Avery struggles with her homework; she writes something, erases it, thinks, writes again, erases again, looks worried and agitated. Nothing seems worthy of handing in, and indeed frequently she is late with her writing assignments. Her parents are concerned. What’s going on?
For many students like Avery, who seem to worry that nothing they attempt to do—schoolwork, art, music, athletics—will be good enough, perfectionism may be the culprit. Many students, and adults, will push themselves to do better and will be really disappointed when they don’t meet a goal, but for perfectionists there is something beyond this striving for excellence. It’s a profound anxiety about mistakes, or “failures.” Psychologically, perfectionism is like a wing with two edges: the leading edge is persistence, conscientiousness, and desire to do well; the ever-present, inseparable trailing edge is a pervasive fear of failure. This anxiety is the burden most perfectionists know they carry. Striving for excellence is healthy and exciting; perfectionism is never healthy.
Where does perfectionism come from? To answer this, keep three things in mind about basic human psychology. First, we make sense of our world of personal experience in ways that allow our lives to seem familiar and stable. Most of us make sense of mistakes by seeing them as inevitable, though disappointing, and sometimes as learning opportunities. Perfectionists make sense of mistakes in a totally different way, attributing them to personal flaws and fearing a resulting judgment from others. Second, our emotions are our prime motivators. We all seek comfort, avoid pain, and look for emotional affirmation and support. For perfectionists, perfection is the key to freedom from the constant anxiety about failure. Finally, connections with others are the foundation of our sense of well-being and satisfaction throughout our lives. The fear of being unacceptable because of one’s mistakes is what keeps perfectionists driving for the gold . . . and beyond.
So perfectionism is the desire to be perfect, the fear of imperfection, and the emotional conviction that making mistakes is a threat to acceptability. It is a self-esteem issue. What can we do to help?
Perfectionism doesn’t arise in a vacuum. It isn’t genetic, although its attendant anxiety and persistence might be. It is a relational issue: the conviction that others will only like you if you are a certain way actually comes from somewhere, sometimes in subtle ways. In our culture, it’s easy to conclude that you have to be outstanding in multiple ways in order to get ahead and get into the best colleges, the best graduate or professional schools, and the best jobs. Within families, there may be reasonable assumptions that everyone will do well, yet there are no reminders that everyone is loved no matter how well they do. In some families there is constant criticism with no affirmations. Or there is a “yes, but” attitude (“yes this is good, but it could have been better”), making it seem like one is never good enough. In some families, there is fighting and disharmony. Perfectionism is easily born out of a child’s desire to be accepted and cherished, or to create a world that seems less chaotic. What does this tell us about overcoming perfectionism?
For parents and teachers, a bit of self-reflection is a good start. Talk to your kids about your concerns. Ask them what they think your expectations are. Ask if it seems that you like them more because of what they can do. Make an apology for any misunderstandings, and tell them you love them for who they are. Such apologies are anti-perfectionistic; the message is, “I made a mistake, I’m sorry about it, and I will change things for the better.” Mistakes, in other words, are human and fixable. There’s nothing wrong with balloons and confetti when your kids get an A+; it’s essential, though, to be clear that your love doesn’t depend on their performance.
There are many ways of affirming and encouraging kids without focusing on performance. Perfectionistic kids, after all, may be persistent, conscientious, and hard working. You can cherish—and comment on—these personal characteristics. This helps kids to feel acceptable as they are, separate from what they can do. Since perfectionism is a self-esteem issue, this will provide a start on the road to recovery.
If you are a student wondering about your own perfectionism, try asking yourself these questions: What does a mistake actually mean to you? (Does it mean something is wrong with you? You aren’t smart?) Is your view of yourself generally positive or negative? How do others see you? How about your parents? Talk to your parents, if they are willing, about these questions; dialogue gets all of these issues out in the light, helps find solutions, and forms a connection that helps everyone feel more acceptable!
Thomas S. Greenspon, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist and licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice. He earned his B.A. from Yale and his Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Illinois. Tom lectures and writes on a variety of topics including perfectionism and the emotional needs of gifted children and adults.
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