March 4, 2020 // by Laura Malone
Have no fear of perfection – you’ll never reach it.Salvador Dali
As I’m writing this, I’m camped out in my church coffee bar alone, my half- eaten peanut butter and jelly sandwich and sparkling water at my side and the faint sound of our high school choir’s voices are trickling down from a room near the balcony overhead. They’re working out the parts of “Is He Worthy?” by Chris Tomlin and if you’ve heard that song, you know what mean when I say I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else right now. One of my daughters is in that choir and today I’m very proud of her. She’s one of the several perfectionists in our family (myself included) and although she has been singing since she was four, last year she struggled with confidence because of her perfectionism. One solo performance that wasn’t up to her personal expectations resulted in anxiety and her giving up something she had always loved. In her mind, if she couldn’t do it perfectly, then it wasn’t worth doing. I get it, because she gets it from me. But instead of calling it quits, she decided that walking through her fear and continuing to audition for solos would help strengthen her trust in God and give him an opportunity to work in her life. Quitting would have been a more comfortable choice, but one void of growth.
Perfectionism is a little like dessert. It’s exactly what you need after a savory meal or the perfect end to a birthday celebration, but too much of it makes you sick. A balance of perfectionism can be very useful. Many times, children that are perfectionists are the ones we’re least worried about. They pay attention to details and are self-motivated in their work. Often, they are at the top of their class or if you homeschool like we do, they may be a grade or two ahead in some subjects. Perfectionists bring home the trophies and certificates and tend to succeed at whatever they put their mind to. These traits will serve them well as adults. We want our surgeons, bridge engineers and pilots to be perfectionists. They memorize all the right steps and don’t stop until the job is done right. The world is a better place because of the hard work and diligence of perfectionists.
But there is a point when we have to recognize when enough is enough or our perfectionism can be counterproductive and crippling. Many perfectionists struggle with balance. At one extreme, their unrealistic expectations may cause them to work themselves into exhaustion and frustration. At the other extreme, they could be completely unproductive and frozen from a fear of failure. For example, the surgeon that ignores timing for the sake of perfection does the opposite of what he set out to do. His intention of saving a life could end one if he is a slave to his perfectionism and stops thinking rationally about the length of time the body has been under surgical stress. The pilot that never lands the plane because he can’t find the perfect landing strip gives up his life and others’ as the plane runs out of fuel. And if perfectionism isn’t balanced in children, we see frequent melt downs or fits of anger. They may even give up the things they love because the fear of failing is overwhelming. Their unrealistic expectations are a burden that weighs heavy on their backs and controls their life causing regrets later.
I often tell my perfectionist children that you must be willing to fail in life so that you don’t fail at life. There must be balance for there to be healthy growth.
Is your child a perfectionist? Here are some clues:
- They have high standards and are overly critical of themselves and others.
- They don’t think they’re being critical. They’re improving you. They’re thinking, “Doesn’t everyone want to be their best?”
- They have a harsh inner critic when they don’t meet their own expectations.
- They do their best on projects and are easily frustrated when given group work because they believe that if the job is to be done right, they must do it themselves.
- They fear failure above anything else.
- They fear humiliation.
- They believe mistakes are unacceptable.
- They procrastinate because of their fear.
- They desire to be good people and good at everything they do.
- They are hard workers, willing to do whatever it takes to make sure the job is done perfectly – IF they believe it is in their ability to do so.
- They shy away from group activities where they might not excel.
- They don’t take correction well.
- They can make things harder than they need to be and take twice as long to get a simple job done.
- They feel a duty to correct all wrong things in life (injustice, disorganization, mistakes) and can feel overwhelmed because there’s so much work to be done.
- They get irritated with people for not caring about the same things they do.
- They can have anger and resentment because of the great sacrifices they make to do what’s right.
- They can seem unappreciative because they’re naturally inclined to catch what’s wrong instead of appreciating what’s right.
- They don’t celebrate their accomplishments very well because they’re thinking about how they could have done it better or they’re minds are moving on to the next task that needs perfecting.
- They have a hard time relaxing and having fun.
- They know and follow rules.
- They are detail-oriented.
- They love organization.
- They constantly compare themselves to others.
- They honor their word.
- They tend to suppress their true emotions in public (not at home) because they’re ashamed of them. They believe acting out anger, frustration or fear is a sign of weakness and imperfection.
- They view situations as black or white, right or wrong.
- They believe that their way is the only right way.
- They are self-disciplined.
- They have difficulty forgiving.
- They worry.
- They like routines, neatness and order because it makes them feel safe and less anxious.
- They feel they try harder than others.
- They ask a lot of questions.
- They are not great multi-taskers.
