What is perfectionism?
Perfectionism involves children setting unrealistically high standards for themselves and striving for a goal that they will never achieve. Yet they believe that anything less than perfection is unacceptable. Perfectionistic children are never satisfied with their efforts no matter how objectively good they are and they punish themselves for not being perfect.
After I spoke to a group of high school students, a girl from the audience described how she had gotten a 100 on a recent test that also offered ten extra-credit points. She got seven out of the ten points for a total of a 107 out of 100, yet missing those three extra-credit points had been eating her alive ever since!
At the heart of perfectionism lies a threat: if children aren't perfect, their parents won't love them. The price these children believe they will pay if they are not perfect is immense and its toll can be dangerous: depression, anxiety, eating disorders, substance abuse, and suicide.
By the way, children don't have to be perfectionistic in every part of their lives to be considered perfectionists. They only have to be perfect in areas that they care about, for example, perfectionists in school who have messy rooms or perfectionistic athletes who don't care about their schoolwork.
Perfectionism and failure Though it appears that perfectionistic children are driven to succeed, their singular motivation in life is actually to avoid failure because they connect failure with feelings of worthlessness and loss of love. Perfectionistic children view failure as a voracious beast that stalks them every moment of every day. If these children stop for even a moment's rest, they will be devoured.
Because of this profound fear, these children never fully realize their ability. The only way to attain true success is to risk failure, and perfectionistic children are unwilling to take that risk. Though the chances of success increase when they take risks, the chances of failure also increase. So perfectionistic children hover in a "safety zone" in which they remain safely at a distance from failure, but are also stuck at a frustrating distance from success.
Perfectionism and emotions
You might think that perfectionistic children experience excitement and elation when they achieve their high standards, but those emotions are far too normal for them. The strongest emotion perfectionistic children can muster is relief! They dodged another bullet of failure and can feel okay about themselves.?
Not long ago, I asked a group of students how long they thought the relief lasts and a girl threw up her hand and said, "Till the next exam!" What emotion would perfectionistic children who inevitably fail to meet their high standards experience: disappointment? Disappointment, a normal reaction that all children should feel, is far too kind an emotion for perfectionists. Perfectionists experience devastation because they perceive it as a personal attack on their value as people.
Where does perfectionism come from?
After almost every parent talk I've given, a parent says to me, "I'm sure that my child was born a perfectionist." Yet there is no scientific evidence that perfectionism is inborn. The research indicates that children learn their perfectionism from their parents, most often from their same-sex parent. Through their parents' words, emotions, and actions, children connect being loved with being perfect. This doesn't mean that there are no inborn influences; some genetic attributes, such as temperament, may make children vulnerable to perfectionism.
Parents pass on perfectionism to their children in three ways. Some perfectionistic parents raise their children to be perfectionists by actively praising and rewarding success and punishing failure. These parents offer or withdraw their love based on whether their children meet their perfectionistic expectations. These children get the message that if they want their parents' love, they must be perfect. Thankfully, in my twenty years of practice, I have only come across a few parents who were this overtly perfectionistic.
Other parents unintentionally role model perfectionism to their children. Examples of how perfectionism is communicated by these parents include having to have themselves and their homes look a certain way, their career efforts, their competitiveness in sports and games, and how they respond when things don't go their way. These parents unwittingly communicate to their children that anything less than perfection won't be tolerated in the family.
The final type of parents that convey perfectionism are not perfectionists at all, but are going to make sure their children are perfect! They project their flaws onto their children and try to fix those flaws by giving love when their children don't show the flaws and withdrawing love when they do. Unfortunately, instead of creating perfect children and absolving themselves of their imperfections, they pass them on to their children and stay flawed themselves.
Perfection and our culture
We live in a culture that reveres perfectionism. Our culture has elevated success to absurd heights where being good is no longer good enough. Children must now aim for the Ivy Leagues or the pros. They must make lots of money and have the perfect house and the perfect car. Our culture also worships at the altar of physical perfection. Children are bombarded by images of perfect people with perfect bodies, perfect faces, perfect hair, and perfect teeth, and see the popularity of cosmetic surgery and reality TV shows such as Extreme Makeover.
Excellence: The antidote to perfection
You should replace perfection with excellence. I define excellence as doing good most of the time (I use poor grammar intentionally because that's how most children talk -- and I'm not perfect either). Excellence takes all of the good aspects of perfection (e.g., high standards, quality work) and leaves out its unhealthy parts (e.g., unrealistic expectations, being overly self-critical).
Excellence still sets the bar high, but it never connects failure with the love you give your children. Without a fear of failure, children can turn their gaze toward success and pursue it with commitment and gusto knowing you will love them no matter what.
You don't have to be a perfect parent
There's even a book titled Perfect Parenting. What an impossible standard to live up to! But you don't need to be a perfect parent, just an excellent one (I can hear the collective parental sigh of relief across America). Being an excellent parent means being good with your children most of the time. You can actually make mistakes with your children.
You can occasionally lose your temper or act like a soccer--or stage or chess--parent. So cut yourself some slack about being a perfect parent. Make sure you and your children do good most of the time and they will turn out just to be excellent people.
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