One of my kids is definitely a perfectionist. For a large part of my life, I thought this was a good thing. I wished that I would be more driven and more focused on success. But living with someone who is a perfectionist has shown that there is definitely a darker side to this behavior.
When I say “perfectionist,” I lean more toward the psychological definition, as explained in the article “What to Do When Your Child Is a Perfectionist” by Amy Morin, LCSW: “Perfectionists establish unrealistic goals for themselves. Then, they place enormous pressure on themselves to try and reach their goals. They engage in all-or-nothing thinking. Whether it’s a 99 on a math test or 9 out of 10 foul shots made, perfectionists declare their performance a dismal failure when they fall short of their goals.”
While my child is not 100 percent there, I see it a lot in their behavior. Once a mistake is made, the frustration is immediate. If the mistake is followed by another mistake, then comes the urge to shut down and quit. Why? Because, in their words, they are “S (stupid) and will never get it right.” This could be a mistake in behavior, on homework or when practicing a new skill. When I read the warning signs in Morin’s article ...
-High sensitivity to criticism
-Difficulty completing assignments because the work is never “good enough” -Procrastinating to avoid difficult tasks
-Self-critical, self-conscious, and easily embarrassed
-Very critical of other people
-Trouble making decisions or prioritizing tasks
-Low frustration tolerance when a mistake is made
-High anxiety surrounding failure
… there were a lot of check marks.
Now, if you have read any Brené Brown, you know that perfectionism can stem from shame. Sometimes people develop perfectionism to avoid shame. The problem, as we all know when we think with our brain and not our heart (or our hurt), is that perfection is impossible. It becomes a way for our shame to control us even more, because every time we fail at being perfect, we feel more ashamed.
It’s a behavior pattern that Matt and I have begun to notice is on the rise, and now that we’re homeschooling, we see it even more strongly. Given that I wrote my book, The Awfulizer, purely to help my kids not to go through a life ruled by shame, it can be heartbreaking to watch. We try talking our child through some of these instances, but I’ve found that leads them into a catastrophic type of logic: “I can’t get this right, which means I am going to fail. When I fail this, I will never get to do that. If I can never do that …” and so on. When they were truly worked up, talking only seemed to inflame the panic; logic was not working.
I stumbled upon something that seems to help during our first week of homeschooling. After a particularly large burst of frustration and self-defeatism, we decided to use a timer. For one hour a day, it is OK to make mistakes. During this time, we welcome and expect to make mistakes. Our goal is to not get frustrated by them while the timer is going. Once the timer goes off, they have permission to get upset, but while it is on, they have to try to welcome and embrace the mistakes.
Now, when we get to the point in the day when the frustration level is getting very high, we set the timer. They ask for the timer to be put on, which I find hopeful. It doesn’t always erase the frustration — there are days when “Alexa, how much time is left?” is asked every five minutes — but it does calm the outbursts and the catastrophic thinking. Something about having a time limit seems to ease some of the anxiety for them.
Matt and I also stress every chance we get that mistakes are important and that is how we learn. We talk about mistakes we’ve made in the past, and how we’ve learned from them. Matt and I also emphasize that we don’t expect them to “be” the best, just to “try” their best, and that is a very important distinction to make.
My hope is that being open and talking about this will help
them realize they do not have to hide these feelings from us. That way, we can work on finding solutions together as a family. They may always be a little bit of a perfectionist, but hopefully in a way that does not paralyze them or make them feel ashamed or disappointed in themselves.