Betty W. Phillips, Ph.D., Psychology
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The Myth of Perfectionism: Part II



In my last article I discussed the problem with the so-called virtue of perfectionism. Too many people blissfully follow this dream until it starts to crash into self-criticism, fear of mistakes and failure and ultimately into anxiety and depression. The Stress Monster does love perfectionists! Today we're going to continue our plan to rescue adults and children from the clutches of that evil monster. We'll start with some strategies for those of you who are suffering from this syndrome.


Last month I introduced the concept of the "so what" goal. This apparently simple concept has great power to assuage our self-criticism and fears of negative judgments from others. I have a vivid recollection of my final session with a client who had successfully mastered her panic attacks. When I asked her about the most helpful advice I had given her, she commented, to say "so what" to herself. In other words, many things are not worth worrying about.  "Perfect" is a never achievable moving target. Realize that some goal outcomes are just not that important.


Work to separate achievement from self-worth. You will or will not achieve various goals during your lifetime. It's great to feel good about achievement, especially enjoying the rewards or perks generated when tasks are achieved well. On the other hand, a goal not achieved calls for examination of factors such as the desirability of the goal, the feasibility of achievement, time available for work on the goal and other process variables. Perhaps the goal is not even appropriate for you. Self-esteem is too important to be carried entirely by goal completion. Ultimately, self-worth must be an internal process, not dependent on the judgments of others.  See my articles on self-esteem in the Reading Room of my website for more information about maintaining a positive self-evaluation.


Pay more attention to effort toward achieving goals than to perfect end results. You've heard the story about the tortoise and the hare; slow and steady progress will often prevail. The previous article described the contributions of perfectionism toward the habit of procrastination. A good work ethic will usually result in meaningful achievement completed in a timely manner without undue  anxiety about the perfection of the end result.


Learn to see mistakes and failures as information for further learning, not as negative self-evaluations. After all, we do learn from our mistakes. Realize that you weren't born ready to read; remember how you had to learn from your mistakes. Remember that mistakes can always be fixed and then feel proud when you do correct your mistakes.


Now I'd like to talk to parents about their important role in this area. Please consider or reconsider your parenting style to help your children enjoy meaningful achievement rather than travel this self-defeating path to perfectionism. Help your children learn the strategies described above. Most important is to praise realistic goal setting and meaningful effort in your children rather than the "best" results. In schoolwork, for example, children should complete their assignments, study for tests and fulfill expectations but don't always have to obtain the best grades. Please do NOT tell your child that he or she must "do your best." Realize that children cannot always give 100% or do their best. You and I certainly can't. No one can achieve 100% all the time. Instead help your children to set reasonable goals, enjoy school, learn to "do well" and get "good" or " just fine" grades and feel proud of their progress.


Resist the urge to judge children's achievement in relation to their self worth. Negative judgments motivate only avoidance and set up a failure cycle.  What child is going to want to tackle schoolwork with criticism ringing in his or her ear? Unduly positive judgments about personal qualities like intelligence create unrealistic expectations. If children are always told that they are "smart" when they get good grades, when their achievement drops they will start to judge themselves as "dumb." Praised for effort, your child will keep learning and will be energized when encountering difficult learning tasks.


MOST IMPORTANT, let your children know that you love them and will be there for them no matter their success or lack of success in grades or sports or other performance areas. Love them and help them learn to love themselves!