The Perils of Perfectionism: how you can help when being perfect isn’t good enough

Better to do something imperfectly than to do nothing perfectly.

In life we should strive for success, aspire to do great things and be conscious of reaching our full potential. When this desire for greatness becomes about finding perfection however, it can soon turn from something that motivates, into something that immobilizes.

How do you know if your children are ‘perfectionists’ and what can this mean for them and those around them?

Perfectionists Procrastinate– for them nothing is ever good enough and hence they are put off starting a project or attempting a new endeavour for fear of them not being able to execute it perfectly. The perfectionist is often left always waiting for the perfect conditions, the perfect timing, the perfection of skills etc. The perfectionist becomes an observer rather than a participant and therefore misses out on many challenges and learning experiences.

Perfectionists must plan everything– they leave very little to chance and pay great attention to detail. Whilst this is certainly a positive attribute for many, for the perfectionist it can lead to anxiety and feelings of frustration and failure when things go awry or circumstances beyond their control change their plans.

Perfectionists see the world in black and white – there is no room for grey areas, but rather the perfectionist is governed by absolutes. This can mean they become judgemental and opinionated and critical both of themselves and others.

So how can you help your child who is showing signs of perfectionist behaviours?

The American Psychologist Rudolf Dreikers refers to it as “the courage to be imperfect”. It often takes a lot of work to accept our faults and avoid putting pressure on ourselves to be more than we are capable. So to get in early and help make this easier, here are a few things we can do with our children to equip them with some strategies to help them cope with these ideals of perfectionism.

  •  Focus on Contribution: teaching our kids early to look outside the self in order to make them see that small contributions no matter how grand or imperfect can make a great difference to others. Encourage them to take part in household chores, volunteer for organizations and community and let them experience that feeling of making a difference that has more to do with participation and less to do with achievements.

 

  • Encourage risk-taking and failure: let them see early on that they can cope when things don’t end how they planned. Don’t always let them win the games. Encourage races where they are not always going to win. Give them tasks that are a little beyond their capabilities and let them see that they can cope. They need to know that it is OK to attempt things even when there is a good chance it may not end how they want.

 

  • Encourage sharing of possessions and space: for the perfectionist, having other kids invade their space and ‘muck up’ their toys can be frustrating and lead to anti-social behaviours. From an early age therefore it is important to encourage socialisation so that they see that even if their toys get rearranged, they can later be packed up and their space once again rearranged to their liking.

 

  • Encourage the giving and receiving of compliments: perfectionists need to know that a deed doesn’t always have to be executed perfectly to warrant an appraisal or compliment. Make them aware of others attempts at things, and encourage a focus on the deeds, the participation and the smaller achievements.

And of course role modelling these sorts of behaviours ourselves is the best way possible for our children to learn to cope with some of the challenges that they may face.

And as Confucius says “Better a diamond with a flaw, than a pebble without”

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This Post Has 16 Comments

  1. Mama K

    Great article Martine. I’ve always been a perfectionist and like your article states it took an event out of the bounds of my control (becoming a parent) to wake me up. My anxiety led to PND and since then I’ve tried to reform my ways in the hope of being a better role model to my son. Thanks for the tips!

    1. Martine

      There is nothing like parenthood to serve up unexpected events out of our control, and as you said if one has a tendency towards perfectionism it can easily lead to anxiety and PND. It is great that you were so aware, enabling you to work on it and help model for your son. 🙂

  2. My eldest in particular is prone to perfectionism and it worries me. It’s good to have some concrete strategies to help her. Thank you.

    1. Martine

      Thanks, I think just being aware is a great start as it can help you slowly address issues as they arise and prevent her perfectionist tendencies from escalating. 🙂

  3. I’m not sure what my little girls are like in this regard as yet, but I know I’ve labelled myself a perfectionist. But reading your descriptions, I really only fully identify with the first nowadays, “perfectionists procrastinate”. I’d like to be a great planner, but I’m not and I definitely see things as more grey as I’ve gotten older than I did when I was much younger. I love your tips about helping our children though and I’d be keen to apply them regardless, especially encouraging risk taking and failure. These are two things I still struggle with today to some degree. I just wish I’d learnt this at least 10-20 years earlier in my life! Great post.

    1. Martine

      Thanks Veronica, and I agree that encouraging risk-taking and accepting failures is something that all kids should experience.

  4. I really enjoyed your article! My children expect a lot of themselves and put a lot of pressure on them selves to do well at sports and at school. I might try some of your suggestions to show them that participation is what really counts!

    1. Martine

      There is a fine line sometimes between encouraging our kids to do their best and putting pressure on them to achieve. Again being aware of some of these issues can help us give them a more balanced approach. 🙂

  5. Jess

    You know I hadn’t seen it before, but now that I read this, you have described my Bridie to a t. She hates people playing with her, because they move things or don’t play right. She never wants to join in team sports and she hates school cause she thinks she isn’t good at it.

    This has really opened my eyes: Thankyou so much. Do you have any ideea where I an find more indepth resources to deal with this?

    1. Martine

      Thanks Jess, I think again just being aware will be the biggest help to Bridie as you will now be able to try and encourage some of the things described in order to try and change some of her behaviours. Whilst it is sometimes difficult to change the mindset of perfectionists it is a very common predicament for many children and adults and there is a lot more research being done lately. I have more informartion at home (yes I am answering this from the beach) which I can look up for you and there is a lots of resources on the internet. Hope this helps 🙂

  6. kirri

    Reading this while I have my own post on perfectionism in my drafts folder….obviously because I need a couple more hours to perfect it for publishing! Jokes aside, some really helpful tips here Martine and the confucius quote is just beautiful.

    1. Martine

      Thanks Kirri, I look forward to reading yours and yes that Confucius had it all worked out!

  7. Renee Mayne

    A great post Martine, growing it was encouraged that perfection was what we should all aspire to achieve. Now I believe that perfection is the poison of all possibility. It can cripple peoples growth and I see kids that strive for it and it really concerns me. Great advice!

    Rx

    1. Martine

      Thanks Renee. It can be crippling for some people so it is certainly another thing to be aware of as a parent. Again it is important we get that balance right. We want to strive to do well but not to our own detriment.

  8. Chelle Wise

    You’ve defined it well. I really believe that it’s better to do something imperfectly that to do nothing perfectly. I like that line of yours. Do you consider yourself perfectionist sometimes? Because I also tend to be OC and perfectionist in some instances.

    Thanks! Wonderful post!
    -Chelle

    1. Martine

      Thanks Chelle, I think many of us want to do some tasks perfectly but for me I think I have a fairly good balance of wanting to succeed but knowing what I am capable of achieving. Thankfully it is not something that debilitates me as I have seen it do to other people.

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