.
- Because they will avoid making mistakes, they will be less likely to grow resilience.
- They relate to parents and teachers from a perspective of fear.
- They experience little joy in success. They are only momentarily happy when goals are reached and at the same time nervous about continuing to succeed.
- Steady source of negative emotions: rather than striving for something positive, perfectionists are focused on the very thing they want to avoid: negative evaluation. Their focus remains primarily on what went wrong – on what they can’t do rather than on what they did well.
- Some children will fail on purpose because they find it less stressful than trying to achieve the ultimate goal of perfection.
- They may not understand the comfort and security in unconditional love and thus negatively affect their relationship with God
- They may avoid doing things that need to get done. They procrastinate. That’s why perfectionism and procrastination often show up as a pair. The individual wishes to avoid “that dreaded task” but the weight of it being undone remains their companion, keeping them from enjoying anything else they try to do. They procrastinate waiting until they think they are perfectly prepared to complete the task, which of course never happens. Starting late then gives them the excuse they need for a less than perfect outcome. Procrastination allows them to be content with less than perfect results. To quote Richard O’ Conner, “we can always tell ourselves we’d have done a better job if only we’d had more time. If you’re good at rationalizing, you can keep yourself feeling rather satisfied this way, but it’s a cheap happy. You’re whittling your expectations of yourself down lower and lower.” Procrastinators can (1) ignore the task, (2) letting a short break become a long one, or (3) focusing on part of the assignment at the expense of the rest. “Procrastination is, hands down, our favorite form of self-sabotage.” (Alyce Selby)
What causes perfectionism?
We live in a culture that extols perfection. Our young athletes set their sights on the pros while parents pursue the Ivy League Schools for their kids. We are bombarded with images of perfect bodies, perfect facers, perfect nails, perfect teeth and we want to wear the perfect clothes and shoes. We want to perfect car and desire the perfect home. We equate value with vain perfection.
There are genetic tendencies built into temperaments that predispose an individual with a bent toward perfectionism but many experts now believe that this behavior is learned and often from the same-sex parent.
Practices that foster perfectionism include:
- an over focus on outcomes – (how to respond to grades)
- praising and rewarding success with love, attention and/or gifts while punishing failure by withdrawing love or becoming angry and resentful. “If I want my parents to love me, I must be perfect”
- modeling perfectionism in career, sports, and responses to things not going one’s way Kids watch how parents treat themselves when they are not perfect
- projecting the parent’s flaws onto the kids and expecting them to be perfect without addressing the issues in themselves
- authoritative “reward/punishment” style of parenting is a common background for those struggling with perfectionism
What is the difference between excellence and perfectionism?
Excellence is about distinction, fineness and about having merit.
Perfection is being faultless or flawless. It’s an impossible goal.
- Excellence is about learning. Perfection is about performing in order to be valued.
- Excellence is something done well – an attainable goal. Perfection is unattainable because it is doing something faultlessly.
- Excellence is satisfying and freeing. Perfection is a snare and never satisfies.
- Excellence allows for failure and assumes mistakes will be made. Perfection punishes failure and deeply fears mistakes.
- Excellence is life giving because it’s about growth. Perfection will eventually kill dream and reduce life.
- Excellence fosters and is motivated by confidence. Perfection is motivated by fear.
- Excellence comes from God. The expectation of perfection comes from the world.
Moving from perfectionism to excellence:
Perfectionism can be a difficult trait to overcome because perfectionists tend to be rigid and not see themselves in need of change. There’s a root of pride in this expectation which gets in the way of learning what God has in mind for them. They need to learn how to:
- be prepared to accept and forgive shortcomings in themselves and others (We all have limitations)
- reward themselves for progress even when it is slight
- make their goals about the growth and not to be the best, the brightest or the star performer
- be flexible and change plans when circumstances change
- set realistic and flexible time frames for the achievement of a goal
- not be so concerned about being judged
- quit obsessing over getting people to like them
- give up their right to be right
- address procrastination (see notes at end)
If you have a child who is a perfectionist:
- Make it safe for your kids to fail and make mistakes by not over reacting.. In fact help them learn to see the value in mistakes as learning opportunities.
- Show them love whether they succeed or fail.
- Nurture and model a teachable spirit – give up your right to be right as well.
- Focus on improvement over outcomes and on attitude over performance.
- Do not be preoccupied with what others think of you and your kids.
- Read the book MINDSETS by Carol Dweck
- Read the book NO MORE PERFECT KIDS by Kathy Koch and Jill Savage
What to do about procrastination:
- Teach them to start. Just start. Even if they give five minutes to the “dreaded” assignment or to studying, their attitude will be better by merely starting.
- Guide them to challenge the idea that “I haven’t done enough research yet.”
- Teach them to recognize distractions. They like distractions that don’t take heavy-duty commitment on their part.
- Teach them to break projects down into specific tasks.
- Set a time limit or if they are older, expect them to set a time limit. “I will only write for a certain amount of time” sets up far better time management and produces better work than “I need to write until this paper is finished.”
“To think too long about doing a thing often becomes its undoing.” -Eva Young
“Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” -C. Northcote Parkinson
“Much of the stress that people feel doesn’t come from having too much to do. It comes from not finishing what they started.” -David Allen
“When we deliberate how to begin a thing, it grows too late to begin it.” -Quintilian
“Defer no time; delays have dangerous ends.” -William Shakespeare
“It’s a job that never starts that takes the longest to finish.” -J.R.R. Tolkien