If you've been reading this series on perfection being a total drag on happiness, and you keep thinking to yourself, crap, I've created a perfectionist, and now you're worried that your daughter is going to end up depressed and stifled or your son is going to turn out to be an anxious meth user, stop it. Everyone is going to be fine. You don't need to be a perfect parent to raise happy kids. We have actual science to back this fact up.
To recap: Perfectionism is all about fear of failure. The worst case scenario for perfectionists, then, is that we make a mistake or fail—and someone finds out about it. Perfectionist logic:
I stop obsessing about being perfect → I won't be perfect → I'll feel terrible.
This is faulty logic, of course. The way to wean someone from perfectionism is to show them that when they make mistakes and fail, they actually don't feel terrible. In fact, they might feel terribly FREE (at least that is what happened to me).
According to perfectionism researcher Randy Frost, perfectionists believe that their self-worth is contingent on their performance—that if they don't do well, they are worthless. That's why they think it is going to feel bad when they stop trying to be perfect. Perfectionists tend to think that failure to achieve will seriously diminish the affection and high-regard of their parents.
Here's how to help the perfectionist in your life quit it:
Have her engage in whatever she tends to be perfectionistic about. Let's say, for example, this is Georgia attempting to draw something she's never drawn before, like an oak tree.
Ask her to do it, preferably badly. When I was in high school, my dad used to beg me to get a C just so that I could see that my heart wouldn't stop beating if I wasn't a star student all the time. I finally learned this lesson rock-climbing: the first thing my instructor made me do was fall off of the rock at 50 feet up. Once I felt the ropes catch me, I knew viscerally that I would live even if I did fall, and my legs stopped quaking with fear. Perfectionists need to learn this lesson: usually it doesn't hurt very much or for very long to fail.
Ask her what it means that she drew a terrible oak tree, if it did come out badly. Does she think it means that she is not a good artist? Does she think that not being a great artist diminishes her worth? Point out that Thomas Edison had to try more than 1,000 times before he invented the light bulb successfully. If the oak tree is actually pretty good in her eyes, ask her what she thinks that means. Let her see that you don't care a whip whether or not she can draw – you love her just the way she is.
Ask her how she feels. Chances are she doesn't feel terrible, but that she feels loved and cared for by you. Point this out empathetically: "Sounds like you feel okay even though you did something you were afraid might make you look bad." Offer enthusiastic congratulations: "How great! You are learning to try new things and take risks! Whoo-hoo!"
At this point, you can help develop a strategy that might work better on her next attempt. Try to keep this light-hearted.
If you find your kids laughing at themselves as they reflect on their jobs-imperfectly-done, you know you've succeeded!
Have you stopped being a perfectionist? Weaned a kid from perfectionism? If so, how did you do it? Did you try the steps above? Did it work? Please leave comments and suggestions for other readers.
Step 2 for fostering success and happiness, but not perfectionism:
Let your kids fail.
- How To Make Your Kid into a Perfectionist
- Perfectionism is a Disease
- The Science of Success
- Teaching the Growth Mindset
© 2008 Christine Carter, Ph.D.
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