Skip to main content

Tips for Parents: Making Sense of Perfectionism

Highlights from Expert Series

The following article shares highlights and insights from one of our Expert Series events, which are exclusive for Young Scholars and their parents.

Authored by: Thomas S. Greenspon, Ph.D.


Perfectionism can seem like a mystery: Why would anyone believe only perfect will do, when most people know no one is perfect?

Although the typical perfectionist is a person who is doing many things at once, sometimes to the point of overload, perfectionism can also be the flip side of this: some people can be so over-concerned about doing things perfectly that they put off doing anything at all. Perfectionistic people may feel angry with themselves because something they were
doing didn’t turn out just right, but underlying this anger is often a sense of shame — a feeling of being defective in some way and not totally acceptable. Perfectionism is a self esteem issue.

Let’s make a distinction between perfectionism and the pursuit of excellence. You may go all out to achieve your goals, and you may be disappointed by failures, but if you generally learn from your mistakes and determine to do better on the next try, you are not necessarily perfectionistic. It’s different if mistakes really upset you, though. The bright line between the pursuit of excellence and perfectionism is the fear of making a mistake. Anxiety is the emotional core of perfectionism.

To get beyond the outward symptoms of perfectionism and understand why it occurs, let’s consider three elements of human psychology:

Human beings are meaning makers. We make sense of our world in a particular way, keeping our lives predictable by fitting our experiences into a consistent sense of reality. Our experience is organized by a set of emotional convictions that define how things are and where we fit in. These convictions remain mostly unconscious, and they develop directly from our interactions with others — parents or adult caregivers, other adults, and friends. All of this happens in a larger context of religious, political, and social beliefs that determine what our particular idea of normality is.

Perfectionism is one example of this. If we live in a home where criticism is common, or where every accomplishment receives a “could have been better!” comment, we might conclude that something is wrong with us — that we are not capable of being good enough and that we would be more acceptable if we could just get everything right. This may
make some people simply stop trying, but others might begin a life-long struggle to be perfect at everything. That struggle receives plenty of support in our culture of individualism and pressures for achievement, where only the gold medal, or the elite college, or the prestigious career, seems to count, and where the focus is on individual achievement as opposed to community efforts.

Emotions motivate human behavior. Thoughts and emotions are inseparable parts of emotional convictions. If we have a sense of pride and of being recognized and accepted as capable and competent, we will be motivated to expand and grow and learn from our mistakes. If instead we have a fear of mistakes, we might become depressed or angry and defiant, but we might, instead, try to manage our fears, or escape from them, by pushing for perfection.

Human connections are essential. Feeling accepted by others as part of a particular group doesn’t just feel good; it’s the foundation of our view of ourselves. Our self esteem is high when we feel connected, understood, and alike with others. Our individualistic culture equates achievement with making it on our own, but the struggle to prove we can “go it alone” makes our insecurities more intense. Success is always about utilizing resources on a stage set by others. Feeling alone and/or disliked creates the kind of anxiety and insecurity which may seem to be conquerable by a struggle for perfection.

Tips

With this deeper understanding of perfectionism in mind, we can propose a process of recovery, in which episodes may re-occur, but the condition can lose its grip over time. Self esteem rises with acceptance by important others, and then the meanings given to personal experience can begin to change. Creating an environment of acceptance involves four basic elements:

