Perfectionism: When Perfect Isn’t Good Enough

Most people are familiar with the Merriam-Webster dictionary definition of perfectionism: “a disposition to regard anything short of perfection as unacceptable.” However, for many so-called perfectionists, even perfect feels insufficient. As reported in Antony and Swinson’s book When Perfect Isn’t Good Enough, perhaps a more appropriate and detailed definition for perfectionism is the one David Burns generated in a 1980 article in Psychology Today: “’…[perfectionists are people] whose standards are high beyond reach or reason” and “who strain compulsively and unremittingly toward impossible goals and who measure their own worth entirely in terms of productivity and accomplishment.’” Not surprisingly, while individuals in both categories may experience distress, individuals in the latter group are more vulnerable to a multitude of psychological and physical consequences.

In this age of increasing demands, competition, and expectations of high achievement, perfectionism in children and adolescents is on the rise, and so is their risk for developing psychological disorders, the most common of which is anxiety. Perfectionistic students may experience anxious thoughts that are frequent, intense, and difficult to control. They may become distraught over anything less than an A or a 100%. A B feels like a true crisis, and there is nothing a parent or teacher can say to talk them down. While younger children may show frustration when they cannot cut something or draw a picture “just right,” older students exhibit other behaviors; they may check their work excessively, spend way too much time on their assignments, or procrastinate because they feel overwhelmed. Ironically, procrastination is the gateway to anxiety and only serves to impair their performance. While anxiety may manifest as worry, it may also cause irritability or emotional reactivity. Physical symptoms may also be present, including stomachaches, racing heartbeat, rapid breathing, sweating, and a sense of panic. Something always seems to be “hurting,” especially for children who don’t have the words to articulate their worry and stress.

Over time, without treatment, these behaviors and feelings tend to increase in frequency and severity, so the earlier the intervention, the better. It is essential for these students to learn about the “thinking traps” they fall into and to develop an arsenal of relaxation strategies, such as exercise and mindfulness training, to provide symptom relief and prevent their fears from interfering with life.

Research has shown that perfectionism is not adaptive, but instead makes our children vulnerable to other mental health conditions. So what can we do as parents to help our kids ward off perfectionism?

  • Help them feel cared for and accepted.
  • Tell them you love them unconditionally.
  • Validate their feelings when they experience challenges in life.
  • Tell them about your mistakes and how you overcame them.
  • Model self-compassion.
  • Remind them that no one is perfect.