The Dangers of Perfectionism
More and more, many of us who work with Mill Valley students are seeing a rising number of kids who go above and beyond striving for excellence and exhibit an unhealthy need to be “prefect” – a characteristic we often refer to as “Perfectionism”. The Davidson Institute defines Perfectionism as “the desire to be perfect (not almost perfect), a fear of imperfection, and an emotional conviction that mistakes are the signs of personal defects, and that being perfect is the way to be acceptable to others.” They go on to explain that the intense anxiety about making a mistake is what separates perfectionistic people from those who simply pursue excellence. Anxiety and/or Depression often go hand in hand with Perfectionism. Students who have the intense need to be perfect and feel a sense that they will never be able to live up to their potential can also develop a feeling of hopelessness and are more likely to develop eating disorders, obsessive compulsive disorder and in the worse case scenario, become self-harming or suicidal. The Davidson Institute offers the following tips to help parents manage their perfectionistic tendencies.
• Practice losing. Play small, casual games that are not dependent on skill and allow your child to practice managing the frustrations that may come with not winning. Discuss the strategies with your child as you play.
• Practice practicing. Chances are the perfectionist child will only engage in activities where he/she knows there is a high probability of success. Encourage your child to branch out and try art if she is a musician, work on writing a poem if he is a math whiz or try soccer if she enjoys to read indoors mainly. Offer a variety of opportunities for your child to explore that may offer a learning experience beyond the subject matter and will hopefully allow them to understand they cannot (and should not) be perfect at everything they do.
• Emphasize process, not outcome. This is one of the most critical ideas we wish to instill in children. Many successful people have failed multiple times before finding success. True learning and development takes place within the process, not the outcome.
• Be specific with expectations. Perfectionists thrive with clear boundaries and expectations. Let your child know that you would like him to complete A, B and C as opposed to saying “finish your homework.” Have your child meet with his teacher for clear guidelines on a project if you worry it will take him hours on end to complete. Set a timer and let your child know that he has a certain amount of time (20-45 minute increments work well) to complete an assignment, project, etc. then encourage a break.
• Have a sense of humor. This is another character trait that perfectionists should work on. Laughing at their mistakes may not feel easy for them so go ahead and laugh at your own or point out how mistakes can be silly and that making an error is not the end of the world. Offer perspective in a playful manner.
• Discuss how mistakes can be good. Penicillin, chocolate chip cookies, Kellogg’s Corn Flakes and popsicles were all created by mistake! Read books together on accidental discoveries and discuss the benefits mistakes carry.
• Model. Talk to your children about the mistakes you make now and the mistakes you made when you were younger and discuss what you learned from them. Show them how you manage any frustration, embarrassment or anger around making mistakes by modeling healthy outlets such as saying, “Oops! I made a mistake. Oh well, I’ll know this for next time.” Or go for a run, practice yoga or just discuss your day at the dinner table and let your child know how these outlets can make us feel better.
• Priorities and perspective. Talk to your child about getting a handle on how dire the situation really is. Ask questions like, “What will happen if your numbers are not perfectly aligned?” Ask them to label how critical the issue is on a scale of 1-10. Offer a “reality check” on the issue at hand to help your child gain perspective.
• Goal setting. Start with small goals then increase the goals to meet the daily needs of your child. If your child is insistent upon working tirelessly on a Science project, start with a different area such as Math then move over to Science once she has practiced letting go of the perfectionism with Math.
• "Full tank" & "down-time". To avoid increased irritability, make sure all family members have had plenty of food, water and quiet time to regroup and unwind. This can avoid major meltdowns and allow children to be in better control of their emotions. Overscheduled children tend to feel an increase in their stress level and the perfectionist tendencies may rear their ugly head.
• Pursuit of Excellence vs. Perfectionism. Perfect is not possible nor should it be an actual goal. Explain the difference between diligence, excellence and commitment in comparison to perfectionism. Discuss with your child what qualities are truly valued in the world and read about successful entrepreneurs, artists, musicians, CEO’s, professors and other professionals. Talk about what skills and challenges these individuals had and what their path to success looked like. A great resource that can help you do this is ‘Perfectionism and the Highly Gifted Child’ by Shaun Hately.
For more tips on managing perfectionism go to: www.davidsongifted.org and under “Database” click on “Article Library.” If you are concerned about your child’s anxiety around perfectionism feel free to contact his/her counselor for more help.
Randi Josephson, 6th Grade Counselor
Erin Sheedy, 7th Grade Counselor
Mynor Maldonado, 8th Grade Counselor