  1. Empathy. From the outside, we might think of perfectionism as an odd condition in need of treatment. If we see it from within the perfectionistic person’s experience, though, we can understand it differently. Since perfectionism is a self esteem issue, a perfectionistic person is in a struggle to feel whole and acceptable. Discovering what motivates a person’s perfectionism can begin with curiosity and sincere questions. You might say, for example, “I notice you get really angry when you make a mistake! Can you say what’s going on?” Or: “When you make a mistake, what do you think of yourself?”
  2. Self Reflection. Perfectionism is a relational issue. If it is a part of your life, ask yourself how you think others view you. Does it seem like others judge you for how well you do something? If you are hoping to help someone else, though, here is the hard part: what might you be doing to contribute to the other person’s perfectionism? Are you often critical? Do you only seem happy with them when they have accomplished something? (If you don’t know the answers, ask them!).
  3. Encouragement. Our human connections are the most secure when we feel accepted for who we are, rather than for what we can do. Perfectionistic people usually have plenty of positive personal qualities to offer: they are typically hard working, conscientious, persistent, and take tasks seriously. These personal qualities would still be there even if their perfectionism were to disappear. “Encouragement” results from telling someone, purposely and honestly, what you like and appreciate about them, separate from what they are capable of doing, as in: “I’m really impressed with the amount of hard work you put into this project!”
  4. Dialogue. Perfectionism can feel like a lonely, internal struggle. The emotional convictions underlying it can seem like hard facts of the universe, when in fact they are formed as we relate with others. This means they can change. The journey isn’t easy or straight-forward, but you can start it off by asking some questions and doing what you can to begin a conversation. What does it mean, to the person you are concerned about, if they make a mistake? What do they think others, including you, think about mistakes? Do they think of themselves in generally positive, or negative terms? Continuing conversations about these and related topics, offering your own point of view in the process, lays the foundation for an ongoing conversation that everyone benefits from. The conversation itself is an act of connection; the message to the other person is that they are important to you and that, without intending to be critical, you believe their self-views might be capable of expanding in new directions. They, and you, can be on the road to developing the “courage to be imperfect.”

Resources

Greenspon, T.S. (2007) What to do when “good enough” isn’t good enough: The real deal on perfectionism. Minneapolis: Free Spirit Publishing. (An enduringly popular book for middle schoolers and their parents and teachers)

Greenspon, T.S. (2023) Making Sense of Perfectionism. This paper is an update, available from the Davidson Institute, of the Handbook chapter: Greenspon, T.S. (2021) Perfectionism in context: Empathic gateways to a recovery process. IN: Tracy Cross, Ph.D. & Jennifer Riedl Cross, Ph.D. (Eds). The Handbook for Counselors Serving Students With Gifts and Talents: Development, Relationships, School Issues, and Counseling Needs/Interventions (2nd Ed.). Waco TX: Prufrock Press. Chapter 38, pp. 733-753.

Speaker Bio:
Tom Greenspon is a psychologist, marriage and family therapist, and author, now retired from a 40-year private practice with his wife, Barbara. After a B.A. from Yale, a Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Illinois, and a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Rochester, he joined the faculty of the Medical Center at the University of Alabama in Birmingham until moving to Minneapolis in 1977. Tom teaches couple therapy at the Minnesota Institute for Contemporary Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis. He is a member of the APA’s Society for Psychoanalysis and Psychoanalytic Psychology, and of the International Association for Psychoanalytic Self Psychology, where he serves on the Social Justice Committee. He is currently a member of NAGC’s Diversity and Equity Committee. Among their joint efforts, Tom and Barbara have served as co-presidents of the Minnesota Council for the Gifted and Talented. Tom has written two books and numerous professional and popular press articles on the emotional origins of perfectionism and the process of recovery. He has also made numerous presentations to students, parents, teachers, and mental health professionals.

Permission Statement

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.

Comments

Add a comment

Please note, the Davidson Institute is a non-profit serving families with highly gifted children. We will not post comments that are considered soliciting, mention illicit topics, or share highly personal information.

Related Articles

Highlights from Expert Series

Tips for Students: The Conundrum of High Expectations: How to Support Your Gifted or 2e Child’s Development When the Stakes are High

The following article expands on highlights and insights from one of our Expert Series events, which are exclusive for Young Scholars and…

Highlights from Expert Series

Tips for Students: Solar Eclipse Through History with John Steele

The following article expands on highlights and insights from one of our Expert Series events, which are exclusive for Young Scholars and…

Highlights from Expert Series

Tips for Students: Hack Your Toys! With David Simpson

The following article expands on highlights and insights from one of our Expert Series events, which are exclusive for Young Scholars and…

Highlights from Expert Series

Tips for Students: The History of Spies with August Thomas

The following article expands on highlights and insights from one of our Expert Series events, which are exclusive for Young Scholars and…