I was 12 years old. It was my big break. I danced nervously in front of the second base plate, the sun hot on my neck. Usually I was relegated to the outfield, but not today.
Whack! The grounder ball barreled towards me, hopping and skipping off of the dry dirt. I bent down to catch it. I missed. I scrambled after it, finally grasping it in my hand. I threw it wildly to first base, not realizing that the runner had already rounded the corner and was heading for second. The ball sailed over the first baseman’s head and another runner crossed home plate.
It was all the other team needed to win the game. It was the end of my baseball career. I quit the team after that game.
I am a recovering perfectionist. I have spent most of my life trying to live up to ridiculously high expectations of my own making. If I couldn’t do something well, I wouldn’t do it. Fear of failure narrowed my experiences.
While it can have its merits, perfectionism can also be a curse. I see stirrings of it in my oldest: The pressure she puts on herself to do everything “right,” her reluctance to try new things for fear of failing, her quickness to apologize when she makes a mistake.
She and I are not the only ones.
A generation of perfectionists
A recent study, published in the Psychological Bulletin (a monthly academic journal published by the American Psychological Association), has found that perfectionism has significantly increased compared to previous generations.
Authors Dr. Thomas Curran and Dr. Andrew Hill define perfectionism as “a combination of excessively high personal standards and overly critical self-evaluations.” They used data gathered from almost 42,000 American, Canadian and British college students, who completed the Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale test between 1989 and 2016. The test measures three types of perfectionism:
Self-oriented, or having unrealistic expectations of yourself
Socially prescribed, or perceiving unrealistic expectations from others
Other-oriented, or imposing unrealistic expectations on those around you
The results? The number of college students with self-oriented perfectionism has risen 10 percent, socially prescribed perfectionism has risen 33 percent and other-oriented perfectionism has increased 16 percent.
What has contributed to this rise in perfectionism over the past 27 years? Curran cites higher levels of narcissism, extraversion, and self-confidence combined with less empathy and victim-blaming in college students today. He also believes an increase in materialism, higher educational level expectations, competitive environments, and the pressures of social media to live up to other people’s public images are possible culprits.
Another contributing factor? Parents. As in us. We have become more anxious, demanding, and controlling than in previous generations.
In their research, Curran and Hill discovered that the “pressure to raise successful children in a culture that emphases monetary wealth and social standing has several consequences for the behavior of parents.” As a result, parents have become more involved in their children’s academic and social lives in an attempt to propel their children to a successful future.
Striving for perfection however, comes with a price. It’s a breeding ground for mental health issues. It has been linked to depression, poor body image, eating disorders, social isolation, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts.
Steps we can take
So how do we help our kids (and ourselves) struggling with this need to be perfect? Hill recommends that schools and policy makers need to limit competition between young people in order to foster good mental health.
As parents we need to chill out. Curran and Hill discuss the impact of anxious and controlling parenting on children:
“Controlling behaviors include a combination of high expectations and high criticism and encourage children to adopt extremely high standards and strive for perfection, so to avoid criticism and gain the approval of their parents.”
Projecting our own worries and fears onto our kids results in hypersensitivity and an aversion to making mistakes.
We need to take a step back and stop internalizing our children’s successes and failures as our own. This is easier said than done in a culture that places so much emphasis and value on achievement, wealth, and social status.
Do you have a child who is a perfectionist? Here are some things you can do to help her find balance.
1 | Model positive behavior
Children learn by watching us. We need to embrace trying new things and being okay with making mistakes. Trial and error and how we respond to our own failures and those of our children matter.
2 | Acknowledge her feelings
Getting upset or frustrated when your child is madly erasing her fifth attempt to draw the perfect letter “G,” followed by crumpling her paper and throwing it to the floor, only exacerbates the situation. Remain calm and show empathy. Gently discuss how she is feeling, and work together to replace her negative self talk with positive.
3 | Focus on effort, rather than achievement
Place a greater emphasis on how hard your child worked, rather than on the outcome. Trying and failing is more important than not trying at all. Praise your child for being kind, sharing with others, showing compassion and trying her best. Reiterate that these things are far more important than winning or getting straight As.
4 | Love her unconditionally
Let her know that you love her regardless of whether or not she got the winning goal in the soccer game or scored 100 percent on her math test.
5 | Help her gain perspective
Rather than seeing the two words that she got wrong on her spelling test, help her to see the eight that she got right. Is she worrying about negative outcomes? Discuss with her the worst case scenario but also other possible outcomes as well. Help her to recognize that even if the worst happens, it is not the end of the world.
Teaching our children to find the value in making mistakes and letting go of the ideal of perfection is one of the greatest gifts we can give them and their future.