The What, Why, And How Of Perfectionism

by Paras Ramani, MFTI
Therapist at Family Therapy Center of Silicon Valley

Does your teen feel like what he/she achieves is never quite good enough?

More often than not, does your teen put off turning in papers or projects because he/she wants to get them just right?

Does your teen feel like he/she must give more than 100 percent on everything he/she does to not be considered mediocre or be seen as a failure?

If so, rather than simply working toward success, your teen may in fact be trying to be perfect. Perfectionism refers to incorporating self-defeating thoughts and behaviors aimed at reaching excessively high, and often unrealistic, goals. Perfectionism is seen in our society as desirable and necessary for success. However, recent studies have shown that perfectionist attitudes interfere with success. The desire or the need to be perfect can both rob you of a sense of personal satisfaction and cause you to fail to achieve as much as people who have more realistic goals.

Causes of perfectionism

A person does not become a perfectionist overnight. Perfectionistic tendencies tend to sprout earlier in life, and those with these tendencies start to correlate the approval of others to their own accomplishments resulting in drawing his or her own value based solely on the acknowledgement of others. Thus, their self-esteem starts to be based largely on external standards. This leaves perfectionists vulnerable and excessively sensitive to the opinions and criticism of others. In an attempt to protect themselves from such disapproval, they may decide that being perfect is their only defense.

Several the following negative feelings, thoughts, and beliefs may be associated with perfectionism:

Fear of failure. Perfectionists often equate failure to achieve their goals with a lack of personal worth or value.

Fear of making mistakes. Perfectionists regularly equate mistakes with failure. In orienting their lives around avoiding mistakes, perfectionists miss opportunities to learn and grow.

Fear of disapproval. Perfectionists often fear that if they let others see their flaws, they will no longer be accepted.

All-or-nothing thinking. Perfectionists frequently believe that they are worthless if their accomplishments are not perfect.

Perfectionists tend to perceive others as achieving success with minimal effort, few errors, little emotional stress, and maximum self-confidence. At the same time, perfectionists view their own efforts as unending and forever inadequate. Anxiety, insecurity, and fear of disapproval may all lead to perfectionist behavior.

Malicious cycle of perfectionism

Perfectionistic attitudes set in motion a malicious cycle. First, perfectionists set unreachable goals. Second, they fail to meet these goals because the goals were impossible to begin with. Third, the constant pressure to achieve perfection and the inevitable chronic failure reduce productivity and effectiveness. Fourth, this cycle leads perfectionists to be self-critical and self-blaming, which results in lower self-esteem. It may also lead to anxiety and depression. Now, perfectionists may give up completely on their goals and set different goals thinking, “this time if only I try harder, I will succeed.” Such thinking sets the entire cycle in motion again.

What to do about perfectionism

The first step in changing from a perfectionist attitude to a healthy mentality is to realize that perfectionism is undesirable. Perfection is an illusion that is unattainable. The next step is to challenge the self-defeating thoughts and behaviors that fuel perfectionism. Some of the following strategies may help:

Setting realistic and reachable goals based on your own wants and needs and what you have accomplished in the past. This will enable you to achieve and will lead to a greater sense of self-esteem.

Set successive goals. As you reach a goal, set your next goal one level beyond your present level of accomplishment.

Experiment with your standards for success. Choose any activity and instead of aiming for 100 percent, try for 90 percent, 80 percent, or even 60 percent success. This will help you to realize that the world does not end when you are not perfect.

Focus on the process, not just on the result. Evaluate your success not only in terms of what you accomplished but also in terms of how much you enjoyed the task. Recognize that there can be value in the process of pursuing a goal.

Ask yourself the hard questions. Confront the fears that may be behind your perfectionism by asking yourself, “What am I afraid of? What is the worst thing that could happen?”

Mistakes are opportunities for experience. Recognize that many positive things can only be learned by making mistakes. When you make a mistake, ask yourself, “What can I learn from this experience?” More specifically, think of a recent mistake you have made and list all the things you can learn from it.

Avoid all-or-nothing thinking in relation to your goals. Learn to differentiate the tasks you want to give high priority to from those tasks that are less important to you.

How can parents support their perfectionistic children and teens?

It can seem daunting to want to help your child yet not know where to start, here a few things you can do to help your child make their perfectionism more manageable.

Educate your child about perfectionism. Talk to your child about perfectionism. Help him or her understand that perfectionism makes us overly critical of ourselves and others. This may make us unhappy and anxious about trying new things. Perfectionism makes it difficult to finish tasks, and can be frustrating for everyone in the family! For younger children, you may not want to label it as “perfectionism,” but instead make up your own name for it. For teens, call it “perfectionism” in case they want to find out more about it on their own.

Teach positive statements. Perfectionistic children and teenagers often have rigid “black-and-white” thinking. Things are either right or wrong, good or bad, perfect or a failure. Help your child see the gray areas in-between. Encourage your child to replace self-critical or perfectionistic thoughts with more positive, helpful statements. Have your child say these statements to him or herself whenever he or she starts to be self-critical or upset about not doing something perfectly. Suggest writing these statements down somewhere handy (e.g. on the home screen of their phone, a post-it, etc.) Even if he or she doesn’t believe these statements right away, enough repetition will turn positive thoughts into a habit, and help quiet the negative self-talk.

Help your child gain perspective. Perfectionistic children and teens tend to “catastrophize.” Mistakes or imperfections are seen as more terrible than they really are. They focus on the possible negative consequences of failure. In most cases, these feared consequences are unlikely and much more drastic than the reality. Understandably, catastrophizing increases anxiety and interferes with performance. Help your child recognize that one mistake does not equal failure, and that one bad performance does not mean that he or she is worthless.

Praise effort. It is important to praise effort regardless of whether or not your child was successful. This is especially true for a perfectionistic child or teen. Instead of praising the achievement, praise the effort and quality of character that was shown. Also, praise skills that are not directly related to achievement (e.g. sharing with others, remembering something important, playing well, or congratulating a winner).

Create realistic schedules. Help your child by breaking down larger tasks into manageable steps. On a chart or calendar, write down the goal or deadline and work backwards, setting mini-goals along the way. Build in rewards for reaching these steps. Also, encourage him or her to decide in advance how much time to spend on a task. Remember, the goal is to complete the task, not to make it perfect.

Set priorities. Perfectionists sometimes have trouble deciding on what to devote their energy and effort. Encourage your child to prioritize by deciding which activities deserve maximum energy and which require less. Let him or her know it’s okay not to give 100% to every task or activity.

Gain balance. Perfectionists tend to lead narrow lives because it’s very difficult to be very good at a lot of things. The goal should be to NOT invest more effort than is necessary to do a “good enough” job. Reassure your child that it is good to take breaks and take the time to do things they enjoy. This will allow more time to enjoy with friends, and on other activities and hobbies.

There is nothing wrong with setting high standards, but they need to be reachable with effort. It’s all about being OK; human not super-human; among the best, if not the best. Perfectionism can be a curse, and perfectionists can carry criticism both of themselves and others. By setting standards at the wrong level, they are condemned never to achieve them.

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Would you like additional guidance in this area? Teen Therapy Center provides individual teen therapy, family therapy, group therapy, parent support counseling, and in-home teen and family coaching 7 days a week, including afternoons, evenings, and weekends. For more information, contact us at 408.389.3538.

Darren Wiegert

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