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Counseling Services – Oct. 2011

October 1, 2011

What’s Wrong with Perfect?
Perfectionism is one of the most destructive diseases among children today. Perfectionism is a double-edged sword. One edge of the sword drives children to be perfect. These children push themselves to get straight A’s, be top athletes, and save the world on weekends. The other edge of the sword is that I have never met a happy perfectionist. They can’t be happy because they will never be perfect.

Excellence is Okay
We want our children to strive for excellence. Quality work is a reasonable goal; but, perfectionism goes beyond excellence. It leaves no room for error. The outcomes must be the best. Perfectionism provides little satisfaction and much self-criticism because the results never feel good enough to the doer. Excellence is attainable and provides a good sense of accomplishment. Perfectionism feels impossible and is impossible for the doer. Perfectionism not only affects the perfectionist but also affects those around them. In their efforts to feel very good about themselves, perfectionists may unconsciously cause others to feel less good.

The Pressures of Perfect
The pressures of perfectionism may lead to high-achievement motivation or may just as easily lead to the problems of underachievement. The pressures children feel to be perfect may originate from extreme praise they hear from the adults in their environment. They may also come from watching their parents who model perfectionistic characteristics, or they may stem from their own continuously successful experiences which they then feel they must live up to. It is only slightly different than the motivation for excellence. That small dissimilarity prevents these children from ever feeling good enough about themselves, and precludes their taking risks when they fear the results will not be perfect. They avoid and procrastinate and feel anxious when they fear they cannot be good enough. They may experience stomachaches, headaches, and depression when they may mistakes or perform less well than their perfectionistic expectations.

Varieties of Perfectionism
In most ways perfectionists are all-or-nothing people. They see themselves as either perfectly successful or total failures. On the other hand, some children may only be specifically or partially perfectionistic. For example, some children are perfectionistic about their grades and intellectual abilities; others may be perfectionistic about their clothes and their appearance; some are perfectionistic about their athletic prowess or their musical or artistic talent; some are perfectionistic about their room organization and cleanliness; and some children (and incidentally, also some adults) are perfectionistic in two or three areas, although there are some areas that apparently don’t pressure or bother them at all.

Parents & Teachers Can Help Perfectionists

  1. Help kids to understand that they can feel satisfied when they feel they’ve done their best; not necessarily the best. Praise statements which are enthusiastic but more moderate convey values which children can achieve, for example, excellent is better than perfect, and you’re a good thinker is better than you’re brilliant.
  2. Explain that children may not be learning if all their work is perfect, and that mistakes are an important part of challenge.
  3. Teach appropriate self-evaluation, and encourage children to learn to take criticism from adults and other students. Teach them how to criticize others sensitively and constructively.
  4. Read biographies which demonstrate how successful people experienced and learned from failures. Emphasize their failure and rejection experiences as well as their successes. Help children to identify with the feelings of those eminent persons as they must have felt when they experienced their rejections.
  5. Share your own mistakes and model the lessons learned from mistakes. Even try to laugh at your own mistakes. Humour helps.
  6. Teach children how bragging effects others and how to congratulate others on their successes.
  7. Teach children routines, habits, and organization, but help them to understand that their habits should not be so rigid that they can’t change them. Purposefully break routines so your children are not enslaved by them. For example, if they make their beds daily, insist that they skip that chore on days when you’re in a hurry. If you read to them at night and it’s late, insist they go to sleep without reading. Occasional breaks in routines will model flexibility.
  8. Teach kids creative problem-solving strategies and how to brainstorm for ideas that will keep their self-criticism from interfering with their productivity.
  9. Explain to children that there is more than one correct way to do most everything.
  10. Be a model of healthy excellence. Take pride in the quality of your work but don’t hide your mistakes or be constantly self-critical. Congratulate yourself when you’ve done a good job and let children know that your own accomplishments give you satisfaction.

Article written by Sylvia Rimm, Ph.D., Director, Family Achievement Clinic and inserts by Jim Taylor, Ph.D. (2009), The Power of Prime.
Revised and submitted by: Kyla Brown, Family School Liaison Counsellor (403) 863-2346 kyla.brown@pallisersd.ab.ca

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