Does this sound like anyone you know?
Homeschooling two perfectionist children brings me joy and peace on some days and a massive headache on others. They can make us so proud with their high expectations, hard work and achievements, but I also know the pure exasperation that ensues when the perfectionism isn’t balanced. Sometimes their expectations are unrealistic, and we have to teach them what’s humanly possible at their current stage of life. If you’ve read my post, “New Year’s Resolutions – Growing in 2020”, you know my thoughts on perfection. Perfection says, “Look how far you have to go,” and Growth says, “Look how far you’ve come!” We need to help them see that success in life is about growing, not about being perfect. We are merely human, and perfection belongs to the Lord.
Last week, I sat with both of my perfectionist kiddos and asked them to help me understand how they feel and give me some helpful ideas to share with you. So, I’ve listed a few tips below that come from them and some that I’ve noticed have worked well from almost twenty years of parenting and public school and homeschool teaching.
- Help them understand themselves.
Teach them the definition of perfectionist and discuss specific examples in their life where you see it as helpful and times when it is hurtful. Some children apply their perfectionism to only select areas of their lives such as organization, sports or making high grades in school. Others are perfectionists all across the board. To them, everything is worth perfecting. Help your child identify his areas of perfectionism so he can aim to achieve a healthy balance.
Teach them how beneficial perfectionists are to the world and how to recognize warning signs that they are out of control. Help them identify areas of life where it gets out of hand and make a plan that works for them. For example, if your perfectionist child plays baseball and he cries or shuts down mentally every time he gets a strike, have a discussion with him at a time outside of baseball when his emotions aren’t high. Point out that you’ve noticed his frustration with batting and walk him through a healthy thought process he can use when he gets strikes, because the reality is, it will happen again. Help him to see the benefits of staying positive during the game and the downfall of shutting down. It affects the rest of the game and causes more errors. In the meantime, let his frustration be fuel for him to work harder at home on batting and he’ll learn that working hard to strengthen his weaknesses can be rewarding.
Also, have him verbalize the critical thoughts racing through his mind when he has made a mistake and help him see they are untrue or exaggerated and speak truth into his heart.
Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think of such things.Philippians 4:8
2. Use correction sensitively and wisely.
Correcting the perfectionist child in front of others is like rubbing salt in a wound. When we do this, it crushes them because they are forced to deal with the disappointment of the mistake and the emotions of being humiliated, their two biggest fears. When my son was younger, I had to make an effort to pull him into a separate room and quietly correct him because if I or someone else called him out in front of others, he would literally freeze his whole body, stare at the wall and not respond. They saw it as a sign of disrespect, but I knew his heart. After that initial embarrassing correction, he couldn’t hear anything we said because his inner critic was too loud, and the embarrassment was short circuiting his limbic system. He thought turning his head and freezing would make him invisible. When I began correcting him in private, he was calm enough to listen and respond because the humiliation element was removed.
If the mistake is something they’ve already been taught how to do correctly, avoid lecturing. Remember, the perfectionist child probably caught the mistake before you did and is already beating themselves up over how stupid they think they are. Correct them and move on quickly.
Be loving in your corrections and pay special attention to your tone and body language. (I’m preaching to myself here!) If you’re arms are crossed and your tone is stern but you’re saying, “It’s not a big deal. Just fix it,” they believe your body language and not your words. If you show anger or disappointment in their mistake, they get overwhelmed and shut down. This is when the meltdowns show up. One of their biggest fears is feeling stupid so be wise with your words and never use comparisons by saying things like, “Look how Johnny did it. Can you do it like him?”
3. Don’t jump to help.
Often times, the perfectionist wants to take ownership in the task they are working on and finish the job on their own. This was my daughter’s first tip because she enjoys proving to herself and us that she can do it. In her mind, if she needs help, she’s already failed.
This is a very difficult area if you’re the one teaching this child because most children will need guided help through a new concept. In our house, this is where we’ve had most of our meltdowns over the years. What has worked best for us, is when I visually show them multiple times how to do the task and then give them a chance to do it on their own. They check their own answers while I’m in another room and make their own corrections. This way, they’re not as afraid to make mistakes because I’m not hovering over them and my corrections can’t be misunderstood as being harsh. The fact that it’s a new concept they haven’t seen before is their first layer of stress. They don’t need my corrections to be their second layer of stress while they’re trying to make sense of it all. Once they feel confident with the new concept, they complete future work without the solutions in front of them and I check their work. If they made a mistake, I gently point it out and give them the chance to correct it on their own as much as possible. I’ve learned it’s best to wait until they ask for help before I jump in and assume they want it.
