Whilst trying to do your best is always admirable, if reasonable effort turns into a need for perfection, a commendable personality trait becomes problematic. Perfectionism can lead to reduced self-esteem, unhappiness and underachievement.
The desire among children and young people for high achievement across all areas of their life: academic, sporting, appearance, popularity, etc, has escalated exponentially in recent years. One of the main reasons for this seems to be the regular testing taking place in schools. When adults placed emphasis on test results, children are constantly reminded of the value of academic success. Social media also adds to young people’s insecurity by presenting a distorted view of the lives of others, in which good looks, a perfect figure, a fabulous social life, popularity, money and success all appear to be achieved without effort. Some groups of young people seem to feel this pressure more keenly than others. High achieving girls from schools with a reputation for academic success, are among those most likely to experience the downside of perfectionism.
The perfectionist will: –
- Become anxious quickly and worry about errors. They will take a long time to finish work or constantly re-start tasks because they aren’t going to plan.
- Procrastinate; constantly avoiding or putting off activities because they worry that the task may be too difficult for them to complete, and they will be humiliated.
- Become so frustrated by any mistakes they make, they abandon the whole activity.
- Be unwilling to try anything new. The child or young person will avoid challenges and be reluctant to think creatively in case their ideas don’t work, and they’re subject to ridicule.
- Set unrealistically high expectations of themselves, with concern about failure being out of all proportion to the task in hand.
- Compare themselves to others; being dismissive of their own achievements.
- Find it difficult to accept help or advice; exhibiting anger in the face of any perceived criticism.
- Feel guilty if they aren’t constantly engaged in meaningful work.
- Have a compulsive drive to achieve: their self-image being based on their accomplishments.
How to help the young perfectionist: –
- Provide unconditional affection and care: love unconnected to achievement.
- Listen to what the child says, empathise, then help them to view situations from more realistic perspectives.
- Avoid comparisons with siblings or peers.
- Help the child to focus on the effort they are making, rather than their achievement.
- Encourage them to concentrate on their own performance, and disregard the performance of others.
- Explain the connection between mistakes and success. There are hundreds of examples of errors that led to inventions or discoveries.
“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
Thomas Edison – inventor and businessman.
- Provide them with coping strategies for tackling difficult tasks by, for example, taking complex pieces of work one step at a time.
- Give specific praise; avoiding statements about the child being gifted or a genius.
- Be a role model. Demonstrate how to move on and not dwell on any failures. No one is defined by the mistakes they make.
- Help the child or young person to understand social media. What people do and say online is a reflection of what they imagine other people want, and often very different from their reality.