According to an online dictionary, a perfectionist is defined as “a person who refuses to accept any standard short of perfection.” I think this is typically what we picture. A person who is so driven for perfection, and nothing but perfection, that they stop at nothing to get it and destroy everything else in frustration. And while this can, indeed, be what perfectionism looks like, I usually see it in much more subtle ways. Typically, people are wise enough to say, “well, I’m not really a perfectionist. I don’t expect perfection. I know that’s unrealistic.” And yet, these same people are frequently perfectionists. So, what does it look like?
Perfectionism looks like the preschooler quitting an art project because it is difficult or isn’t turning out the way he wanted it to.
It is spending 2 hours scouring the internet for just-the-right song to put to a slideshow.
It is retaking a test because you got a B.
Perfectionism is sitting quietly in a group, meeting, or class because your thoughts might come out wrong.
It is doing the extra credit assignment when you already have an A or B.
It is revising, and editing, and rewriting with meticulous detail.
It is a preschooler refusing to put on his own socks because it is difficult and he doesn’t do it well.
Perfectionism is pretending you aren’t interested in an activity because you don’t think you’ll do it well.
Perfectionism is a child defiantly refusing to do something.
It is procrastinating until the deadline is right upon you.
It is beating yourself up over any mistake.
It is not cleaning because you know once you start you’ll be grabbing the toothbrush and scrubbing out every single corner and you just don’t have the time for that.
Perfectionism is wanting to do your best and feeling like your identity and worth depends on how well you do.
That’s really the core of perfectionism, feeling as though your worth and lovability are conditional on performance or achievement.
For example, perfectionism is strong in my youngest one. He’s impulsive and psychomotorly intense and 5 years old, so he crashes into mistake after mistake most days. When there are significant ones, and he is reprimanded, he immediately crumbles and usually his negative, perfectionistic beliefs come spilling out of his mouth. I give him a few moments alone, and then I scoop him up and pull him into my lap. I don’t expect eye contact, but I do ask if he’s ready to listen. When he’s ready, I ask, “Did you make a mistake?” He says yes. “Were there consequences to your mistake?” He says yes. “Did I get angry and frustrated with your behavior?” He says yes. “Did I stop loving you?” He now knows this is coming and, with a mischievous little grin on his face says, “yes.” I attack him with friendly kisses and giggles. “Does that mean you’re a horrible person because you made a mistake?” That same eye-twinkling grin and “yes.” He’s now attacked with tickles and giggles. We gently reinforce the lesson learned and he moves on his way. Giving voice to those pesky underlying, unhelpful messages makes them weaker and allows them to be rewritten.
Give voice to the perfectionism. Refute that voice.
See the perfectionism under the behaviors.
Remember that everyone makes mistakes.
Remember that mistakes are actually helpful things because they teach us something. In fact, I’ve learned far more from my mistakes than I ever have from my successes.
Encourage and model being kind to yourself.
Encourage failure and trying difficult tasks. Model doing things that are uncomfortable and difficult.
Read up on self-compassion and implement it regularly.
Remember that every human that walks this planet is unique and worthy of love. Remind your child often just how valuable they are, and especially remind them at times when they act the most unlovably.
Perfectionism can be sly and sneaky and tough to conquer, but it can be conquered and softened. Just don’t expect to do it perfectly. 😉