I got to spend last week with a group of delightful 12-13 year old girls at my leadership camp. When I asked what stresses they had, they summed it up beautifully with these words: “pressure to be perfect”. Perfectionism is a big problem for kids and parents in today’s culture. I never thought I was perfectionistic because my house wasn’t clean, but that’s not exactly how it works. The medical definition from Merriam Webster is “a disposition to regard anything short of perfection as unacceptable.” In my clients, and in kids, I see it as black & white thinking. If I’m not good, I must be bad. If I’m not “liked”, I must be disliked. If I’m not smart, I must be dumb. When we believe there is only one right way to do things, the stress and pressure we feel is overwhelming. Perfectionism, as I see it, is the fear that the real me isn’t good enough. But if I put on a performance, look or act a certain way, then you will think I am worthy.
Perfectionism is not a healthy striving for excellence. It is the belief that if I act good enough, I will be. It shows up as meltdowns and temper tantrums (at all ages). It inhibits creativity and innovation because perfectionists are less likely to take risks or try things they know they won’t succeed in. It’s a primary cause of depression because it distances us from our genuine emotions and sets us up for unachievable goals. “I have to be the best at everything.” “I have to look perfect.” “I have to make everybody like me.”
A lot of my “SuperMom” clients yearn for their old school days when the measure of success was very clear. In school, you know exactly what needs to happen to considered successful. Motherhood is frustrating for those of us who want to “do it right” but can’t find a system or checklist to know if we are being successful. There are no metrics, no measure of better than/worse than, no way to gauge if you are a good enough Mom and it sends our insecurities into a tailspin.
With kids, perfectionism shows up as early as age 4-5 with not being able to lose gracefully, being inflexible, giving up easily, and emotional drama. You can watch them beating themselves up for mistakes and not wanting to be seen as vulnerable. Perfectionistic kids will deny any wrong-doing, use dramatic language “everybody, always does this _____.” Some perfectionistic kids can put others down as a way to feel better about themselves resulting in social isolation (perceived or real). Some kids develop a fear of success, avoid ‘being seen’, and strive for mediocrity, in order to avoid making public mistakes.
Whether we are overachievers or underachievers, our goal is to make up for the inside feelings of unworthiness and insecurity. You can spot perfectionism when the emotional reaction doesn’t match the event (Your kid is devastated over coming in second. You ate too much ice cream so you throw your whole diet out the window. You fear people not liking you so you mold & adapt yourself to convince them you are worthy of their friendship.)
I used to stress out while running late. Racing in the car, my kids would watch me be frustrated, impatient and get really mad at myself, just because I was late. I had beliefs running through my brain like “Being late is rude & disrespectful. I can’t believe I messed up AGAIN.” It wasn’t until I watched my 5th grader STRESSING OUT over forgetting his spelling book that I started changing my ways. The good news and the bad news is that kids learn by imitation.
If the following remedies freak you out, chances are you’ve got some perfectionistic ideas running your life. Click here to schedule a free discovery coaching call with me.
– Say the words “Oh Well” often and out loud. Let it became a daily mantra for your mistakes as well as your kids.
– Celebrate mistakes. “Who made the best mistakes this week? Let’s go around the table and see whose blunder wins the prize!”
– Model self-compassion and forgiveness in front of your child. “I had a goal to exercise three times this week and I didn’t do it. Oh well. I’ll do better next week.”
– Watch your words. Be careful not to use black/white dramatic language around your kids “If I don’t meet this deadline, they’re going to kill me”. “I looked so horrible I thought I might die of embarrassment”.
– Let your kids see you fail. At the roller rink yesterday I had so much fun watching people of all ages and ability levels, fall down, repeatedly. (Only the 13 year old girls made a big deal out of it). Let your kids see you fall, fail, get up and try again. Find an activity you all stink at and fail together. Failing=vulnerability=connection with others.
– Make sure you are praising your kid’s effort and process, not the result. “I love how hard you worked.” “I was so proud of you for trying something outside your comfort zone.” Avoid praising the outcome “You got straight A’s” or “You’re the winner!”
– Tell them that no matter what grades they get, who their friends are, or how they perform on the court, they will always be loved and accepted for who they are.