Understanding Perfectionism: How to Make It Work For, Not Against, You and Your Kids | Sharon Saline, Psy.D. | 7 Min Read

April 19, 2023

Honestly, it’s tough to be a perfectionist writing about perfectionism. Wait, let me rephrase that: a recovering perfectionist writing about perfectionism. See, there it is—correcting myself to get it right. I like accuracy, accountability, and setting high standards for myself. These traits can be motivating and help me accomplish my goals. But sometimes, these same characteristics get in my way when it’s time to actually turn something in or complete a task. Is it clear enough? Is it well-written enough? Is the meal tasty enough or the gift nice enough? You get the picture. Perhaps you or your child or teen have similar thoughts. 

Over the years, I’ve learned that perfection is a powerful myth that holds me and many other people back from sharing their authenticity, creativity, and intelligence. Perfectionism develops as an ineffective coping mechanism for dealing with anxiety. Like anxiety, it also runs in families. Many parents who set extremely high standards for themselves often do the same for their kids. This type of pressure ultimately leads someone to crack: it’s too much to expect ourselves to get things right all of the time. That’s not what being human is about. So, in this article, I aim to speak to adults and kids. Together, you can reduce perfectionist tendencies, laugh at your mistakes, and grow along the way. 

Perfectionism is defined as the tendency to demand from others or oneself an extremely high or even flawless level of performance, in excess of what is required by the situation. There is a difference between having a desire to excel and a desire to be perfect. Research has shown an increase in perfectionism in the general population over the past twenty years. There are two fundamental aspects of perfectionism: adaptive and maladaptive. 

Adaptive perfectionism supports motivation, persistence, and productivity. You get started on a task and stick with it until completion because you want to do a good job. It carries a desire to create a piece of strong work or express yourself athletically, artistically, academically, or professionally. This type of perfectionism also contributes to the productive side of worry. It helps people by encouraging planning for a family dinner, getting to work on time, or remembering to bring your passports on an international trip. 

Maladaptive perfectionism is linked to toxic worry and leads to overthinking, inaction, judgment, and limitations. It perpetuates low self-esteem and defensiveness as well as negative mindsets. When maladaptive perfectionism appears, it brings along several of its associates: self-criticism, rigidity, fear of disappointing self or others, avoidance of failure, and believing if something isn’t completely right, it’s completely wrong. Toxic perfectionism combined with worry stops people from making efforts or completing things. It can be paralyzing, discouraging, and distressing. 

For neurodivergent children, teens, and adults, perfectionism can be both a blessing and a curse. Many folks with ADHD struggle with wanting something to be right so much that it becomes difficult to start tasks, assignments, and projects, and complete them. Although perfectionism can be motivating, it can keep you overfocused on the end result and not the process of getting there. You may set unrealistic goals and worry about disappointing others. Often these expectations are based on “shoulds” instead of what people actually can do, resulting in shame and low self-esteem. This cycle of perfectionism increases anxiety and holds people back from the natural process of learning that’s part of daily living. It ties you to a negative, fixed mindset and expectations based on “shoulds”—instead of focusing on what you actually can do, taking risks and learning from experience.  Both perfectionists and folks with ADHD are sensitive to criticism and can be easily discouraged when they can’t complete goals. Deep inside, they may well be walking around feeling ashamed and deficient. 

Perfectionism signals that somebody feels uncomfortable, uncertain, or insecure about something they have to do, something they want someone else to do, or how they think they should appear to the world. Resilience and compassion are the antidotes to perfectionism. When kids and adults learn how to tolerate uncomfortable feelings and hear feedback without spiraling into shame, they can bounce back from disappointments and apply lessons gleaned from past successes to current situations. This is how we all nurture resilience and reduce the worry and stress that perfectionism aims to manage. We went to show our kids (and do this ourselves) how to turn down the noise of compare and despair and the core belief of feeling deficient and shift towards making other choices that nurture self-confidence and self-compassion. 

