I never thought of myself as a perfectionist until I got to college. I grew up hearing many messages about how I didn’t apply myself in school, so I saw myself as more lazy than anything else.
Imagine my surprise when I was sitting around the dorm having 2am pizza with friends when one of them said, “You can be so harsh, but we’ve learned to ignore it because you are always hardest on yourself. Don’t you ever get tired of aiming for perfection all the time?”
Like a bucket of cold water dumped over my head, I was startled by a truth I hadn’t seen in myself before. In psycho-babble, I was a self-oriented perfectionist. I held unattainably high standards for myself. I would avoid failure at all costs. And, I was incredibly self-critical.
So began a lifelong journey struggling with identifying my perfectionist tendencies and trying hard to not let them damage my own children.
Aiming for high standards can actually be a positive trait we’d like to see in people. But when that drive for perfection breeds a fear of failure and avoiding opportunities, then the line has been crossed to the dark side.
Some telltale signs of perfectionism are easy to spot. Others can be mistaken for other personality traits, like obstinacy. Can you spot the hidden signs of perfectionism in your child?
- Says: “I can’t stop until I get it right”
Practicing something over and over again until it’s done flawlessly can lead to some pretty amazing accomplishments. It’s important, however, to understand what’s motivating this relentless drive. Is the kiddo afraid of disappointing a parent? Do they fear a teacher getting angry? Or, do they have an unrealistic expectation of themselves? Highly gifted kids can be especially prone to this because their physical abilities do not always keep pace with their mental prowess.
Unhealthy Sign: Not smiling, high-fiving, or otherwise acknowledging the small improvements that build towards mastery.
- Scribbles or heavily erases their paper to cover up a mistake
Everybody makes mistakes. It’s a part of being human. True, some mistakes can be embarrassing, but a consistent compulsion to hide every slight error usually speaks to an insecurity about a child’s need to be perfect.
Unhealthy Sign: When that scribbling or erasing is so intense it creates holes in the paper. The mistake is not just hidden. It is obliterated.
- Says: “I have to do it this way because it’s the rule”
Some kids are natural rule followers. To a certain extent, parents and teachers like to see that type of behavior and will go out of their way to encourage such compliance. The problem becomes when kids refuse to trust their own intuition or think outside the box for solving certain problems.
Unhealthy Sign: Kids who stubbornly believe that following specific rules will always lead them to success often have a fear of failure. It may also point to low self-esteem and faulty thinking that success depends on outside forces more than personal qualities.
- Rips up, crumples, and stomps on less than perfect work
Anyone who has ever used an old-fashioned typewriter knows the frustration of getting to the end of the page and suddenly making a typo. Some reports just can’t have a lick of white-out on them. So, out comes a fresh sheet of paper to start all over, again.
Unhealthy Sign: Just like the person who scribbles their mistakes into oblivion, tearing into a piece of people is a living metaphor of what that mistake may be doing to their self-esteem – ripping it to shreds.
- Overly anxious while waiting for results
Waiting get be nerve-racking, whether it’s getting a graded test back or hearing who won 1st place at a competition. You’ve worked hard and you want to know if the effort paid off. Listening to a child during that waiting period can clue you in to whether or not their anxiety warrants concern. A little bit of self-criticism is okay because it can help a person recognize what areas they may still need to work on.
Unhealthy Sign: Unrelenting negative self talk streams like, “I knew I was going to mess up. I can’t believe I didn’t do better. Do you think I failed? I should have studied/practiced more!” suggest an unhealthy level of worry over perfectionism.
- Hides work if it has a grade of less than 100%
I used to tell students: 95% on a test is just as much an “A” as a 100%. At the end of the year, you’re only going to see a letter grade and no one will know if it was perfect or not except for you and the teacher. For most kids, hearing that is an epiphany.
Unhealthy Sign: Being disappointed that you may have lost a couple of points is understandable, but beating yourself up or being ashamed over answering one question wrong is a concern.
- Says: “No, no, no. I’m not going to try it!”
Have you seen the Nailed It meme, where people post pictures of their failed attempts at recreating Pinterest projects? It’s safe to say that those people are unlikely suffering from perfectionism. Instead, they’re willing to try something outside their comfort zone and then laugh about it when it goes hilariously wrong. Unfortunately, not everyone is as confident in taking such chances in life. Perfectionists, in particular, will often avoid new things because they’re afraid of not nailing it on their first take.
Unhealthy Sign: Look at the degree, intensity, and frequency of refusals to try new things that involve a level of personal ability. Everybody has the right to prefer certain activities over others, but consistently refusing to try a wide variety of new experiences may speak to an extreme fear of failure.
How do you help them overcome it?
Stop by next week and we’ll talk about helping children overcome the negative effects of perfectionism.