Healthy Perfectionism and How to Encourage It

Healthy Perfectionismimage: Joe Hitchcock

“Overcoming Perfectionism”

“Healing the Wounds of Shame and Perfectionism”

“Freeing your Family From Perfectionism”

These are just a few of the 1,026 book results I find when I search “perfectionism” on Amazon. “Shame”, “guilt”, “not good enough”, “out of control”, “constant need for approval” are terms I see regularly when searching Google for resources.

I’ve thought I needed to fight perfectionism all my life. I’ve read self-help books like the ones listed above. I worry about my children who have inherited the same traits and hope they won’t ever feel that those words apply to them.

Then I read Giftedness 101, by Linda Silverman. In chapter 5, she describes healthy perfectionism in gifted children as something transformative that pushes them to improve themselves and enjoy facing challenges.

I had an “Aha!” moment as I read it. Her explanation described how I approach the world as an adult and many of the behaviors I notice in my children. It explained the whisper in my head that argued, “But I like being a perfectionist! How can wanting to be better be bad for me?”

So, what’s the difference between harmful and healthy perfectionism?

Harmful perfectionism can be paralyzing. It prevents us from reaching goals and taking chances. Add giftedness and anxiety to the mix, and it can become a stronger force that requires professional intervention.

Healthy perfectionism pushes us forward to meet the challenge, break the record and be the best self we can be. It’s a motivator, not a discourager.

Do you see this in your kids? I see both sides of perfectionism in my girls and I’d like to share some ways we are working to cultivate healthy perfectionism in our household.

1. Encourage Pursuits that they Love

B loves gymnastics. She works hard at practice and has a great attitude. Her coach noticed this and promoted her to the team in January. This led to a rocky period – She was a 6-year-old in a group of 8 and 9-year-olds. Her small stature was a disadvantage and her muscle development was two years behind the others. Gymnastics became really hard. Her coach talked to her about working with a different group and coming back to the team in six months.

I worried that she would feel defeated and give up. I prepared to convince her to persevere and not let a setback ruin something she loves. I began thinking of other activities she could do instead if she didn’t want to continue at the gym. That was my harmful perfectionism talking. The “why try? You’ll never be good enough” voice that plagued me as a child. 

Thankfully, she hears a different voice of perfectionism – one that encourages her to keep going until she gets it. Her motivation grew stronger. She began practicing at home every day and working even harder at the gym. Her attitude stayed upbeat. It paid off – she’s been asked to come back to the team in June instead of September. She is so proud of herself and enjoys gymnastics more with every challenge she overcomes.

What does your child enjoy? Whether it’s art, sports or competitive chess, encourage activities that they love. It’s much easier to face a challenge when it holds personal satisfaction for you. When the pursuit becomes difficult, help your child to see how much progress they’ve made. B loves to watch old videos of herself doing gymnastics – it’s a visual reminder of her improvement over the last year.

2. Be Understanding

Remember that asynchrony plays a large part in your child’s perfectionism. If your 7-year-old has 10-year-old ideas, the distance between what he wants to do and what he is physically capable of may be frustrating. Be empathetic. Share a personal story about a situation that turned out to be much more difficult than you thought it should be and how you handled it. If your child needs to rage about it, let him. It’s good to work through the negative feelings. When the smoke clears, discuss why the goal is important to him, and encourage him to try again. Show him how to break a big project into smaller steps and celebrate taking risks along the way. Help him focus on the joy of the process, not the product.

3. Be a Good Example

I am not athletic at all. I have terrible balance and trip over my own feet if I am not paying attention. I married a natural athlete then had adventurous children and they all like to rock climb. I am terrified of rock climbing. I used to blame it on my short legs, but the truth is, I hate looking stupid. When I rock climb, I feel so inadequate and uncomfortable. I act cranky and came dangerously close to throwing a fit once during some perilous hiking a climb my four-year-old handled with ease. I reflected on my poor behavior and admitted the cause – I didn’t want to fail in front of my family.

I talked to the girls about it and apologized. We came up with worst case scenarios and had a good laugh at the thought of me sliding down a hill on my bum. They encouraged me. “That could happen, Mom, but it didn’t! We’ve never even seen you fall!”

It’s important that they see me fall every now and then so they can watch me get back up, dust off and try again.

 4. Offer “Safe” Opportunities for Failure.

Games have proven to be the best venue for “safe” failure in our home. It hasn’t been easy. We’ve purchased several games recently that involve strategy, taking chances and uncertain odds. I usually introduce a game in a modified version with fewer variables, and we work our way to playing by the rules. The first time we played Rat-a-Tat Cat with all of our cards face down, B had a breakdown. She could not handle the possibility of guessing and making the wrong choice. We talked it through. What was the worst thing that could happen? Would it matter later in the day or tomorrow? Finally, she was able to work through her anxiety and play the game, and it’s one of her favorites now. I’ve seen her generalize these strategies to other areas of her life and it makes me proud.