Here are five steps to begin the process of overcoming perfectionism. This is a process that takes time and practice. As perfectionists, you may want to do all of these things simultaneously. Fight that urge. Share these suggestions with your kids and see what piques their interest. Then, pick ONE thing—together. 

  1. Build awareness of perfectionism: Notice when you (or your child) push to do something perfectly or criticize yourself for fumbling. Label the voice of perfectionism and consider naming it too. My voice is called “Perfect Poindexter” and I’ve created an avatar for him, too. This could be a fun and useful activity for children and teens. When we personify the negative, critical voice, we can play with it and weaken its authority. Next, create one or two soothing, supportive phrases you can say to yourself such as “It’s okay, I’m efforting and sometimes that doesn’t work out” or “Everybody makes mistakes at some point. It doesn’t mean that I’m a bad person.” These phrases help folks talk back to that voice in their heads, reassure themselves and build self-compassion. I tell my clients what one of my mentors told me: “Real is better than perfect. Two steps forward and one step back is still forward progress.” 
  2. Shift focus:  We want to move away from worrying about the outcome to wondering about what will occur. Paying attention to what is working helps people shift away from a fixed mindset to a growth-oriented one. Notice the good things that occur as much or more than the challenging ones. Start to recognize that thoughts that everybody is better off than you are and has it all figured out are simply untrue. Make a list of things that you do well and like: “I like when I…”, “I think I do a good (or good enough) job at…”, “I’ve never been perfect, and I’ve made it this far.” Learning to enjoy small achievements is a challenge for any perfectionist.
  3. Accept mistakes with compassion: Learning is an essential part of living and it means stumbling, picking yourself up, and trying again. Sometimes you need to pivot; sometimes you just need to tweak what you are doing and try again. Be kinder to yourself when you’ve messed up or things haven’t turned out as you had hoped. Lower the pressure you put on yourself. Avoid saying things to yourself that you wouldn’t say to a 10-year-old with a skinned knee or a dog whose paw is caught in a trap.
  4. Develop strategies for accepting feedback:  Feedback is a fundamental part of life, not a sign that you are deficient or have failed. How can you hear what somebody says with neutrality and grace? How can you teach kids the same? Start by acknowledging what the person is saying by repeating it back to them. This buys you time to collect yourself and slow down your reactivity. Ask yourself if there is any truth to what’s been said and see if you can learn something from this situation. Could you make a change? Take time to respond and consider checking this out with a trusted friend or family member. 

Set reasonable goals that reflect honest capabilities:  Look at the expectations you have for yourself or your child and what they have for themselves. Are these realistic given factors such as age, intellectual ability, emotional development, and academic strengths and challenges? and the capability of your child or teen? Are you applying unachievable standards of success set by others? Do you engage in ‘compare and despair’? Consider what you (or your child) can actually handle versus what you think everybody should. When people rely on limits based on what is actually possible, they are much more likely to attain the success they desire. 

You may also be interested in reading more articles written by Sharon Saline, Psy.D. for Intrepid Ed News.

Sharon Saline, Psy.D.

Sharon Saline, Psy.D. is a top expert in ADHD and neurodiversity. Dr. Saline specializes in an integrative approach to managing ADHD, anxiety, executive functioning skills, learning differences and mental health issues in neurodiverse and 2e children, teens, college-age adults and families. With over 25 years of clinical experience, she brings a positive, strength-based approach to improving the challenges related to attention, learning and behavior. As a licensed clinical psychologist in private practice in Northampton, MA, Dr. Saline helps people reduce frustration, develop daily living skills, communicate better and feel closer. An internationally sought-after lecturer, workshop facilitator, and educator/clinician trainer, she adeptly addresses topics ranging from making sense of ADHD and executive functioning skills to managing anxiety to understanding the teen brain. You may contact Dr. Sharon Saline at https://drsharonsaline.com.

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