It is great when we do a good job of something. There is a real sense of accomplishment when we set a goal and meet it. But…..there is a real difference between working hard to achieve a goal and perfectionism.
People who have a problem with perfectionism measure their self worth on their ability to achieve really high standards. If they do not meet these exceptional standards, then they berate themselves, feel unworthy and push themselves even harder to achieve further and higher goals. Perfectionism can drive people to a point where it is difficult for them to be happy and can be associated with excessive tension, stress, worry and depression.
For children, while they may not be aware that they are setting themselves goals or that they have a self worth, perfectionism can still strike. In children, perfectionism can be a big part of why some kids:
- Procrastinate or put things off
- Give up easily or refuse to try things they might get wrong
- Don’t know when to stop on a project or homework
- Too often check things to see if they are right or check with others who can give them reassurance
- Become slow to make decisions or to speak
People (kids and grown ups) can be perfectionistic in different parts of their lives:
- Work or school
- Household cleaning or chores (I know it’s hard to believe that children can get perfectionistic about cleaning, but I’ve seen too many too-tidy sock drawers in my time)
- Sport or fitness
- Weight and body shape
Perfectionism can be tricky to challenge alone. It’s easy for some people to get caught in a cycle of being told that they are great or achieving good things to the point where if they are not achieving, they feel inadequate or worthless. Failure and disappointment can become fears to be avoided at all cost rather than just another experience from which we can learn more about the world and ourselves..
Psychologists can help treat perfectionism that is causing unhappiness and tension by helping people to :
- Look at their own cycles of perfectionism
- Challenge and test their perfectionistic thinking and rules and to
- Re-evaluating the importance of achieving.
At home or at school with children, its’ important to speak about perfectionism and it’s pros and cons as well as to speak about the pros and cons of disappointment and mistakes.
Where you can, be sure to monitor the emphasis that you put on winning and achievement.
Obviously, because little people are all wired differently by their biology and their day to day experiences, some kids can manage healthy competition and will strive to do their best without going over the top. However, if you see that your child is starting to become impaired (socially, emotionally or health-wise) by their relentless pursuit of getting something perfect, then it is time to step in.
In your household, try keeping your rules only for the dangerous things – like don’t pick up a red back spider, or always swim between the flags on patrolled beaches. Try to speak about the things you value in more general terms and with fewer absolutes, like “we will try our best to be kind” or “we prefer to eat healthy foods when we can”.
Perhaps you could try some family research about the great inventions and discoveries that humans have made because they made a mistake. (Hint – research the pace maker, the ink jet printer and the slinky!)
Try to model accepting your own mistakes, good sportsmanship when your team loses and celebrate your failures – turn epic cake failure into trifle, get some advice on your DIY project boo boos and stay for the end of the movie when they sometimes play the blooper reel.
I’d love to hear how you and your family deal with mistakes!