Protecting Our Kids from Perfectionism

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“Why is it that in every area of my life I seem to be doing well, and yet, I still feel like I am somehow failing?”

“I don’t know what I’ll do if I get a “B” this semester.”

“It seems like regardless of how hard I try, how well I do, that I always feel like I could have done better.”

“When I do experience success, the satisfaction and sense of accomplishment doesn’t last long”.

These are but a few of the comments that reflect the self-defeating attitude that, “my best is never good enough”. When the word, “perfectionist” is googled, the consistent definition that pops up is, “one who regards any act or effort that is not entirely without fault or defect, to be unacceptable”. Few would disagree with the notion that perfectionism is a problem for some kids. However, I suspect most would be surprised at just how prevalent the expectation of perfection is in many families today. For so many kids-because their goals and expectations have been set so high-Just getting up in the morning means facing yet another day of inevitable failure and falling short of the mark of perfection.

Who of us at one time or another has not said to our kids, “If you just put your mind to it, there isn’t anything you can’t do”, or, “If you just try harder, you could move mountains”. And yet, could anything be further from the truth? We all have limitations and for us to expect and demand nothing short of perfection from ourselves (and from others for that matter) is to deny and ignore that reality. Such unrealistic goals and expectations can show up in academic and athletic goals, in our social lives, and in our spiritual and emotional lives as well.

“Failure is a detour, not a dead-end street” Zig Zigler

The Fallen Perfectionist

There are no doubt skeptics out there who would disagree with this premise that perfectionism is much of a problem in the lives of very many kids at all. They might even assert that the opposite is actually more often the problem these days; that too many kids set their goals and expectations slovenly low. This is where what I call the “fallen perfectionist” comes in to play. The fallen perfectionist usually starts out as a perfectionist who has had the bar of life set so high-usually by others and then by themselves- that a sense of failure is almost always the outcome of any efforts made to achieve. Kids who are fallen perfectionists have usually experienced the consistent pain of failures that inevitably come with unrealistic demands and expectations, and have found that the only escape from the ever present sense of failure is to drastically lower the goals and expectations that they and others have set for them. But rather than dropping them to an acceptable and realistic level, they lower them slovenly low. By doing so, t hey rid themselves of the ever present sense of falling short and “failing” at all they attempt when the results are not perfect. The problem is however, that they achieve and accomplish very little as a result. In extreme cases the fallen perfectionist seems to fail at every turn. But somehow, the pain of failure is eased by knowing that they hadn’t really tried that hard anyway; they have given up and lowered their expectations in order to avoid the sense of failure.

Excellence is to strive for perfection, knowing full well you will usually not attain it—and that’s ok.

Excellence vs. Perfection

The real problem that plagues kids who learn to be perfectionists is not so much that they strive to do life perfectly, but that they are unable to accept falling short of it when they do.
It is reasonable to argue that striving for perfection is necessary in order to achieve excellence. And certainly, excellence is a sound and reasonable goal to strive for. So what is the difference between the two, and what is a good descriptive definition of excellence? There are many workable definitions of excellence but I define it in the following way: Excellence is to strive for perfection, knowing full well you will usually not attain it—and that’s ok. Some will say this is the definition of second best; I see it as a healthy balance between idealism and realism that is important to teach our kids.

The “Curse” of Perfectionism

There is a curse of sorts that comes with perfectionism. Simply stated, it is this: In extreme cases, perfection-whether internally or externally demanded-can ironically limit the level at which the perfectionist performs. This is because the perceived consequences of falling short of perfection are so catastrophic that their fear of failing takes the focus off the task, thus interfering with their efforts; the unintended curse of perfectionism is that the fear of failure becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Perhaps an illustration would describe this self-fulfilling prophecy better (not perfectly, but better!): Suppose for a minute, that I place a 16 foot 4X4 post on the ground and then ask you to hop up on it and walk from one end to the other and then turn around and walk back. My guess is that most of us could do this with little effort. And if by chance a few of the less sure footed among us did happen to plummet four inches to the ground, their less than perfect efforts would lead to no real catastrophic consequences. They would simply get back on the beam and proceed to their assigned goal of walking to the end and returning. In fact, their “failure” might just lead to an understanding of how to avoid falling again by assessing what errors they made the first time.

Imagine now that same 16 foot, 4 inch beam attached securely to the 8th story balcony of a high rise (please don’t attempt to prove me wrong by trying this at home!). Again you are asked to perform the same feat on the exact same beam. This time however, it is suspended some 80 feet off the ground. My guess is that those of us who successfully accomplished the task just 4 inches off the ground would this time fail to walk to the end and back without plummeting 80 feet to the ground below.
“What’s going to happen if I fail? Will it hurt? Will I be dead before I hit the ground? Am I going to hit that little old lady? Is my will in order? Will anyone show up at my memorial? How long will it take my spouse to find someone to replace me?” All are reasonable fears that would understandably interfere with our successfully walking to the end of that beam and back at 80 feet off the ground. All are fears that would take the focus off the task of walking the beam perfectly. Instead, the focus is on the perceived catastrophic expectations that would befall us if we fail, thus interfering with our performance and limiting our success. Kids who struggle with perfectionism are living life some 80 feet off the ground where their fear of falling short of perfect invariably becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Kids who struggle with perfectionism are living life some 80 feet off the ground where their fear of falling short of perfect invariably becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Nurture vs. Nature

Are kids born perfectionists? There are lots of differing opinions among researchers far brighter than I, but I will venture a guess based on plenty of observations and say, no, kids who are perfectionists are not born but rather, over time learn to be that way. There are many, many childhood experiences, messages and observations that can feed into developing childhood perfectionistic patterns. To name a couple of the most influential ones: kids whose best efforts are consistently rejected because others are convinced they could have done better. And sometimes they really could have done better, which makes our task as parents difficult. It has more to do with how we address the issue of trying harder next time and how consistently we get our expectations for greater effort right. And then there is always the powerful influence of modeling from a perfectionistic parent who consistently berates him/herself for falling short of what are unrealistic, unreachable demands.

So, what’s a parent to do?

Here are just a few suggestions to consider if you want to protect your kids from the “curse” of perfectionism:

  • Teach and help your kids to know the differences between perfection and excellence
  • Encourage and model excellence rather than perfection in the way you live your own life
  • Teach your kids the fine art of succeeding humbly and failing gracefully
  • expect and encourage excellence while avoiding unrealistic expectations
  • Help them find ways to learn from their failures
  • Encourage and expect your kids to set their goals just a notch or two above what they think they can realistically achieve
  • Make it a habit to talk with them about their successes and do the same with them about their failures
  • Show and communicate your pride in their efforts, regardless of the outcome

I hope these thoughts and ideas about perfection help, and I welcome input that any of you might have on the subject.


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