The perfect body, the perfect house, the perfect child.
Perfectionism affects all of us, and it is taking its toll on our children, our relationships, our health, our politics and the environment.
Many children suffer from perfectionism. They stress about getting it right, about being the best, about not disappointing Mom and Dad. The other form perfectionism can take is underachieving. If I don’t try, I can’t fail.
Where do our children learn perfectionism?
Perfectionism used to be fueled by organized religion which held up a model of perfection that no one ever felt they could achieve. We were all sinners from birth.
Today consumerism has taken over the job of defining perfection. You are what you buy, and you will be judged by what you buy. You will also be judged by how you look (which can be improved by what you buy).
School also teaches perfectionism. Kids feel that their performance is constantly being evaluated, and the standard is 100% which no one ever achieves.
Finally, if we’re really honest with ourselves, they can pick up perfectionism from us – parents who are victims of the same epidemic.
Perfectionism is driven by shame and fear.
Humans are social animals and one of the ways we keep each other in line is through shame. Like school yard bullies, we criticize, mock and degrade anyone who falls outside our social norms. More subtle forms of shaming include gossip and all the little judgments we pass on each other every day.
This is where fear comes in. We fear that the same kinds of judgments will be passed on us. And so the illness begins. Fit in at all costs. Perfectionism is really about conformity.
How do we talk back to perfectionism?
Here are some things we can say to our children, but we need to believe and practice these attitudes ourselves!
- Dare to be different. There is no one right way to be (weight, appearance, intelligence, personality). It is OK to be different. In fact, it is good to be different.
- Don’t compare yourself to others. There will always be people with more possessions, intelligence, whatever. It doesn’t matter.
- The only person you need to compare yourself to is yourself. Are you growing, learning, changing for the better?
- Your value as a person does not depend on your performance or your appearance.
- You do not have to accept the judgments (real or imagined) that others pass on you.
- Talk back to media images of perfection: beauty product ads, home renovation shows, bridal magazines – the list is endless.
- Avoid shaming language: How could you? What were you thinking? Is that the best you can do?
Perfectionism and procrastination
Perfectionism can lead to procrastination – rooted in fear that the outcome will be less than perfect. “Any job worth doing is worth doing poorly.” As a perfectionist, when I first heard this, it drove me crazy. No way is that true! The older I get, the more I see the truth in it. It lets the perfectionist off the hook. It calls the perfectionist’s bluff. Just do it. Don’t use the fact that it might not be perfect be an excuse for doing nothing. Do something – even if it’s not perfect.