As a history major my senior year in college, I was required to write a thesis paper. My professor saw great promise in my research and my topic. She encouraged me to have my paper published in a historical journal and offered to write a recommendation letter for an application to study abroad and further my research. I chose not to do either of these. Why? These opportunities would require a lot of work on my part without any guaranteed success. I did not even try because I felt certain I would fail. It was the culminating moment in a lifetime of my perfectionism causing me to quit or not even attempt.
Fast forward many years to my oldest child’s kindergarten year. Teaching her to read was an adventure that ended in tears more days than I care to remember. She would fall apart if she had to stop and sound out a word. She wanted so badly to read that if she could not do it perfectly the first time, she would not try anymore. We made it through, and she learned to read. In first grade, she hit another subject that brought tears: math. It was reading all over again. When a problem or concept was too tough, she wouldn’t even attempt it. At this point it hit me; she was a perfectionist as well.
I felt both relief and an ache. I had finally figured out what sent her into a meltdown, but my heart ached because I recognized where this road would lead if I didn’t try to help. Ability was not an issue. Once she calmed down, she had no problem doing the work, but in the moment she couldn’t remember her past successes.
The first thing I did was grab a piece of construction paper and some stickers. Across the top of the paper I wrote, “I CAN DO IT!” Then I told her about Thomas Edison and his persistence with inventing a light bulb. He tried hundreds of different filaments, but all of them failed. He did not see them as failures, though, but successes because he had ruled out another thing to try. He approached his problem with a willingness to fail. Every time she persevered and solved the problem, even if there was a meltdown first, I let her put a sticker on the paper. After a couple of weeks she had quite a collection built up. Now I could grab the paper when frustration started and show her how many times she felt defeated, but found the solution.
Eventually the meltdowns lessened, and I could see her remembering success before losing it over perceived failure. One day she looked at her math worksheet and then looked at me, “I can do this, Mom. I’ve done it before. I just have to try.” Yes! We had done it! That night after the dishes were cleared away I presented her with “The Edison Award”, a piece of paper with a picture of Edison on it which I had written her name in large letters as the recipient and signed my name at the bottom. I awarded it to her for having a can do attitude and not giving up.
How to Handle the Perfectionist in Your Home
- Praise their effort not the output. Even if their work is not correct, even if their baseball throw is not the longest, praise their attempt at giving it 100%. Especially when they do it with a good attitude.
- Make it a point to challenge them. Although challenge can produce frustration with perfectionists it is important not to let them coast. Choose curriculum that forces them to think and work through a problem instead of having an obvious answer. Force them to build their endurance when things do not go their way the first time.
- Create a failure friendly environment. If you point out their mistakes, they will hear that voice of failure in their head the rest of their lives. Correct with grace and love what they do wrong. Show them that their past mistakes have led to growth, not to condemnation. If they feel safe to fail in your home, they will feel safe to fail when they leave it as well.
- Talk it out. When perfection does produce panic be sure and talk about what happened and where it all went wrong. Help your perfectionist develop a signal word or phrase to let you know that they need a few minutes to pull themselves together before taking another stab at it. Share some deep breathing or counting techniques to help control their frustration for next time.
I would love to tell you that my daughter has never struggled with her perfectionist tendencies again, but she has approached problems with achievement on her mind much more than failure most of the time. Hopefully one day if she is faced with an amazing opportunity that requires some effort she will at least give it her best and be a little more perfect than her mother with the attempt.