Living with a perfectionist isn’t much fun: their endless self-reproach and criticism can be tiring and boring. However, being the perfectionist is a thousand times worse!  At least you get to go out for a break; they can’t escape it!

The perfectionist has to live with the joy-zapping thief of all the jolly, fun, relaxing, silly things in life. All that makes life blissful gets stolen by the belief that ‘perfect exists and I must always attain it.’

So, what does perfectionism look and feel like and what can you do, as parents, to loosen its grip?

Perfectionism is the tendency to have impossibly high standards and to spend a great deal of effort trying to attain them. It’s accompanied by a ruthless inner critic and is intrinsically tied up with the person’s worth and value.

Perfectionists are concerned with how others perceive them, and this is where all their energy and focus go.

Their deep fear of being judged forces them to strive and push yet still they are tortured by thoughts of not being enough.

The slightest perceived criticism will lead to horrifically negative self-talk. In a mere 30 seconds, a perfectionist can go from having noticed a trivial minor error to believing they are the worst person who ever walked the earth. They’ll mull things over and over, torturing themselves by replaying conversations over and over in their head, dwelling on what they did or said that wasn’t perfect…sometimes for years.

Sufferers never feel able to validate themselves. Instead they rely on sources outside of themselves, such as teachers or parents or even a grade, for validation.

Relying on others to feel good about yourself is a very precarious position to be in and is why perfectionists rarely have much fun. They can’t let go and just be.

Is this your child?

  • Can’t hand in a piece of work until it’s perfect, they’re overly cautious, re-writing homework and spending hours on even a short piece
  • Feels like a complete failure if they make even the smallest mistake
  • Procrastinates and easily gives up
  • Chronic fear of embarrassment or humiliation
  • Proud of their perfectionism and convinced it makes them ‘a good person’ to have such super high standards

How can you help your little Perfectionist?

The biggest problem with helping perfectionists is that they are convinced it is the right and sensible way to be, and they don’t see why they should stop.

And to a large extent, society and schools confirm this belief.

As a parent, you can help them to deeply and completely love and accept themselves as they are, ‘warts ‘n’ all’, regardless of ‘likes’ on social media and other external validation.

First of all, talk about what perfectionism is and how it impacts everybody. Help them understand that perfectionism makes you lose perspective and be super critical of yourself and others. This makes you and others unhappy and makes it hard to get anything finished. And nobody has any fun.

Secondly, address the binary thinking perfectionists tend to have. Good/bad, right/wrong, black/white, perfect/failure. Even if you buy an artificial plant it will still have some brown and withering leaves. Why do you think that would be?

Nobody is perfect and all anyone can do is their best and their best is good enough and good enough is good enough and done is better than perfect. Model this! Say it out loud when you screw up.

Talk about the two beliefs of perfectionism:

  • I have to prove myself worthy by being perfect
  • I am not lovable unless I am perfect

Make “what others think of me is their business” the family motto.

Talk about criticism vs critique. Perfectionism is about fear of failure NOT a desire for improvement.

Can we aim for:

  • ‘healthy trying’ instead of striving for something that is unattainable?
  • enjoying the learning process, recognising that mistakes are a vital part of learning a new skill?
  • celebrating mistakes – what would that look like and why would we do it?

Of course, you may be a sufferer yourself! If so, get it out in the open and talk about:

  • how it has impoverished your life and robbed you of fun
  • How you wished you had been more carefree and not worried what others thought of you
  • How what you thought were mistakes led to new discoveries, new paths, new friends

I have worked with children plunged into total despair because of one ‘A’ in a string of A*s.

They might become Professor ‘Very Clever of Whatever’, but would be unable to value themselves for that achievement.

Which begs the question: What is the point?

Over to you

This is just a small picture of a really big subject and I would love to hear what you think.

Perfectionism is a many-headed monster and I haven’t touched on how perfectionism helps you gain love and acceptance and how it is often the result of ‘mess’ (as in messy emotions or a messy childhood). I’ll save that for another day.

In the meantime, do leave a comment below and share your parental wisdom. What’s your experience of having a child with perfectionism? Or indeed your own experience of being a perfectionist and how you overcame it?

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