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The Myth of Perfectionism: Understanding Destructive Perfectionism in Children (and ourselves)

By Rachel Swanick, Neurologic Music Therapist at Chroma

Constructive Perfectionism is positive. It is defined in Olympic athletes, world-class musicians, award-winning scientists. However, perfectionism can be awash with pressure and expectation with no space for mistakes or flexibility. And when the fear of failure outweighs the want to succeed, the activity becomes detrimental to mental health. Destructive Perfectionism (DP) can be a perceived way to protect oneself from negative feelings.

For example, ‘If I do this task really well, I will be the best, everyone will like me and no one will be angry with me’. In reality, the opposite can be true – by setting our standards at perfect, we are adding the potential for feelings of shame and judgment when things don’t go as we predicted.

Then, we might turn our feelings back on ourselves (‘I didn’t do well because I am not good enough or trying hard enough’) when the circumstances might be out of our control. This way of thinking becomes addictive – instead of thinking, ‘never mind – I will leave it this time’, Destructive Perfectionism encourages us to believe we didn’t try hard enough and blame ourselves.

Destructive Perfectionism can harm success, as at the root of perfectionism is the need to earn approval. Instead of ‘being’ and feeling comfortable in one’s own skin, the internal mantra for the perfectionist becomes, ‘I am what I achieve and how well I achieve it’.

Many people who experience Destructive Perfectionism experience depression, anxiety, self-harm, body issues and chronic fatigue conditions, too.

As many as two in every five children will experience DP.[1] Having such a prevalence of DP in society does not mean that more are achieving well but that we are becoming a “sadder society…. Undermining our potential”.

As perfectionism becomes a set way of thinking for someone, his or her resilience will often suffer. This is the irony of perfectionism: those who experience the highest levels of it often do not achieve and thrive.

Looking at those with Constructive Perfectionism – sports people, for example, they will have failed many times and built up their emotional resilience through problem solving and creativity. Their resilience then becomes something they can transfer in to other areas of their life – high emotional resilience = high life satisfaction.

The perfectionist will be sensitive to criticism, feeling ‘every bump in the road’. They may not be able to think outside of the box and therefore creative problem solving will not come easy. They will keep doing what they have always unthinkingly done, and in return, get similar results. Furthermore, that internal critical voice that is characteristic of Destructive Perfectionism will hinder development, having the opposite effect that the perfectionist wants and needs.

So, what can we do for our children and ourselves to stop this pattern?

  • Concentrate on Good Enough

Good enough is not bad and it is not perfect. It is all things and sits happily in the middle of expectations. Doing your homework and you have to cross out a mistake? Good Enough!

  • Say Thank You

A Gratitude Journal really works. This is a good (enough!) thing for children and adults alike. Each day, think of three good things that you did. Write them down, say them aloud or pop them on a note in a jar for another day. Concentrating on what went well that day shifts the negative mindset. The more this is done, the more habit-forming it is, so positive events will become our way of thinking.

  • Remember – Time off is not Time Wasted

By giving your child ‘free time’ to let their minds wander, you are taking off the pressure of achieving and comparisons and helping them develop ways to be creative and independent. Being bored can be a wonderful thing forcing them into daydreaming, snoozing or coming up with something different to do.

Children will also internalise the ways in which their parents relax which breaks the perfectionist loop and starts to build a new resilience loop – so parents, be a role model and get relaxing!

  • Trust that the task will get done

In most cases, your child will have some experience of successfully completing a task – no matter how small. Knowing inside that we have the skills and the capacity to complete tasks can be half of the battle to starting one. If your child becomes overwhelmed at the thought of a task, gently remind them of a time when they did complete something. Remember together how good that felt and how much better they felt afterwards. For children stuck at this stage, it can be hard for them to internalise the good memories and feelings as that negative perfectionist cycle has taken over. Help them to change this by having photos or a picture of them doing their homework, or bring them into the present moment as they are completing something by saying, “Hold on to this feeling for next time – let’s remember this together”.