What is perfectionism?
Perfectionism is not necessarily just about being ‘perfect’ but usually relates to:
1. Relentless striving for extremely high standards.
2. Basing the judgement of one’s own self-worth on the ability to achieve such standards.
3. Experiencing negative consequences or costs associated with the setting of these extremely high standards (e.g. health, social or emotional impacts)
We know that the setting of standards is an essential part of life, so in and of themselves they usually have a positive effect and are not problematic. However, difficulties arise when the pursuit of such standards requires great cost and we allow our success to determine our self-worth. When this occurs, perfectionism becomes a problem and can lead to impaired performance due to the excess time, energy and effort being absorbed by the pursuit of extremely high standards.
Perfectionism can affect people of all ages and encroach into many parts of life, including:
- Organising and ordering things
- Grooming and personal hygiene
- Health and fitness
What does perfectionism look like?
Difficulties in decision-making:
· Difficulties deciding what to wear, do, eat or buy
· Difficulties deciding on a topic to write about or ideas to discuss in essays
· Making sure you arrive very early to appointments
· Redoing hair over and over again until every piece is where it should be
· Not leaving the house until make up is done with exact precision and no blemishes are visible
· Excessively checking work before being submitted for any possible errors
Excessive organising and list making:
· Having to have one’s desk/work space completely tidy or arranged in a certain way before being able to start study or work
· Writing excessive lists before beginning tasks
· Putting off starting assignments for fear that they will not be done right
· Not trying out for sporting teams, or applying for jobs for fear that they will never get them
Failure to Delegate:
· Not allowing others to do small or minor tasks for fear that they will be done incorrectly, not to the same order, system or standard
· Asking others for feedback and to check work to ensure that nothing is missed or can be improved
· Wanting excessive compliments on all work produced
· Controlling the environment, people or activities to suit one’s strengths and avoid possible failures or mistakes.
Perfectionism itself is not a diagnosable mental health disorder, however people who have Social Anxiety Disorder, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder or Eating Disorders can often have perfectionism underlying their difficulties and it is important that this be addressed as part of their treatment.
What causes perfectionism?
· Positive reinforcement and rewards for success when high standards are achieved. Although this is not necessarily a bad thing, if rewards and reinforcement are provided mostly in relation to success or without reinforcement in other areas of life, the mind can begin to make associations such as, “People are only proud of me when I succeed”.
· Experiencing punishment for mistakes or lack of positive reinforcement when the person has tried or done their best effort. These experiences can internalise a message within the mind, such as “People are not proud of me when my work is not perfect”.
· Learning through watching others and modelling. For example a child watching a parent who works excessively long hours to achieve certain results without pleasure time, can develop the belief that “success is more important than anything else”.
· Temperament which refers to characteristic traits which we are generally born with and are usually genetic. Studies have shown that people who avoid trying new things, are highly dependent on rewards from others, can persist towards goals despite fatigue and frustration and are more likely to develop perfectionism.
How to help?
· Encourage children to participate in activities that are not to their strengths, so that they might have exposure to experiencing failure and learn that even when they are not perfect they are loved, noticed and accepted.
· Provide praise and reinforcement for a child’s effort, not their achievement. Pay attention to and converse with them about how they recovered from setbacks and resolved problems to get to their overall goals.
· Given that parents can be role models for perfectionism, it is important to stop and check in with your own thoughts and feelings about failure and what behaviours and messages you may be modelling for your children about making mistakes, failure and success. If you notice that this may be an issue for yourself, you can try to build in more flexibility to your thoughts and behaviours. Talking to a health professional yourself may also be beneficial.
· When a child is experiencing anxiety or even tantrum like behaviours about making mistakes or failure it is beneficial for:
- Parents or carers to stay as calm as possible.
- Give the child some time to express how they are feeling by listening to them without jumping in to reassure straight away.
- Try to notice and name the child’s emotion from what you have heard and seen “It seems like you are feeling anxious/frustrated/upset about making mistakes as you want this to be perfect.”
- You can let them know that “We all have this voice in our mind that tells us to do things perfectly and if we don’t then we are a failure”. Let them know “This voice makes it really scary to make mistakes and gets in the way of being happy”.
- Let them know that together you can be a team to encourage each other to talk back to that inner voice and learn to stop listening to it.
If perfectionism appears to be significantly affecting your child’s wellbeing it may also be beneficial to seek professional assistance from a qualified health professional such as a registered Psychologist.
Written By: Amanda Kenyon, Registered Psychologist at AzzA's Child Psychology Clinic
Fursland, A., Raykos, B. and Steele, A. (2009). Perfectionism in Perspective. Perth, Western Australia: Centre for Clinical Interventions.
Kearns, H., Forbes, A., & Gardiner, M. (2007). A cognitive behavioural coaching intervention for the treatment of perfectionism and self-handicapping in a nonclinical population. Behaviour Change, 24, 157-172.
Antony, M. M. & Swinson, R. P. (1998) When Perfect Isn’t Good Enough. New Harbinger Publications, Oakland, Ca.