Perfectionism – is it a positive trait or a negative one? The typical interview question about personal flaws is often answered with, “I’m a perfectionist”, which is a bit of a humble-brag really. It’s ok to be a perfectionist, up to a point, but what happens when the aim of being flawless goes too far, and begins to impact self-esteem and happiness? And what do we do, when we recognise these traits in our kids?
Emily already wrote about some of the ways that she helps her daughter accept and embrace mistakes; here are some other ways to help a perfectionist child.
Celebrate the Journey
Learning something new isn’t just about achieving goals, but having fun along the way. Don’t just comment on the achievements made, but also on the fun of learning something new. Learning a new language is a good example – you can have a lot of fun finding new words, or playing word games, rather than worrying about exam results.
Look Forward and Backwards
My daughter is learning to play the piano, and we sometimes video her. When we play the video back a month or two later, she can see how far she’s come, and how much her playing has improved. It is also encouraging to say, “You’ve improved so much. Just imagine how good you are going to be in another couple of months, and how pleased you will be with your progress”.
Perfectionists often limit themselves to activities in which they excel naturally. A friend told me of refusing to learn sudoku or horse-riding, giving the excuse that she didn’t need to, because she was sure to be good at these activities anyway. What she was really hiding was her fear of numbers, and of large animals. If your child does this, then gently coax her out of her comfort zone. Don’t go overboard with praise for the natural talents, but be very encouraging and supportive of the scary activities.
Measure Your Response
When your child comes home from school, happily waving their French exam results, then celebrate the achievement of getting a B, and don’t say, “That’s great. With a bit more work, you’ll get an A next time”. The take-away for your child is, “mum would have been even happier, if I’d got an A. I’ve disappointed her”. Ensure that your child knows that even if they have a disappointing result, that you love them unconditionally, and appreciate the effort that they’ve put in.
Take Their Disappointment Seriously
Don’t try to cajole them, or cheer them up, if they are disappointed with a result. “Oh, well, it doesn’t matter. You’ll do better next time”, won’t help a perfectionist get over their self-anger. Asking “I can see that you are disappointed. Would you like to talk about it?” might help them open up to you. Talk to them about where they think they went wrong, and whether it could have been avoided.
Don’t Model Perfectionist Behaviour
This is the most difficult part, if you have perfectionist tendencies! Try to moderate your comments re your own achievements, both in your personal life, and at work. Show pride and satisfaction in your work, and celebrate the small steps along the way. Try not to be negative when you talk about how things are going at work.