How Do I Help My Perfectionist Child?
Over the past month there are two age categories of kids that I have been seeing that are on stress overload…eighth and twelfth graders! Some 8th graders are applying to schools of choice. That may be public schools of choice out of their district, charter schools, performing arts programs, or private schools that require testing, transcripts and essays to be considered for admission. Seniors in high school are applying to gap year programs, college, auditioning for higher education arts and sciences programs or trying to figure out “what to do with their lives.” All of it amounts to high levels of pressure and stress. And if your kid had pre-existing anxiety or a tendency toward perfectionism, this time of year may be especially difficult. Two weeks ago on Dr. Sheryl’s PodCouch, I interviewed two college admissions coaches who were filled with great wisdom and sage advice. If you missed it, go and listen to it now! And this week I interviewed recovering perfectionist and burnout expert, Khara Croswaite Brindle on workaholism and perfectionism, if that sounds like you or someone you love take a listen.
Can you really be high achieving without being a perfectionist?
I get asked this question a lot in many different forms. Sometimes people tell me that were it not for being a perfectionist they wouldn’t achieve so highly. Or other people tell me that it’s just a part of their OCD personality. I hear different things about this tendency to not want to make mistakes, errors or to fail. And while some people view this as a badge of honor, my experience says that it is highly linked to anxiety and when times of high pressure arise, perfectionists get overwhelmed with stress. When people stress they fight (stay up all night re-writing and checking our work), flight (just don’t do it all, avoid, say they are sick and can’t go to school) or freeze (can’t get started or procrastinate).
The tough part about perfectionism is that there is a fine line between wanting to perform your best and not feeling worthy if you are anything but perfect. Much of this character trait is driven by internal pressure and has only become more prevalent over the past several decades. While it mainly entails putting extreme pressure on oneself, it can also manifest as perceiving unrealistic standards from others and placing unrealistic expectations onto others.
Besides the obvious potential negative effects of perfectionism of no one being able to be perfect, there is rigid all or nothing thinking that can evolve. Creativity, relaxation, and healthy risk taking are all impacted by perfectionism. Low self-esteem, poor relationships, depression, anxiety, and eating disorders are all common mental health issues that can arise.
Some ways to begin to address perfectionism include practicing mindfulness and mindset. It won’t change overnight but focusing on the present moment and things that you can actually control in real time are a healthy place to start. Challenging yourself to shift your mindset to include tasks or challenges that are within your boundaries and outside of them that are likely to have elements of failure are a great way to start shifting mindset. It will begin with intention. You or your child have to assess that the current perfectionist mindset isn’t healthy and then start with small steps toward ideas around good enough and failure as opportunity.
This takes some practice but with a clear path toward a new goal it is possible and creates space for greater risk taking, self esteem and regulation.