Tips for Parents: The Roots of, and Recovery From Perfectionism
Greenspon, T.
Davidson Institute for Talent Development

This Tips for Parents article is from a seminar hosted by Dr. Thomas Greenspon, who outlines the dangers of perfectionism for families. Many gifted children, and their parents strive for excellence, in their academic efforts, as well as in the home. Greenspon offers tips on how to take perceived failure in stride, in order to continue to excel.

Perfectionism is a combination of the desire to be perfect, the fear of not being able to be perfect, and the sense that personal acceptance hinges on being perfect.

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 our lives, interferes with creativity, and makes intimate relations difficult. It is never healthy. Those who pursue excellence, in the absence of perfectionism, are able to stretch themselves and commit all of their talent and passion to a task while taking 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 not about pride of accomplishment, but rather about concern over mistakes, and that it interferes with spontaneity, flow, and achievement.

We can understand the origins of perfectionism by keeping in mind two basic aspects of human nature:

    Our experience of the world is always organized and meaningful, guided by a set of emotional convictions about ourselves and others.
    The substance of these emotional convictions is continuously determined by the nature of our connections or attachments to significant others.

Here's what this means for perfectionism: The root of perfectionism is a sense of conditional acceptance. Perfectionists have made sense of their personal experience by concluding that if they can be perfect, they can be acceptable as people. Perfectionism, then, is a relational issue and not something that arises solely on its own or within a person. There are several environments in which perfectionism can arise, but they all share the sense that acceptance, or harmony, or safety within the family, are dependent on how a family member performs.

Freeing our families from perfectionism is less about finding the right thing to do, and more about creating an environment of acceptance. Of course, it is also important to challenge our children, and ourselves, to reevaluate our beliefs and change our behaviors. Its important to be clear that we love our 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. All of the behavioral and cognitive interventions we can think of to help our children will become most useful in an environment in which their 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 dialog. The more we can talk over our concerns, expressing our feelings without pointing fingers, the more likely we are to be able to make sense together and find common solutions. Some of the specific elements of such a dialog are:
Empathy: The attempt to see the world through our children's eyes in order to understand what making a mistake means to them;
Self Reflection: The honest examination of what we ourselves may have been contributing to the problem by our actions or attitudes;
Encouragement: The consistent effort to point out what we appreciate about our children and why we like them for being here, not for what they can achieve.

The dialog, including these elements, sends a message to our children that they are important to us, that we are willing to work together to solve problems, and that we respect their ability to do that. With the sense of acceptance that can grow from that, our children can gain the courage to be imperfect.

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