5. It’s Not Your Fault

Some kids are born more anxious than others and lean toward self-critical perfectionism. You’ve tried read the books, tried the strategies, are endlessly encouraging…and nothing helps. You are a good parent. Perfectionism, along with many other quirks, is a typical part of a gifted child’s wiring and is rarely caused by poor parenting, despite what our judgemental society often tells us. If you feel like your child’s version of perfectionism is beyond healthy parameters, a good therapist can help.

Healthy perfectionism fuels the Olympic athlete, the best-selling novelist,  and the mathematician who spends years proving a theory. The attitude behind perfectionism makes all the difference.

Embrace it. Let it motivate you. Teach your children that mistakes are hurdles, not roadblocks, and prepare them to leap.

Resources on Perfectionism:

The Many Faces of Perfectionism, Linda Silverman (summary)

Perfectionism: The Crucible of Giftedness, Linda Silverman (More extensive overview of perfectionism and how it relates to Dabrowski’s Theory of Positive Disintegration – excellent read!)

What’s Wrong With Perfect?, Silvia Rimm

Real Learning: Meet the Perfectionists, Lisa Natcharian

This blog post is part of the May 2015 GHF Blog Hop – Perfectionism and Other Gifted/2e Quirks. You can find more posts on this subject here


P is for Perfectionist

C lays on the floor, coloring with a pencil. She screams in exasperation.

“What’s wrong, sweetie?”

“My pencil is frustrating me!”

She erases all of her work and begins again. Five minutes later, she throws her pencil across the room in a rage. She stomps off, returns with a pair of scissors and chops the offending piece of paper into teeny-tiny pieces.

“THERE!!”, she yells.

I chuckle to myself. That one is a firecracker, and sometimes I see reminders of myself in her.

* * * * *

At gymnastics, she is focused.  She wants to complete her skills correctly. She holds up the line while she walks on the beam. She doesn’t have 100% balance, and can’t bring herself to move to the next activity until she tries it again and gets it right. She steps out of line and lets others take their turn until she can attempt it again.

She is learning, carefully, that these skills…the cartwheels, the backward rolls, the pullovers…are endeavors that take time to learn, and practice to improve.

Sometimes (most times),  perfection doesn’t happen on the first try.

In fact, sometimes it doesn’t happen on the 56976 try.

* * * * *

B has big expectations for herself. She sets the bar high, and becomes upset with herself if she doesn’t fulfill her ambitions on the first pursuit.

She has a new addition facts set to work on.  She sets her two-minute goal. She reaches it, just barely. She sets her one-minute goal – but it is twice as many problems as her two-minute goal. I interrupt her, ask her if she thinks that is reasonable given her progress in the two minute time span.

She gets irritable with me. “I can finish this today, Mom. I just want to learn them all right now.”

I back away, give her space. She doesn’t complete her one-minute goal. Her face is dark. She asks for a new paper.

“Are you sure? You’ve already…”

“I didn’t do as many as I said I would. Please give me a new paper!”

Three papers later, she stomps off in frustration, only one math problem away from where she wanted to be.

“I don’t understand why I can’t just know them, Mom. I don’t want to have to learn them.”

* * * * *

“I don’t want to go to gymnastics!”

“But B, you enjoy gymnastics! Your coaches love you!” After asking some questions over several weeks of complaints, and getting a variety of answers, what I believe is the real issue emerges.

“Every time I do a skill, my coach fixes me. I don’t like to be fixed. I know how to do it.”

I explain that although she is able to do many things, the next step is to work on her form, hold her body just right, strengthen her muscles.

“I can do that myself. I wish they wouldn’t fix me.”

I send her to class anyway, where she has a great day and practices hard, but makes a subtle face every time she is corrected by a coach.

* * * * *

I can empathize. I am the same way. When I was younger, if I couldn’t learn something the first time that I tried it, it was “boring”, “not my thing”, and all of the other excuses perfectionists use. I couldn’t stand being coached…by a trainer, by an expert. I could figure it out myself.

Now in my adult life, I work very hard to re-train myself away from this, for my own growth and to be a better example for my girls. It is an obstinate way to approach life, and I am trying to soften my rebel spirit a bit, and allow others to help me and teach me. It still makes me a little squirmy, though.

* * * * *

People handle perfectionism in different ways. C exhibits the more productive version as her father does, the kind that pushes you to be better, do more. B and I struggle with the halting variant that whispers, “Why try? You won’t be good enough.

I want my children to strive for excellence; I know they are capable of doing whatever they set their minds to. Perfectionism, though, can be all encompassing and at times, debilitating. My husband seems to have a huge case of Imposter Syndrome, although, of course,  he does not believe it. I have a research compulsion, and read everything I can find on how to help us change the cycle. We can teach these young ones the importance of setting realistic goals, being proud of their accomplishments, and enjoying their interests without the self-deprecating words that perfectionism murmurs.

Then I have to stop and laugh at myself, and ask the hubby if he too sees the irony in my reading “Moving Past Perfectionism” in an attempt to make us better? 🙂

* * * * *

Some fantastic resources on helping gifted kids cope with perfectionism can be found here:

Perfectionism and the Gifted from Hoagies’

Helping Gifted Students Cope with Perfectionism, from Davidson 

Sylvia Rimm on Perfectionism from SENG

Imposter Syndrome from Hoagies’

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