Perfectionism is a combination of the desire to be perfect, the fear of imperfection, and the sense that being perfect will bring acceptance as a person.
Perfectionistic behaviors include such things as overcommitment, super sensitivity to criticism, compulsive attention to detail, and procrastination;
Perfectionistic thoughts can include, “I’m never good enough”, “I’m only acceptable if I’m perfect”, and, “If I make a mistake, there’s something wrong with me”;
Perfectionistic feelings include disgust with oneself, anger, anxiety, and shame.
Perfectionism burdens your life, interferes with creativity, and makes intimate relations difficult. It is never healthy. Those who, however strenuously, pursue excellence in the absence of perfectionism are able to stretch themselves and commit all of their talent and passion to a task. They will take mistakes and failures in stride as a part of the process of growth. When perfectionists are successful, it is despite, not because of their perfectionism. Perfectionism doesn’t determine success; talent, energy, and commitment do. Research consistently demonstrates that perfectionism is about concern over mistakes, and that the anxiety associated with it interferes with spontaneity, flow, and achievement. The perfect is indeed the enemy of the good.
We can understand the origins of perfectionism by keeping in mind two basic aspects of human nature:
Perfectionism is a self esteem issue. It arises from feelings of defectiveness and unacceptability, and shame.
Perfectionists are motivated by the emotional conviction that only perfection will bring personal acceptance. Perfectionistic behaviors and thoughts come from this conviction. Perfectionism isn’t something that simply occurs to a person; it is a relational issue. The sense that personal acceptance depends on one’s performance arises in several different specific environments.
Perfectionism is not a part of giftedness. Gifted children may, like other children, be perfectionistic, but the zeal, persistence, hard work, and devotion to mastery that many gifted kids exhibit represent a pursuit of excellence that perfectionism will actually interfere with.
Freeing your family from perfectionism is less about finding the right thing to do, and more about creating an environment of acceptance. Of course, it is important to challenge your children, and yourself, to reevaluate beliefs and change behaviors. It’s important to make clear, though, that you love your children whatever they do or do not accomplish. They should know that mistakes are a part of everyone's life and that these mistakes can always form a basis for learning, but all suggestions for changing behaviors and thoughts will become most useful in an environment in which a feeling of acceptance is secure. Absent this, explaining to a perfectionistic child that she needn't worry so much is simply heard as one more criticism.
The road to change is based on the creation of dialogue. The more you can talk over your concerns, expressing your feelings without pointing fingers, the more likely you are to be able to make sense together and find common solutions. Some of the specific elements of such a dialogue are:
Empathy: The attempt to see the world through your children's eyes in order to understand what making a mistake means to them, and what they believe you expect from them;
Self Reflection: The honest examination of what you yourself may have been contributing to the problem by your actions or attitudes;
Encouragement: The consistent effort to point out what you appreciate about your children and why you like them for being there, not just for what they can achieve.
The dialogue, including these elements, sends a message to your children that they are important to you, that you are willing work together to solve problems, and that you respect their ability to do that. With that sense of acceptance, your children can gain the courage to be imperfect.
For More Information
Greenspon, T.S. (2007). What To Do When “Good Enough” Isn’t Good Enough: The Real Deal on Perfectionism. Minneapolis: Free Spirit Publishing.
This article is provided as a service of the Davidson Institute for Talent Development, a 501(c)3 nonprofit dedicated to supporting profoundly gifted young people 18 and under. To learn more about the Davidson Institute’s programs, please visit www.DavidsonGifted.org.
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