What if you couldn’t tolerate making mistakes? What if you took a really long time to do things because you had to get it ‘right’? What if there were things that you avoided doing because you had a belief that you wouldn’t do them ‘good enough’?
Perhaps you might feel irritable, frustrated and sad a lot of the time. As a consequence of feeling this way, your behaviour might be abrupt and grumpy-looking. Perhaps you might feel stressed at having to always ‘perform’ to a standard that feels very high. Perhaps you might miss out on many opportunities, some of which could lead to great things. But, of course you don’t know this, as you tend to avoid a lot.
Perfectionists put a great deal of effort into feeling ‘in control’ of their world. This is usually all fine, as long as everything is going to plan. However, as soon as they feel they are losing control in some way, and they feel something is not within their circle of influence, then their world start to crumble.
This is when their life can go a bit pear shaped. A big reason for this is that they have not had much practice at things going wrong in life. In essence, they do not have the skills to deal with that feeling of making a mistake (because they have controlled things to avoid making them). They are not highly skilled at negotiating their way around an uncomfortable feeling as they have avoided the need for experiencing these throughout life.
For the parent with the perfectionist type child
What if you are a parent reading this, and you have noticed that your child has perfectionist tendencies. What do you think and feel about your child having these tendencies?
In truth they are probably mixed. The perfectionist kid is the child who tends to ‘do well’. They are the achievers. They do their work without too much fuss and in many ways seem quite ‘easy’ children. This side of perfectionism is easy to bear.
The other side isn’t quite so easy.. This side, that has them throwing their pencil down and stomping off in frustration when they judge themselves to be making too many mistakes. When they refuse to do something (because they don’t feel they will do it to a good enough standard). When they get angry that they aren’t performing ‘perfectly’.
How to shape your child’s perfectionism
Shaping our kids’ perfectionism is worth our while because it essentially ‘frees’ them up a little throughout their life. Shaping them away from their perfectionist tendencies won’t make them achieve less; the achieving factor can still be celebrated – Excellent job! Great effort! You tried your best – excellent work!
“Sit” with the uncomfortable feeling
Shaping their perfectionism is necessary when it is interrupting them and causing them emotional distress. It’s important to help them ‘sit’ with the uncomfortable feeling (the feeling they are trying to control by being perfectionistic) and work through it, as opposed to ‘avoiding’ it by stomping off.
Teaching them that making mistakes is “OK” and how to move on from the mistakes
For example, when they are getting frustrated because they are making mistakes. This is when we can say things like: Just stick with it. Making mistakes is all part of learning. It’s OK. Just work through it. I can help you work through it. Sometimes making mistakes helps us learn better. Encouraging them in these ways helps kids to ‘relax their rules’ – the rules that their perfectionist tendencies abide by.
Providing this type of input into our kids is important because it teaches them to be OK about making mistakes. It doesn’t encourage making mistakes; it gives them some guidance about how to handle themselves around making mistakes when they do. Because they will make mistakes throughout their life.
They need to know how to deal with this aspect of life so that they do not crumble too much and for disproportionate amounts at the time. Instead they can keep moving forward, confident in their abilities to achieve to high standards, AS WELL AS confident in their abilities to handle themselves when things don’t go to plan.
Developing flexible thinking and how to problem solve
We are essentially helping our kids to develop a little more ‘flexibility’ in their thinking (to be less rigid in their thinking rules), and to be able to ‘problem solve’ their way through things not always going to plan.
These are important and valuable skills for our kids to develop while their patterns of operating in the world are still quite open to shifting (rather than leaving it until adulthood).
Adults who are perfectionists often struggle when they come across a life event that they cannot exert control over. It is literally like being in a game of ‘tug-o-war’. The event that they can’t control is at one end, and they are at the other end. Pulling, tugging, trying to keep a steady footing, and expending huge amounts of mental effort and energy on trying to control/exert control over this event.
What would serve them better in these circumstances would be the ability to be flexible, to find different ways to approach the event as well as the ability to identify (have insight) early on that they are trying to control something that cannot be controlled. A lot of grief would be spared!
Raising our children
As we are bringing our kids up to function in this world as best as possible when they are adults, it is extremely valuable to our budding perfectionist to help them balance out their desire to achieve with some of these other skills.
Particularly the ability to be flexible in their thinking, to challenge the ‘rules’ they have set up for themselves, to problem solve difficulties they are having (i.e. to find other solutions rather than stomping off and avoiding doing things), and the ability to notice when they are stuck in their own games of ‘tug-o-war’.
These types of skills are as important as achieving success in the much bigger picture of ‘wellbeing’ in life – our ultimate aim for our children!