Perfectionists turn in homework written in perfect handwriting, no spelling mistakes and clearly hours have been spent in perfecting the product – no wonder parents and teachers love them! The problem is that perfectionism is usually driven by an underlying negative belief - that the perfectionist is worthless or unlovable. Perfectionism is an attempt to prove otherwise and gain the love and admiration that they feel is lacking.
My daughter was a perfectionist in her last couple of years of elementary school and
into grade 8 in high school. Her behaviour got more and more extreme until she would rip up a whole page of homework because the last word was slightly wonky or a word misspelled. It was agonizing watching her beat herself up over any perceived imperfection, yet the imperfections were inevitable – it just isn’t possible to be completely perfect – there is always another level of perfection to aspire to. We tried to help her to see that “good enough” was good enough, but it didn’t work.
Perfectionism is a trait that is common in girls (and boys) with eating disorders. They strive for the perfect body to prove their worth when the underlying belief is one of worthlessness. Some of these girls and boys would prove to be anything but perfect in the years following their eating disorders. Disordered eating is just the first step in what for many was a gradual progression to more and more self-destructive behaviours such as drinking, smoking, cutting, and drugs. [suicide ideation is also linked with perfectionism in studies].
It was during therapy sessions that my daughter discovered the root of her perfectionist behavior. It was the time I was late picking her up from ballet. She was only in kindergarten at the time. I had dropped her off as usual, but went home for a nap being unusually tired that day. I set an alarm, but it didn’t go off. I woke up when the phone rang and it was the ballet teacher asking me to come and pick up my daughter. Class had ended half an hour earlier! I raced over, but by the time I got there my daughter was distraught. Children are egocentric in their world until they are six or seven, so she thought it was her fault that I was late. She made it mean that she was worthless and unlovable – how else could she explain why her mother didn’t pick her up on time? Those negative beliefs drove first perfectionism – to try to get the love of her parents and teachers, then self-harming – which provided ample evidence for these beliefs.
Perfectionism is a big red flag, so please don’t ignore it. It can lead to heartache and heartbreak if left unchallenged. The antidote is not simply trying to show that good enough is good enough, or counselling to set more realistic goals, but there is a real need to counter the negative beliefs that drive it. The antidote to negative beliefs is the concept that everyone has intrinsic worth. Our worth is not established by how neatly we do our homework, nor by getting 100% on a test. Our worth is inherent – we need do nothing to earn it. This thought may cause concern to parents and teachers who believe that children won’t try hard if they are told this, and who don’t want to interfere with the success that a child appears to be having because of their perfectionist tendencies, but it could save a child’s life. In the long term, a child will be much more successful and resilient if the negative beliefs that drive perfection are challenged and replaced with the certain understanding that he or she has Inherent Worth.
See ‘Five Ways to Help Your Child Own His/Her Inherent Worth'.
I know firsthand the emotional and financial costs of having a troubled teenager and I don’t want that to happen to you. That's why I wrote my book What They Don't Teach in Prenatal Class: The Key to Raising Trouble-Free Kids and Teens (available on Amazon).