By Barbara Gruener
Part of our Counselor’s Corner series. Click to read other posts in the Counselor’s Corner.
In my practice as a school counselor, I routinely ask students to rate their reactions to an experience using a scale from 1 to 10, with 1 being the lowest score and 10 being the highest. Their answers typically provide a good gauge for me to help nurture growth as they move forward.
This practice naturally carried over into my parenting and worked pretty well to assess situations until our middle child was in middle school. I noticed that he would never give anything a 10. When I asked him about that, he told me (in a tone that told me I should already know this), “Mom, nothing can ever get a 10 because nothing’s perfect.” I found that so enlightened coming from a child who, in first and second grade, would erase holes in his paper trying to perfect his work. As he matured, he had learned that there’s a huge difference between a healthy striving for excellence and the plague of perfection.
In his book Freeing Our Families from Perfectionism, Dr. Thomas S. Greenspon explains that “Perfectionism is relational. . . . Perfectionists have an underlying fear that they won’t be acceptable to someone if they don’t do well enough. They’re constantly trying to excel in order to win the approval and love of other people.”
Similarly, author Brené Brown says that she calls perfectionism a “20-ton shield” because it pretends to provide protection from disappointments, failures, and hurt. But, she was quick to add, what it really keeps us from is “being seen.” This echoes what I’ve found in my work and life experiences—that the fear behind perfectionism seriously limits authenticity, transparency, connection, and growth.
In a recent post about perfectionism, author and parenting expert Dr. Michele Borba listed some telltale signs that point to perfectionism: Children who are always comparing themselves to others, who get defensive about criticism, who shut down when something doesn’t go just right, who procrastinate to avoid failure. Also included are children who concentrate on mistakes rather than successes, those who worry they’re not good enough, and those who put their same high expectations on others.
The perils of perfectionism, according to Dr. Borba, include “anxiety, depression, eating disorders, migraine headaches, even suicide. Perfectionists are also more at risk for emotional, physical, and relational problems.”
My heart and mind immediately go to our tweens, who are already cautiously traversing the ofttimes awkward and thorny preadolescent path. What can caregivers do to help them let go of the unhealthy tendency to pursue perfection in order to please others and find that healthy, happy mix of autonomy, resilience, and success?
1. Set the example.
One of the most valuable ways we can help children ditch perfectionism is by modeling healthy practices. Children are watching our every move and taking their cues from us as parents, mentors, educators, and role models. If we are holding on to perfectionism with a death grip, it’s likely that they may follow suit.
Create an environment that is accepting and encouraging, one that also offers a reservoir of mercy and grace. Let children under your care know that mistakes are an important part of the learning process and that, in fact, to FAIL is often just one’s First Attempt In Learning something new. Give them permission to mess up without shame. Be the one whose actions consistently tell the child that no one (and nothing) is flawless in this world.
2. Help them manage life’s marathon.
When our daughter was in sixth grade, we sent her off to her first clarinet audition with the encouraging words: Do your best. Her raw inquiry still haunts me: What if my best isn’t good enough? And my response? It will be. It simply has to be. As our children strive for excellence, first and foremost they have to understand, know, accept, and embrace the fact that their best is enough. Period.
Find out if your tweens think it’s possible to give more than they’ve got at any given snapshot in time. Ask, when? How? Encourage them to explore what that means in relation to who they are and what they can give right now. Then help them set goals to make incremental strides forward so they can see, feel, and experience growth. When life becomes more about the journey than the destination, our focus can more readily shift from trying to be the best toward the more attainable personal best.
3. Try radical reframes or turnaround thoughts.
This suggestion has mindset written all over it. All too often, perfectionists ruminate and stew over things that have gone wrong. Consider this quote from author Karen Salmansohn:
View your life with KINDSIGHT. Stop beating yourself up about things from your past. Instead of slapping your forehead and asking, “What was I thinking?” breathe and ask yourself the kinder question, “What was I learning?”
How might these words about kindsight help shift the attention away from a past of imperfection to spotlight a future of possibilities? What other reframes might help? When perfectionists get stuck, for example, and yell in frustration, “I can’t do this!” how might encouraging them to add the word yet positively change outcomes?
4. Provide activities just for fun.
So many of our tweens’ activities end up being evaluated and/or graded. They compete for academic grades to determine not only mastery but also their rank in class, athletic medals in sporting events that pit them against their peers, and achievement awards for outstanding performances. There’s even a perfect attendance award just for showing up to school.
But how many activities or events are there for them to participate in purely for enjoyment? Make sure students seek out these opportunities because they provide a healthy alternative to trying to meet a prize-worthy standard or vying for that coveted trophy at the finish line. Lightening up, letting go (even if only a little), and even laughing out loud are all antidotes to the perfection infection.
5. Encourage expression of emotions.
With so many difficult emotions behind the mask of perfection, it’s important that we provide a safe place for students to express their emotions. At home, it might be the dinner table; in school, perhaps it’s a morning meeting or a sensitivity circle. Teach students to openly share what they’re feeling through modeling, role-play, and practice. Empower them by allowing honest expression of emotions without judgment: “I feel scared that no one will like me if I make a mistake” or “I feel embarrassed when my work isn’t the best.”
Sometimes something small, like saying the feeling out loud, makes a huge difference because naming the feeling gives it credence. Be ready to coach students through feelings vocabulary, especially if they are not in a home where healthy expression of feelings is the norm. And since building an environment of trust takes time, if the students are not ready to share aloud yet, offer the option to journal or draw their feelings. As our tweens become more and more aware of who they are, how they feel, and what they’re able to accomplish—mistakes and all—they will find their place in this world, and it will be a perfectly comfortable fit.
Bonus! There is a healthy alternative to perfectionism. It’s called the pursuit of excellence. Click here to download a free PDF from When Gifted Kids Don’t Have All the Answers that helps kids see the difference.
Currently in her 32nd year as an educator, Barbara Gruener, a school counselor and character coach at Bales Intermediate School in Friendswood, Texas, has had the pleasure of working with kids from every grade level. Author of the blog The Corner on Character and the book What’s Under Your Cape? SUPERHEROES of the Character Kind, Barbara enjoys positively influencing change through her inspirational keynotes and interactive workshops. When she’s not working, you can bet Barbara is knitting, baking, writing, reading, walking, gardening, napping, or spending time with her husband and their three children.
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