Let’s talk for a moment about perfectionism and the rise of perfectionism in our society today. What exactly is perfectionism? The simplest definition is the fear of making mistakes or the belief that making mistakes is unacceptable. Perfectionists also tend to be procrastinators- why is that you ask? Well if you have to make sure it’s perfect, then you might avoid the task altogether.
Having spent ten years in a school, I heard over and over again students who would re-write essays two, three times before turning it in because they had to make sure it was perfect. These students turned assignments in late because their first one or two attempts weren’t good enough. This example also demonstrates how perfectionists internalize feedback and how a grade less than an A signals a value judgement made about them. More often than not, if a perfectionist receives a “C” on an assignment, she’ll say “I’m not smart” or “I’ll never succeed” whereas a healthy response to receiving a “C” would say “I should ask my teacher where I could improve for the next time.”
What I’ve noticed over the years is that anxiety and perfectionism go hand in hand. A perfectionist has “what if” statements that control his mind. “What if I fail this class?” “What if I fail all my classes?” “What if I don’t graduate?” “What if I don’t get into college?” These thought processes create a spiraling effect where a student goes from fearing failing a test to that one test suddenly affecting the rest of his life.
So how can we as educators and parents help?
First, take a moment to notice in yourself if you are okay with making mistakes. When you make a mistake at home or at work, how do you handle it? Do you internalize it and allow it to make a value judgement? Model for yourself and for your children that making mistakes is okay. This is HARD work especially in a society that celebrates curated social media profiles and says, “Look everyone else is doing it so much better/easier/faster.”
Second, poke holes in the “all or nothing” thinking. If your child says, “if I fail this test I’ll never get into college,” poke holes in those fear statements. “I’m hearing you say that you are afraid this one test will affect your future and I’m wondering about the other assessments in your class that provide opportunities for you to show your knowledge in other ways.” You might also offer a moment of perspective taking and ask, “can you think of a time when you were afraid to take a risk? how did that work out for you?”
Third, adopt a growth mindset. Carol Dweck’s work talks about fixed versus growth mindset. What is a fixed mindset? Perfectionism is a fixed mindset. A growth mindset says, “this feedback will help me improve in the future” rather than “mistakes are to be feared.” Growth mindset encourages us to take feedback and apply it to what was presented/turned in versus internalizing feedback as a judgement on ourselves.
Interested in learning more about how changing thought patterns can affect perfectionism? I’d be happy to help!