An anxious mind is also a beautifully creative, imaginative mind. This is a great thing, except for when that imagination and creativity is being used to imagine outcomes that feel unbearable, however unlikely they may be. These thoughts of what ‘could’ happen, drive self-talk, which in turn directs behaviour towards doing whatever is necessary to avoid a bad outcome. Hello perfectionism.
When perfectionism takes hold, it’s not so much with a gentle, ‘I’ll be over here in case you need me’, kind of way, but more in a, ‘oooohhh let me stay with you and protect you and never let you go’, kind of way. Perfectionism can be relentless, and although it can be helpful, it can also be suffocating – and so exhausting!
Just to be sure … What does perfectionism look like?
As with everything our children do, something is only a problem if it’s causing a problem. The behaviours that drive perfectionism might be different depending on the child, but here are some of the common ones;
- Refusing to try anything new or unfamiliar (to avoid failing or making a mistake).
- Difficulty completing work, or being slow to finish (because of constant checking or repeating to make sure there are no mistakes).
- Procrastination – because it’s easier sometimes not to start than to face the possibility of failure.
- More likely to ask for help rather than try it themselves first. Asking for help is a strength, and we don’t want to discourage that, but if the request for help is driven by a fear of getting it wrong, it can be stifling and get in the way of being brave and taking life-giving risks.
- Giving up or becoming distressed, angry, irritable or upset if they make a mistake, or if they believe that whatever they are working on might be less than perfect.
- Tendency to think in all or nothing terms – if it isn’t perfect, it’s bad/wrong/stupid.
- Tendency to be self-critical.
There’s something about perfection that doesn’t feel that perfect. Actually, it can feel kind of … awful.
There will always be parts of us that shimmer and parts that feel creased and imperfect. We need all of them. Failing and falling are a part of being human so the avoidance of them is an impossible task. It’s also a potentially damaging one. The chase for perfection quite often comes with self-criticism, fear of negative evaluation, and a propensity to feel shame when things don’t work out as planned. In short, perfectionism tramples over whole-hearted living, it suffocates healthy risk-taking, it halts progress so wrinkles can be smoothed out (and out and out), it limits discovery and it stunts growth.
Not only is the chase for perfection a hopeless, tiresome one, it’s also vastly unnecessary. If only our kids could know how beautifully ‘everything’ they are because of their imperfections, not despite them.
But everything has a flipside.
Perfectionism can hold children back, but beneath perfectionistic tendencies will be the makings of great grit, determination, and a fearless chase for the things that feel important. The key is to nurture these traits, while at the same time turning down the behaviours that stifle them. That’s where you come in.
Let it be about being brave, rather than being right/ brilliant/ excellent (because brave is all of those things).
Courage is a rich, luminescent quality that will help move our children through the tough stuff that comes their way. Failure or mistakes can steal any of us for a while, but it takes courage to dust off and try again, or to let go and move forward with grace and readiness for the next opportunity.
Provide opportunities for failure.
Hard things take time to learn and to master. Even when the lessons are learned and the skills are sorted, the polish can take even longer still. No wonder being a kid is so busy! Gentle comments about their effort and the difficulty of the task can help to strip any fear or shame that can come with failure or unexpected endings. Try something like, ‘Being a goalie can be tricky some days can’t it. I love how hard you worked to at it today.’ This will also strengthen their connection with you, which in turn will increase their feelings of warmth and safety and the likelihood of brave behaviour and healthy risks. Some children will feel that failure is unsafe regardless of how open and generous parents are in the face of failure. Whatever we can do to give our children the opportunity to learn that failure and mistakes are a part of growth, not the end of it, will make failure less likely to end in feelings of inadequacy. When failure or mistakes become a source of shame, their curiosity will be stifled, their emotional resources will be taxed, and they will be more likely to avoid challenge. Offering kids the opportunity to feel safe in the thick of failure will give them the precious opportunities they need to learn how to get back up again, stronger and braver than before.
Strip the power from their shame – and give it back to them.
Perfection is driven by the need to avoid the shame that might come with missing a beat. Shame is a big beasty thing that can have the toughest of us scrambling for cover. The most powerful way to strip shame is to bring the story that fuels it into the open. Shame thrives on secrecy and on our stories staying hidden. When we talk, we get ‘proof’ that even when we fall, fail or stumble, we’re still doing okay – sometimes even better than okay. Encourage the conversation around imperfect moments, and hold back from judgement, criticism, or helping them to feel better. They’ll feel better when they see it’s no big deal, and that they’re still your heroes. Let them sit with how it feels to own their imperfections in a safe, secure, loving environment – without self-blame, without pity, and without being talked out of how they feel. This will help them learn that imperfections don’t change how great they are, how loved they are, and how capable they are.
Let their imperfect moments connect with yours.
If you can access your own feelings around your own imperfections, it will help you to connect into your child’s. Try something like, ‘That sounds disappointing for you. That’s happened to me and it’s upsetting for a while isn’t it.’ When the people we adore are struggling, it’s understandable that we would want to ‘fix’ their hurts and polish the sharp edges away, but we don’t need to. Sometimes the greatest thing we can do is keep our own discomfort in check for long enough so they can make the discoveries that will build them.
Encourage self-compassion. It’s not the thought that does damage, it’s the way they respond to it.