4. Praise their efforts often, not achievements.
Be mindful that the perfectionist child is highly focused on what they have achieved instead of the effort it took to get there. If something comes easy for them and they’ve done it perfectly, as they usually do, they’re proud. If something is very difficult for them, but they’ve put a lot of time and effort into doing their best and still don’t meet their own expectations, all they see is failure. But you and I know the effort they put in on the difficult task is more honorable than the achievement of the easy task. Effort and hard work will take them far in life. Over time, they’ll learn that adding these two secret ingredients to their recipe of life will always make the sweetest pies. So, when your child scores high at a music competition, point out how proud you are of the time sacrifices they made to practice regularly. Praise their diligence and the courage it took to perform in front of an audience. Focus on the character traits they exhibited that got them to the achievement instead of the achievement itself. And show them how carrying those traits into other tasks will make them successful throughout life.
Also, remember how hard they are on themselves and reassure them of your unconditional love for them. Tell them you love them because of who they are and not for what they do. Show them that they can be imperfect and loved at the same time.
Satisfaction lies in the effort, not in the attainment, full effort is full victory.Mahatma Gandhi
5. Use famous mentors as examples.
Do some research and find a famous person that your child admires and can relate to, then tell their story. Growing up, we all heard the inspiring failure stories of people like Abraham Lincoln, Michael Jordan and Vincent Van Gogh. It was their reaction to failure that made them successful. There were times they felt miserable and beat down by their failures just like we do, but they didn’t freeze or shut down permanently. They didn’t stay in their self-loathing pit. They used their frustration as their fuel to continue working hard and learn from their mistakes. If your child loves to write, tell him about the failures of J.K. Rowling or if she loves to draw, explain the struggles of Walt Disney. No matter what your child is interested in, you can find someone well-known in that field and point out their failures because guess what – we all have them.
6. Be a positive example of how to respond to failure.
Be real with your child. Get your own perfectionism in check and don’t hide your mistakes. This is part of your successful teaching strategy. Teach them that making mistakes in life is inevitable and every person has a series of mistakes they run through before they are successful at something. When you overcook the chicken, point it out, model positive self-talk and move on. “Yikes, this chicken is tough! I definitely overcooked it. Oh well, it happens. Next time I’ll make note to cook it about five minutes less. Will you help me remember?” Or when you mess up at work, “I’m needing to work a little late tonight. I worked on this document all day and realized I forgot to add one very important detail. I need to stay here and redo it so it’s ready for tomorrow. I think next time I need to review my notes better and not rush through it.” Show them that you’re OK with your own mistakes and you’re willing to work hard to do it better next time.
7. Encourage them to relax and have fun.
As a perfectionist myself, one of the biggest epiphanies of my life was when someone told me that I didn’t need anyone’s permission to relax and have fun. (Yes, I know that sounds crazy. Some of you are probably thinking, “Man, I have to work really hard to not relax and have fun all the time.”) That statement seriously hit me as if I had walked right into a brick wall. I had never realized it before, but I had been waiting my whole life for someone to tell me I was allowed to relax and enjoy myself and that the whole world wouldn’t fall apart if I stopped working hard for a little while.
An unbalanced perfectionist child is a tightly wound bundle of stress walking around looking for the next problem to fix. They’re thinking if they don’t do everything perfectly and fix everyone else’s problems too, then what could become of this world? Teach them how to have fun. Purposely schedule times in the day to just hang out and laugh or just do nothing. Encourage them to take on a hobby that they can enjoy even though they may not be great at it. Every moment doesn’t have to be an accomplishment. If they don’t realize this when they’re young, they’ll burn out, give in to procrastination and possibly suffer depression when their responsibilities naturally increase as they get older. Striving for perfection day and night can cause anyone to have a mental breakdown. Taking time away from hard work and relaxing is key to living a balanced and healthy life.
In closing, I want to share something beautiful I’ve learned from the Japanese. My dad lived in Japan for a couple of years when he was in the military and his eyes would always light up when he described the kind people and their way of life. Because of his love for the Japanese, I’m always intrigued to learn about them. A few years ago, I came across a unique form of Japanese artwork called kintsugi. It’s created when an artist takes broken pieces of pottery and mends them back together with lacquer mixed with powdered gold, silver or platinum. The Japanese see the breakage and repair of the pottery as a part of its history, its story, rather than something to be ashamed of and hide. The result is a piece of pottery that has become more beautiful than before.
If we believe this ourselves, that our past mistakes and hardships are a beautiful part of our story, then it will be evident to our children. They will learn to accept their mistakes and imperfections and grow to be healthy adults that enjoy life and make the world a better place.
And now that you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good.John Steinbeck
Remember – Healthy families make happy homes!