Do you think your child might be a perfectionist? Do they set high standards and then get cranky when they don’t live up to them? Do they expect a lot from others and then get disappointed when they don’t cut it? Are they procrastinating over something because it’s easier to do that than to face the possibility that they won’t do it perfectly?
Perfectionism is a curse that many of us live with but there is hope. Your child (and you!) can overcome perfectionism – or at least temper it a bit so that life is not quite so overwhelming.
High-standards vs perfectionism
Psychologists worry about perfectionists not because of the high standards they maintain for themselves. There’s nothing wrong with that. In fact many ‘perfectionists’ maintain high standards, but don’t necessarily suffer as a result. If your kid does this, then they are probably not a perfectionist. Rather, they possess a high need for achievement.
Perfectionism is a worry to psychologists because true perfectionists hold themselves to high standards and then judge themselves negatively when they don’t meet those standards. It’s the thinking part that causes the problems; how hard you are on yourself. Not the standards. This can be particularly worrying in kids and teens.
Perfectionism, passions and priorities
Kelly Exeter has been through that battle. She had, in her own words, a breakdown some years ago. Kelly went to therapy and learnt a lot about herself and how she functions in the world. She describes her own understanding of perfectionism and her framework for overcoming it in her book, Practical Perfection.
It’s a great book and I wholeheartedly recommend it if you or your child is feeling burnt out or overwhelmed or ‘like a hamster on a wheel’, just trying to keep up with your own expectations. In fact I recommend it to everyone because Kelly talks about the importance of knowing two vital things about yourself:
1. Your passions
2. Your priorities
Passions = Strengths
Priorities = Values
Kelly talks about how not knowing your passions and priorities contributes to burnout and overwhelm. So there’s a good place to start a discussion with your child.
5 tips for overcoming perfectionism
Be sure to see your GP for a referral to a psychologist if you think your child is experiencing excessive anxiety due to perfectionism.
1. Talk about it
Ensure they understand the difference between setting high standards they strive to meet, and perfectionism. Ask your child the questions I posed at the start of this article. They are a good indication that perfectionism may be present. Encourage older kids to research examples of perfectionism to see if they feel it might be a fit for them.
2. Put things into perspective
Perfectionists have a tendency to ‘catastrophise’ mistakes, accidents and imperfections. They focus on the negative outcomes of failure, rather than the positive consequences of getting a job done well enough. Share stories of when things went wrong for you and how they turned out okay in the end. Remind them of times when this happened for them, too. It might also help to gather famous examples and quotes that remind us that mistakes are often necessary to achieve breakthrough.
Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts. – Winston Churchill
3. Reframe negative thinking
Sadly, self-criticism often goes hand-in-hand with perfectionism. If your kid has a tendency to put themselves down or be overly self-critical, help them learn to put a positive spin on things. With a bit of luck, if they remind themselves over and over that “the only thing I have to be perfect at is trying”, they just might start to believe it. In any case, a positive mantra will remind them that life is not always black and white.
4. Set small goals
To help overcome the procrastination that often goes with perfectionism, help your child break tasks down into small, achievable goals. They may feel like they can’t start an entire English essay without over-researching, but perhaps they can research one aspect very well and agree to simply touch on other key points. Make sure they keep a calendar with deadlines to keep the momentum going.
5. Know passions and priorities
Touching on Kelly Exeter’s work, make sure your child has a clear understanding of what they are truly passionate about. Are they doing something simply because they know they are good at it, or do they genuinely enjoy it? Once they are clear about their passions, setting priorities will help them decide which activities they should devote their time to, and which they can spend less energy on. This will help them learn the value in doing a “good enough” job and temper their inclination to devote themselves entirely to a project.
Are you or your child a perfectionist? Or a recovering perfectionist?