Is your child paralysed by perfection? Here’s what’s really going on and how you can help them overcome perfection paralysis.
Written by Linda Stade
It’s Sunday night. Your daughter is upset about the assignment for English due the next day. She’s had a week to work on it and you’ve seen her sitting at her desk writing and making notes. She’s spent hours at it, so you assumed she’s finished. Turns out, she hasn’t even 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 questions and run through ideas, but won’t commit anything to paper. Or when they do, they mess up and throw it away, rather than use it as a jump-off point for a better idea.
“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
Perfection paralysis is driven by a combination of several elements:
Fear of shame and judgment
Renowned speaker, author and research professor at the University of Houston, Dr Brené Brown 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’s the fear that we are not good enough.”
People always talk about fear of failure, but in reality, the underlying fear is of shame. It’s a logical belief that if we can change the association that ‘mistakes = shame’, we can disrupt this mindset.
It’s human instinct to compare ourselves to others. We’re 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’ll always judge themselves as second best. These negative comparisons reaffirm their low sense of worth and can spiral downward.
If a child struggles with anxiety, they already feel judged, inadequate and fearful. That’s how anxiety works. It’s little wonder they find it hard to start a project if they’re already convinced that the outcome will be negative. The problem is that not starting confirms their feelings of inadequacy. Not starting is failure too.
What can we do to help children with perfection paralysis?
Tracy Webster, the wellbeing co-ordinator at Santa Maria College, suggests these practical strategies for helping children or teens with perfection paralysis:
- Model making mistakes. Admit you’re imperfect, be calm in the face of your own mistakes. Make mistakes normal.
- Make things challenging. Remind them that some things are worth learning the hard way.
- Provide a safe environment. Children need to feel safe in knowing that mistakes are 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. Avoid saying, “you tried your hardest” when you know they haven’t.
- Teach children 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 children to approach tasks in manageable sections.
- Show kids different approaches. There is often more than one answer to a question, and more than one way of getting to it.
- Teach children to accept their mistakes. Learning is a messy process. You don’t need to start again.
- Let children be brave. Give children lots of opportunities to be brave, physically, emotionally and intellectually, and praise them for their bravery.
Finally, get children to start. It doesn’t matter where. Start in the middle, write the last sentence, write the first heading – it doesn’t matter. Churchill said: “Perfection is the enemy of progress.” And he was right.
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.