Feature Story 22-Nov-2011
Striving to be perfect is a seed planted early in life these days. For the first four or five years simply being ourselves is enough. Every new skill, mastered when we are ready, is greeted joyfully. Nobody rates our achievements. We are valued as individuals: love is unconditional.
The weight of expectation
Entering the wider world of school and community brings higher expectations from parents, teachers and sports coaches. Sometimes the messages are subtle and sometimes blunt, but they stay with us for life. The basic message is that the world is a very competitive place and you need to work very hard to ensure future success. The harder you work, the better you’ll do. Mistakes can cost you good grades or your place on the football team. Practice makes perfect.
We all want our children to do well in life: we encourage them to reach their full potential. The problem lies in how that message is interpreted. Your hopes for your child may be seen by them as expectations. They may wonder what happens if they don’t live up to those expectations. Some children conclude that nothing less than perfection is acceptable and strive to achieve unrealistic goals. Some are so paralysed by a fear of failure that they under-achieve.
I’m never good enough
There are many positives to perfectionism but there is also a downside. Flinders University psychologist and author, Professor Tracey Wade, has studied perfectionism and its relationship to anxiety, depression and eating disorders. She is co-author of the book Overcoming Perfectionism. Wade says:
“Unhealthy perfectionism is when attaining excellence and high standards start to produce a negative impact on the person. They are never pleased with achievement of goals, discounting this as being too easy, and constantly revising their goals upwards so that eventually achievement of the goal is no longer possible. Failure to achieve goals is met with self-criticism and can lead to ongoing depression, anxiety, or disordered eating.”
Unhealthy perfectionism can turn people into avoiders, procrastinators or obsessive performance checkers. Authors of Overcoming perfectionism, Roz Shafran, Sarah Egan and Tracey Wade, say:
Someone with perfectionism fears the worst possible outcome in their performance, and so, rather than risk being faced with that poor performance, chooses to avoid the possibility of it happening.”
They don’t sit the exam, they don’t compete in the race, or they won’t try new things for fear of failing. Avoidance means that they never have the chance to find out if their performance may be better than they fear, the authors say.“Avoidance also means you don’t get a chance to practice a task, learn from mistakes and continue to improve as a result.”
Procrastination, another form of avoidance behaviour, is common among perfectionists.
It often stems from a fear of failure so intense that the person would rather put off starting a task than risk failing to perform it to the high standard they have set themselves.” Instead of the perfect result the perfectionist is striving for, the opposite happens.
Continually delaying getting started on a task is likely to heighten anxiety to a degree that there is simply not enough time left to produce a good performance when the task is finally embarked on… Procrastination can also lead to an accumulation of tasks, so that when one actually has to start doing something, the prospect of just starting can seem overwhelming,” they explain.
Performance checking is also a common behaviour of perfectionists, the authors say. The perfectionist may continually redo a task, compare themselves to others, or seek reassurance from other people about how well they have carried out the task. Perfectionists ‘often choose unrealistic people to compare themselves to’ and they may only focus on negatives in feedback while ignoring the positives. The perfectionist then worries even more about their performance.
Is your child struggling with perfectionism?
Psychologist and author Thomas S. Greenspon, Ph.D. says:
Perfectionism is not simply a need to do well. It’s not just being proud of doing well. Perfectionism comes from a deep fear of not doing well enough. Perfectionists worry about this because they have a conviction that being perfect is the only way to be acceptable as a person.”
Greenspon describes typical perfectionist behaviours in children:
- They always have to win
- They agree to do way too many things at the same time
- They rarely let others help with a project
- They use negative self-talk like “How could I be so stupid”.
- They have a hard time making choices
- They frequently criticise others
- They always compare their work with others
- They always have to be in control
- They pay more attention to the negative than positive comments
- They never seem satisfied with their work
- They get carried away with the details
- They procrastinate
- They are terrified of making mistakes
- They don’t like to try new things
- Being a perfectionist is exhausting and self-defeating, Greenspon says.
How does unhealthy perfectionism develop?
Perfectionism is thought to be a result of both environmental factors and natural temperament. The Centre for Clinical Interventions (CCI, Western Australia Department of Health) says that children may develop rigid and inflexible beliefs about achievement and self-worth through experiences at home and school:“Our view of ourselves and the world starts to develop very early in life and is influenced by our early experiences (for example, our family, society, school, peer group) and by our temperament. Perfectionists have had experiences that lead them to develop a view of the world that encourages the pursuit of unrelenting high standards (for example, ‘I must never make mistakes’).”
Temperament may also play a part, the CCI says.
“Studies have shown that people who avoid seeking out novelty, who are highly dependent on rewards from others, and who persist towards goals despite frustration and fatigue, are more likely to develop perfectionism. But having this sort of temperament does not mean that your perfectionism cannot be changed.”
Greenspon warns that children may model themselves on perfectionist parents. He says:
“In spite of the best intentions, parents can send unwanted messages to their children regarding their expectations. It’s important for you to examine what messages you are sending.” He suggests parents ask themselves:
- Am I frequently critical of things or people?
