Sunday, October 2, 2011

Perfect ?

It’s in the genes. It has to be. Why else would a six year old quit ballet exams because her excellent result this year was slightly lower than her fabulous result last year ?

Or later, upon coming second in the yearly school exams, feel so mortified that she would claim to have done it deliberately, so as to have the experience of not coming first?

Or as a young adult, fail her driving test once and never take it again ?

A couple of on-line conversations and blog posts have me thinking about the curse of perfectionism. Of how our own failure to live up to our internal standards causes us – the perfectionists among you - such trouble.

I didn’t grow up in a tiger mother home. No-one had anything riding on that ballet exam, besides the hope I’d do my best and be pleased with my result. It’s a temperament thing, passed down to my own children.

One of my children refused to draw for years; the drawings weren’t as good as a sibling’s, despite receiving no such judgement from me. Another doesn’t want to go to an outside class. The child explains it to me: I don’t want to go, because I don’t know how to do it properly yet. The child is deaf to my explanation that classes are for learning, not for performing. Another weighs the conversation with peers, thinking of the perfect response, fearful that an immediate answer or comment will be found wanting – and the conversation passes that child by, despite being surrounded in daily life by people who find that child delightful, mature.

My own perfectionism and the choices I’ve made because of it have both hardened and become less visible. They seem part of who I am rather than impediments to a full life. Not finishing a book of poems seems a philosophical decision. I know there are so many good books of poems; if mine are not better than good, is there any point to their production ? Behind the thought lurks fear of failure, confirmation of a lack. Better not to try at all.

I’ve been thinking about how to find the enemy of perfectionism, of how to retrain the brains of children whose desire to do perfectly isn’t yet hardened and part of who they are. And all I can think of is becoming the change you want to see, of learning to attempt things at which you might fail and of letting the world – your children - see how you fail and how you pick yourself up again, unbroken.


  1. Perfection is all about fear of judgement. If you want to undermine that evil genie, then cultivate an atmosphere in the home of Unconditional Positive Regard.

    This coming from a recovering perfectionist.

    My youngest has that bent. She will get so worked up sometimes. I remind her to do her best, but that most of the time, mistakes will not be the end of the world.

    That most of the time, at this age, she can simply start over. And that sometimes there are these wonderful things called *happy Mistakes. Where something unplanned for in a drawing or painting or whatever emerges in spite of our best efforts and is better by far than what we originally had in mind.

    Good luck! That is [or at least it has been for me] a very hard habit to break.

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  3. Melissa, we have similar situations going on in our home. I'm what I usually call a "recovering type-A," but I struggle daily with perfectionistic tendencies. It took me until I was in my thirties not to feel horribly guilty about overdue library books! I have one child who won't draw because his drawings don't come out as perfectly as they are in his head, and another who won't take outside classes for the same reason as your child's.

    I do have plans to try some things I'm sure not to be good at! Surfing, for one. : ) But that will have to wait as cold weather is on its way. Hopefully I'll come up with something else that I think will be fun that has a high potential for failure. ; /