Is your child paralysed by perfection? Here’s what’s really going on and how you can help her.
By Linda Stade

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It’s Sunday night, bed time. Your daughter is upset about the assignment for English due the next day. She’s had a week to do it and you’ve seen her sitting at her desk writing and making notes. She has spent hours at it, so you assumed she’d finished. It turns out she hasn’t started. Well, she has. Several times. But each start she made, she deleted. It wasn’t quite right.
You know your child isn’t lazy and she isn’t a good old-fashioned procrastinator. It’s possible she’s experiencing perfection paralysis. Perfection paralysis is when a person simply can’t start a project because they are so concerned that they won’t get it exactly right. There only seems to be two options:
  • Start and prove you’re not perfect
  • Don’t start.
Teachers see it in classrooms all the time. Children will ask lots of questions and run many ideas past you, but they won’t commit anything to paper. Even when they do commit an idea to paper, they will screw it up and throw it away, rather than using it as a jump-off point for a better idea. These kids love correcting fluid because it stops them having to see their errors. They also like writing in pencil because anything risky can be erased. Laptop schools make this process of removing evidence even easier … it’s simply a matter of hitting “delete”.
Perfection paralysis is driven by a combination of several elements:
Fear of shame and judgment
Dr Brene Brown is an amazing speaker, author and research professor at the University of Houston. She works in the area of shame, vulnerability and empathy. She says: “Perfectionism is a self-destructive and addictive belief system that fuels this primary thought: If I look perfect and do everything perfectly I can avoid or minimise the painful feelings of shame, judgment, and blame.” She considers shame to be the most powerful master emotion. “It is the fear that we are not good enough.”
People always talk about fear of failure, but in reality, the underlying fear is of shame. So, it is a logical belief that if we can change the association of mistakes = shame, we can disrupt this mindset. Mistakes must mean something positive. This can’t be a tokenistic pat on the back and “we all learn from our mistakes”. It has to be an authentic change in culture where mistakes are just normal. Completely and utterly normal.
It is human instinct to compare ourselves to others. We are biologically programmed to place ourselves in a hierarchical structure that determines status and possible mates. We compare our belongings with others’, we compare our partners to others’, we even compare our meals when we order at a restaurant!
For most people, these comparisons play a minor role in the way we go about our daily life. However, if a child has low self-worth they will always judge themselves as second best in the comparison “game”. These negative comparisons reaffirm their low sense of worth and so they spiral further downward. The easiest way to avoid these comparisons is to present nothing for comparison. So they don’t. They are paralysed by their fear of comparison, so they avoid completing tasks.
Another technique people use to avoid comparison is to create disclaimers for themselves. If a child can say, “I did it all at the last minute, so I probably won’t get a very good result”, then there is less shame involved in a poor outcome. In fact, there is also a slight kick in social comparison because not caring about the system gives you a bit of “rebel without a cause” swagger.
If a child struggles with anxiety they already feel judged, inadequate and fearful. That’s how anxiety works. It’s little wonder that they find it hard to start a project if they’re already convinced that the outcome will lead to negative emotions. The problem is that not starting confirms their feelings of inadequacy. Not starting is failure too.
Anxiety doesn’t give any positive solutions and it has a contagion effect. Often perfection paralysis will begin with one subject or type of task and then it will start to generalise across lots of different circumstances and types of activities. Plenty of kids excel in a couple of subject areas, but are paralysed in others. As content gets more challenging in the subjects where they feel comfortable, they will experience mistakes, and anxiety will infect that subject too. This sort of fear and anxiety limits kids. It stops them from trying anything new. That makes for a small world with little joy and wonder.
What can we do to help kids with perfection paralysis?
Tracy Webster is the wellbeing co-ordinator at Santa Maria College. She suggests these practical strategies for helping kids with perfection paralysis:
  • Model making mistakes. Admit you aren’t perfect. Be calm in the face of your own mistakes. Make it normal.
  • Make things challenging. Make it an expectation that they will fail at first. Some things that are worth learning are hard won.
  • Provide a safe environment. Kids need to feel as though getting things wrong is a valuable part of learning.
  • Praise process over product. The glitter border doesn’t matter if you haven’t put enough time into the actual process of the task.
  • Praise effort over grades … but make sure there has been effort. Lots of people say, “you tried your hardest”, when the child really hasn’t.
  • Teach kids about their brains. Show them that neutral pathways are created by practising skills and thinking.
  • Teach them to plan. Big tasks can be overwhelming. Teach kids to approach tasks in more manageable sections.
  • Show kids different approaches. There are often lots of different answers to a question, not just one. There are also lots of different ways to get an answer.
  • Teach kids to accept their mistakes. Learning is a messy process. You don’t need to start again.
  • Let kids be brave. Give kids lots of opportunities in their lives to be brave, physically, emotionally and intellectually.
Finally …
Just get kids to start. It doesn’t matter where. Start in the middle, write the last sentence, write the first heading. It doesn’t matter, just start. Churchill said: “Perfection is the enemy of progress.” And he was right
At its root, perfectionism isn’t really about a deep love of being meticulous. It’s about fear. Fear of making a mistake. Fear of disappointing others. Fear of failure. Fear of success. – Michael Law
Linda Stade has worked in various teaching and management roles in education for 27 years. Currently, she is the research officer at Santa Maria College, Western Australia.

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