When children have rigid ideas of how things (or they) ‘should’ be, trouble can strut in like a rock star to a stage. The antidote to this is self-compassion. When children (or any of us) respond to setbacks with self-compassion, the way forward is easier. Self-compassion requires courage. It involves acknowledging the parts of ourselves and our story that feel difficult, and moving towards them with acceptance and an open heart. To exercise self-compassion, we first need to avoid the tendency which is wired deeply into many of us, to blame, avoid, and distract. These are completely understandable responses – it’s how we protect ourselves from the pain of disappointment, but they can keep us stuck. Research has found that self-compassion turns down the volume on perfectionism. Kristen Neff, a leader in self-compassion research has identified three parts to self-compassion:
• self-kindness – as opposed to self-criticism. ‘I made a mistake. That’s okay. I’ll get it next time,’ or, ‘That didn’t turn out the way I thought. What can I learn from this?’;
• connection to our common humanity – seeing our experiences as part of being human, rather than a sign of our own deficits or failings. Nurture this by encouraging open, non-judgemental, compassionate conversation about mistakes and setbacks (yours and theirs);
• mindfulness – letting painful thoughts and emotions come and go, rather than attaching more meaning to the thought or feeling than it deserves.
Imperfection – it’s an unexpected buddy.
Kids need to understand that life will be punctuated with delicious highs and miserable lows. As loving parents, there can be an enormous drive to protect our children from disappointment. Sometimes though, a healthy level of protection can nudge into the zone of ‘over-protecting’. We’re parents and we’re human – it’s going to happen. Healthy living involves being able to learn from the downs as much as celebrating the highs. Whenever you can, give them the space to feel their feelings, even the confusing ones. This might inflame your own anxiety – it’s always difficult seeing someone we love in distress – but if we can hold back from the push to rescue them (or ourselves), we can provide them with opportunities to learn that the uncomfortable feelings that come with failure aren’t always a reason to hold back from being brave. If we can leave the door ajar just a little for these feelings, it makes way for our children to learn that any bad feelings that come with imperfection will never last long. There is no need to ‘fix’ the feelings that are pushing against them. Instead, try a gentle acknowledgement and let time and their own emotional resilience do the rest. Try something like, ‘It sounds as though you’re disappointed. An ‘A’ meant a lot to you didn’t it. It feels pretty miserable when things don’t go to plan – I really get it’.
Here’s how I see you. (And I love what I see.)
Like the rest of us, kids can take their results as a reflection of themselves. Help that image to be a strong, nourishing one by helping them focus on the process rather than the outcome. ’I love how hard you worked on that. You had some great ideas for your assignment.’ Validate their point of view, ‘You want to do well in this don’t you’, and then offer another one, ‘I can see how hard you’re working.’ By doing this, they can discover that imperfection doesn’t change the good in them. They can make mistakes and be hardworking, determined, brave, and strong. Imperfection is something that happens at one point in time and it doesn’t cancel out how great they are.
How would you treat a little version of you?
There is a small child in all of us, even adults. It’s the playful, adventurous part – the seeker of love, security and a soft place to fall into when the world feels tough. Even though we might not be aware of this part of us, it’s there and it’s powerful. Our kids won’t always be able to get the compassion or tenderness they need from the world, but they can get it from themselves. This is a skill that will strengthen them from the inside out, and nurturing it will happen through conversation. First, shine a light on the things they say to themselves when they are feeling ‘not good enough’ or when they’re worried about being not good enough. ‘What goes through your mind when you think about not getting an ‘A’?’ These messages are powerful and they’re often automatic and out of our awareness. Bringing them out into the open is a powerful way to stop them being such a heavy influence on behaviour. When your child has a handle on those messages, ask them how they would feel if they saw someone saying that to a small child. How would the small child would feel? Would it make it easier for the little person to do his or her best or would it make it more difficult? What might be a better thing to say? What could you say to help that small child feel more confident, braver, and stronger?
Accountability for the consequences of perfection.
Perfection has fallout – stress, snapping, withdrawal, tardiness. We only have so much to give, and when we are giving so much to one thing, other things will feel the strain of this – friendships, relationships in the family, the capacity for fun, discovery, healthy risk-taking, curiosity. Although perfection tends to come with the best intentions, it can also drive rigidity and inflexibility, and it can cause the wrong things to be given priority.
Remind them that they have the right to get it wrong as many times as it takes.
They have the right to get it wrong, to discover the edges of what feels comfortable and explore beyond it. As parents, one of the greatest things we can do to help them move forward is to give them the space to own any mistakes they might make. When we criticise, judge, or tell them ‘I told you so’ (and how many times have I wanted to do that!) we make it more difficult for them to explore their mistakes as they will feel even more under pressure to defend them. Nobody wants to feel like an idiot. Not a three-year old, a ten-year old, a forty-year old or an eighty-year old. The less we can make them feel that way, the more likely it is that they will learn and find their way with strength through any mess that gets in their way.
And finally …
As parents, it’s important that we also keep our own tendencies towards perfection in check. Kids will always learn more of what we do than what we say. When we, as parents show our children that we lovingly accept the ebbs and flows that will come with their adventure through childhood, through adolescence and into adulthood, we give them the power to do the same. This freedom is life-giving, and will flourish their capacity to explore their place in the world, learn from their mistakes, and find what lights them up from the inside out.
‘Hey Warrior’ is the book I’ve written for children to help them understand anxiety and to find their ‘brave’. It explains why anxiety feels the way it does, and it will teach them how they can ‘be the boss of their brains’ during anxiety, to feel calm. It’s not always enough to tell kids what to do – they need to understand why it works. Hey Warrior does this, giving explanations in a fun, simple, way that helps things make sense in a, ‘Oh so that’s how that works!’ kind of way, alongside gorgeous illustrations. (See here for the trailer.)