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Healthy Perfectionism By Theresa Willingham

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Healthy Perfectionism

By Theresa Willingham

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She doesn’t just want an A, she wants 100% on her school assignments.

I had all these notions when my kids were born; ideas about equitable, gender neutral, compassionate, self-esteem building child rearing.  My children would all be models of hyphenated happiness: self-confident, well-rounded, and easy-going. We sought a balance for them, a middle road of well-being.  We didn’t want our children to be lazy or self-indulgent; nor did we want them to be super driven perfectionists.  Perhaps we thought we were ordering steaks: “Medium-rare, please, au jus on the side.”

In large part, our kids are all we hoped for and more.  But I’m a little doubtful as to how much we can take credit for, because they are also, and with little regard for anything we’ve done, distinctly and amazingly individualistic in their approaches to life.  My oldest daughter, like a free-flowing river, generally takes the course of least resistance, seeking her own, comfortable, non-challenging level of existence.  Her sister, younger by little more than a year, is driven like a dynamo by some inner force of achievement, swimming against the current her sister flows with, and up waterfalls to boot.

Kids, we’ve come to understand, cook to their own specifications, and our middle child is definitely well-done. That was abundantly clear by the time she was two, when we attended one of those ubiquitous summer children’s programs – a magic show at a library hosted by a rainbow haired, mop-headed clown with a perpetually sunny expression.

My oldest, wary of the clown and only mildly interested in the program, hung back with us.  Her younger sister, curiosity brightening her normally serious countenance, had joined the cluster of tittering youngsters clustered about the clown’s feet.

The clown was blowing up balloons, making a latex zoo of giraffes and poodles and ducks. My little girl, a study in watchfulness, caught the clown’s eye and she beckoned her over.

“Here,” she said. “Would you like to do some magic?”

My daughter nodded somberly, wide-eyed with anticipation.

The clown stretched a balloon and  inflated it.  “All you have to do is hold it, “she said, and she handed my daughter the round, pink balloon.

As soon as she took it in her tiny fingers, the balloon deflated in a flatulent rush, whipping out of her hand and across the room. The clown laughed and the children howled with glee.  But my daughter’s face fell and in a tiny, anguished voice she wailed, “I couldn’t do magic!”

She burst into tears as we gathered her into our arms.

The clown’s cheery smile twitched, as she grew dimly aware that her joke had backfired.  She apologized and tried to coax my daughter back to the group. She tried to explain that wasn’t the magic she’d meant, that she hadn’t done anything wrong.  But our little girl would have none of it. She clung to me, sobbing, choking out over and over, “I couldn’t do magic!”

My heart broke for her that day, and overflowed with love and sympathy for her, as it would again and again for this little girl, now 14, for whom succeeding is innately and relentlessly important. Perfectionists, we’ve learned, are born, not made, and for better or worse, my middle daughter is, to a large degree, a perfectionist, still trying to work magic in her life.

She doesn’t just want an A, she wants 100% on her school assignments.  She doesn’t just want to play the piano, she wants to hit every note perfectly.  She doesn’t just ride a horse, she rides with attention to the technical details of doing so.  She’s happy in her hobbies and interests, but she’s competitive, even in fun, and wants to do everything well.  Her room is tidy. Her handwriting is neat. She wants and creates order in her life. She’s the peacemaker and negotiator in our family. She’s a one-girl U.N.  And she suffers greatly – and sometimes dramatically – when she can’t achieve the ends for which she strives.

Pyschologists tell us “The Perfectionist Child” is often gifted, although my less than perfectionist children have obvious gifts and talents about which they’re not as driven.

Dr. Steven Richfield, a psychologist, makes me feel better when he writes, in an article called, The Parent Coach: Help for the Perfectionist Child, “A popular misconception surrounding perfectionism is that it is always the product of driven parents who push their children toward endless heights. No doubt many children’s strivings are related to gaining parental approval but perfectionism warps that normally healthy base for motivation into a self-imposed, tyrannical demand for flawless performance in life. Even parents with high standards don’t ‘produce’ perfectionism but may find their child interpreting their expectations this way. The roots of perfectionism are often temperamental, with links to conscience development and native abilities.”

He notes that telling a perfectionist child to “do your best,” is often translated in his or her mind to “perform perfectly.”   That certainly seems to be the case for my daughter, and also makes her the occasional butt of her sister’s jokes.  No doubt most perfectionists, often labeled “Type A” personalities, can relate, to the drive for achievement as well as to the accompanying scorn.  My homeschooled daughter doesn’t suffer much beyond her sister’s light jabs, but perfectionist, high achieving children in school are often mocked and taunted by peers, even as they’re celebrated by teachers and parents.  The mixed messages can be confusing, not to mention the inner conflict caused by a high drive to achieve.

Dr. Linda Silverman, of the Gifted Development Center in Colorado, suggests celebrating perfectionism in our children, while helping them seek an inner balance in handling their innate drive.

“Perfectionism is often maligned. It is perceived as a personality flaw, a psychoneurotic tendency, a symptom of maladjustment, a bad habit, or an undesirable characteristic that should be firmly rooted out of one’s makeup. Parents are almost inevitably blamed as the cause of the “problem.” Cures include setting more realistic expectations and using self-talk to convince yourself that you don’t have to be perfect.”

“The problem, however,” she says, “may be in our attitudes toward perfectionism, rather than in the characteristic itself.”

Perfectionism, in and of itself, is neither good nor bad, says Silverman. Perfectionists are in the good company of individuals like Michealangelo and Marie Curie.  Perfectionism, “just is,” says Silverman, “and it is part of the gifted person’s life equipment.  If you harness your perfectionism to work for you rather than letting it control you, you can change the world.”

In the interest of helping my daughter, and other children like her, save the world without self-destructing, I present Dr. Silverman’s coping tips for perfectionists, adapted for the parents of perfectionists:

  • Help your child appreciate his or her perfectionism!
  • Help the perfectionist child value the usefulness of  perfectionism.
  • Teach perfectionist children to set priorities for themselves, allowing themselves to be perfectionistic in activities that really matter, as opposed to everything.
  • Support your perfectionist child in maintaining high standards for him or herself, but teach them the importance of not imposing those same standards on others.
  • Help your perfectionist child keep striving even when first attempts at something are unsuccessful.
  • Don’t let your perfectionist child punish herself or himself for failing.  Help your child focus his or her energies on future successes.
  • And most importantly, help your child hold onto his or her ideals and believe in the ability to reach them!

Supporting and working with our perfectionist children to help give them a balanced understanding of the world and their place in it, and can help them reach their full potential using their innate perfectionism as an asset, instead of a liability.

We’ll have more by Theresa Willingham about perfectionist children coming up next week -stay tuned; you won’t want to miss it!

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