I’ve been slow to admit this but I am a bit of a perfectionist. It’s not always that easy to spot because this trait is often hidden. It shows up though when people offer to do a job for me that I like done a certain way – like the food shop, or cleaning the benches. I struggle when I am asked to do something that I feel inadequate to do well. I’d rather not do it because I don’t want to do a mediocre job that might make me look bad.
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Where it really bites is when I have done a good job. Let’s say I have delivered a really fine presentation but instead of enjoying the positive feedback, I get stuck on one comment in the evaluations about an improvement I could have made. Down the slide I go – and unless I have a robust and kind talk to myself, it can take me days to recover!
I have seen parents struggle with children who spend their energy on keeping their world safe and free from error. But in doing so, make their world a smaller place to live in. It can be confusing to see your ‘able’ child refusing to try something new or sitting on the sideline, watching the others, fearful of joining in until they have mastered the skill.
These children usually contain themselves at school, but use a lot of energy trying to behave correctly – not getting told off and doing everything to the highest standard. By the time they get home, they don’t have much energy left and may explode at the slightest provocation. Parents can be left wondering what fuels such intensity.
How to spot a perfectionist
Spotting a perfectionist in the family is not always easy but there are some things they have in common. It’s also true that perfectionism often runs in the family so if it’s in a child, it is often in a parent too. If a parent or a child can say yes to a number of these tendencies below, then it may go some of the way towards understanding what is going on.
A perfectionist may struggle with some of these
- Trying something new, especially in front of others
- Making a mistake (even as simple as tripping up on a floor mat)
- Only seeing what they got wrong, not what they did well
- Resisting practising a skill as they believe they should be good right from the start
- Being corrected or taking feedback
- Being very upset at a good result, because it wasn’t as good as they were aiming for
- Avoiding the limelight – hating to be singled out
- Finding praise for an achievement uncomfortable
- Disliking working in a group as others let them down
- Hating to lose – finding excuses for why they have
- Finding it really difficult to take responsibility for something they did wrong
- Putting off starting something until there is no time left
- Underachieving despite being able
- Watching from the sideline until they can memorise or master something.
Children need help to understand themselves and their personal struggles around wanting things to go their way – the right way. If they believe deep down that mistakes should not be made, that they should know what to do in every instance, and that any learning should be easy, it’s not difficult to see where their frustration comes from.
What’s going on?
Much of the time, a child is fighting an internal battle with their thoughts when they don’t want to run in the cross country or go up a reading group level. It’s possible they’re afraid they won’t win or do as well as they expect, and they may be concerned that the better they do, the more responsibility they will be given. They may even be afraid of success itself.
How to help
If a child is struggling in any of these areas, it’s a great opportunity to coach them into some new thinking. Encourage them to see that life is about making small steps and learning something from a mistake – that everybody has areas that are easy for them and areas that are hard.
1. Tell them your stories
A parent’s own journey of asking for help when they can’t work something out is a great thing for children to see. As a parent shows their willingness to learn or take instruction from someone else, a child gets to see that it is normal and safe to be open to help and learning. Parents may have found some good coping strategies and sharing these with your child can really help.
If parents tell their children a story of how they felt when they were unsure of not doing a good job at work, it opens up a discussion. Maybe the task was complex and they needed to get advice and even redo some things. As this experience is talked about, children find they can relate and relax because if mum or dad managed, then they can too.
2. Talk about exceptional people and their mistakes
Another powerful way of helping children try new things and relax with mistakes, is to talk about people who have done something exceptional, but have gotten there because they were prepared to keep trying despite many failures. They learned to be comfortable with making mistakes because they knew that mistakes were just showing them another way that didn’t work.
Thomas Edison was a prolific inventor (the phonograph, the motion picture camera, and a long-lasting, practical electric light bulb) who was successful in part because he did not give up when things were not working out. A famous quote of his is, “Our greatest weakness lies in giving up. The most certain way to succeed is always to try just one more time.”
3. Admit your own mistakes and show children how to bounce back, recover and get up again
This way, children get to see what an apology looks like by seeing their parents make one.
4. React calmly to mistakes your children make rather than punishing them
Let them put right the mess or damage they may have caused – fix the library book, apologise to the friend, mop up the mud in the kitchen, help pay for a replacement plate etc. In this way, children learn that the important thing is not whether you fail or not, but how you pick yourself up afterwards.
5. Celebrate effort – not just achievement
“Wow, Mandy, we are so impressed that you entered that competition. Well done for giving it a go!” “Look at the effort you put into that. You are showing great persistence.”
6. Create family mottos to encourage good thinking
For example, “In our family we take little risks. In our family we do things differently sometimes. In our family we make mistakes because that is how we learn.”
7. Take on new activities
Try a new recipe, a new hobby or sport, or a new friendship. Show confidence in giving new things a go.
8. Read with them
A great book to read with your perfectionist child is Nobody’s Perfect by Ellen Flanagan Burns. Each chapter uncovers a restriction that perfectionists put on themselves – always having to win, putting things off because they can’t decide, never being satisfied with average performances, and so on. Written by a perfectionist, it gently shows an easier, more fun way to go.
It helps to have a really good understanding of what perfectionism looks like so that you can appreciate what’s going on for your loved one – the good and the not-so-good things. It’s great to harness the energy of a perfectionist who loves to succeed and then help them live peacefully with themselves in a big world full of opportunities.
Book a session with a Family Coach
Sometimes family life is way more challenging than we had ever imagined. We would like it to be a lot more enjoyable, if only we knew how. Family coaching is designed to meet you where you are at, whatever stage you are at on your parenting and relationship journey. We want to be on the journey with you. To find out more and to book a session, click here.