- Do I look for and comment on things that aren’t quite right?
- Do I ‘hover’ over my children to see that everything is done correctly?
- Do I ever comment on what I appreciate?
- Do I compare one child to another?
- Do I have a home that feels safe and calm? (A child may strive for perfection in order to divert attention from family problems.)
- Greenspon says it is also helpful to consider what your parents expected from you and how they conveyed this. Are you replaying same messages you received as a child?
Lightening the load of perfectionism
In an ABC interview in July, Wade said the key to overcoming unhealthy perfectionism is to see failures in context.
“Focus on your whole life and avoid the temptation to define yourself by a list of achievements,” she said.
“Self-compassion and kindness is also important, because criticism and abuse is not the way to get the best out of anyone, including yourself.”
Elizabeth Scott is an American health educator specialising in stress management. In an online article Overcoming Perfectionism: How to Develop a Healthier Outlook she says:
“Perfectionism can rob you of your peace of mind, enjoyment of life, and self-esteem.”
She suggests the following steps for decreasing the stress of perfectionism:
- Make a cost-benefit analysis. You may think your perfectionist traits make you more effective, but research says this probably isn’t true. List the ways perfectionism is hurting you (and those around you) and you’ll be more motivated to change.
- Become aware of your tendencies. Write down when you feel you have failed, or haven’t done well enough, and what you thought at the time. If you become aware of your patterns, you’re in a better position to alter them.
- See the positive. Perfectionists are skilled at spotting their own and other’s mistakes. Make a conscious effort to notice the good in your own and other’s work and achievements.
- Alter your self-talk. Perfectionists tend to have a critical voice in their head telling them their work isn’t good enough, they’re not trying hard enough, and they’re not good enough. (Links from Scott’s article give practical tips on changing your self-talk.)
- Take baby steps. Reduce your stress by setting bite-sized goals and rewarding yourself when you achieve them.
- Learn to handle criticism. Instead of reacting defensively to criticism see if it can give you important clues on how to improve performance. If criticism is harsh, remind others (and yourself) that mistakes are a great way to learn. (Adapted from the article)
Helping a child overcome unhealthy perfectionism
What can you do to help a child who continually sets the bar too high and then berates themselves for not measuring up to their own standards? How can you help a child become less anxious, fearful and self-critical? Wade suggests that you:
“Encourage them to do their best, but remind them that who they are is also important. For example, their value as a friend matters as much as what they achieve.
Promote the value of giving things a try. Teach kids that mistakes are a valuable way of learning how to do things better.
Be a model for ‘near enough is good enough’ in your own life. Comment on mistakes you have made and their value in terms of lessons learned.
Have regular meals together. Conversations around the dinner table are an opportunity for parents to share what they do in their working day and how they cope when things don’t go according to plan. Promote the value of flexibility rather than black and white thinking.”
Greenspon says the key to helping your child overcome perfectionism is about creating an environment of acceptance.
“If kids can feel acceptable – loved, cherished and appreciated – regardless of how well they do something, then not only will the perfectionism fade, but their ability to improve will be enhanced as well.”
He recommends that you try to ‘understand the world through your child’s eyes’. Telling him or her that it’s ‘silly’ to be worried about a less than perfect performance won’t help. Ask your child to tell you what their viewpoint is.
“Accept that for what it is, and then do what you can to reassure her that you do love and respect her – and that you feel that way for reasons that have nothing to do with the grades she gets.”
Greenspon says that true dialogue with your child – ‘where you and your child are talking and listening to one another’ goes a long way to solving problems. Really hear what your child says and ‘if you become aware that you have played a role in painful interactions, an apology can help your child in powerful ways’. “If you can say, ‘I’m sorry for this mistake: I’ll work on that and make a difference’, then your child can also begin to see that mistakes can be looked at and learned from, and they are not signs of a flawed character. This kind of dialogue then becomes an anti-perfectionism vaccine”, Greenspon says.
Encouraging your child is important, the author reminds us.
"Telling your kids what you appreciate about them, thanking them for things they have done, participating with them in their sense of pride or disappointment about something are all ways of letting them know they are cherished and hold an important place in your life.”
Greenspon concludes that ‘It is only when people feel acceptable as people that a mistake can be just a mistake’. That summarises the difference between the healthy high achiever and the unhealthy perfectionist.
Perfectionism in Children, an article by Leah Davies on www.kellybear.com
Perfectionism: the road to failure, an article on www.abc.net.au
Recommended reading For parents:
Overcoming Perfectionism: a self-help guide using cognitive behavioural techniques by Roz Shafran, Sarah Egan and Tracey Wade. Publisher: Robinson PB $24.95
For older children or parents:
What To Do When Good Isn’t Good Enough: The Real Deal on Perfectionism: a Guide for Kids by Thomas Greenspon. Publisher: Free Spirit PB $10.95
This book helps kids and parents to understand what perfectionism is, how it can hurt them, and how they can free themselves from it.