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The Challenges of Perfectionism – Santa Maria College

We live in a society where there is an emphasis on performance, achievement and perfection. Anything less than perfect is seen as a failure or weakness. Does society’s emphasis on comparison, sorting, and ranking benefit our young people? With increasing mental health issues in our society, we need to be aware of the effects of perfectionism.

Perfection paralysis is when you are so afraid of not doing something perfectly that you don’t even start. Maybe you have experienced it yourself. You want to write a book, but you are worried that it won’t be good enough, so you never start. Or maybe you want to start your own business, but you keep putting it off because you are not sure you will be successful.

Girls can become trapped by their desire for perfection. Last week you saw her sitting at her desk writing and taking notes for hours, so you assumed she was making good progress on an assignment. She deleted all she wrote and needed to start again and again.

Just like writing this blog, it can never be perfect. I can continue to rewrite, correct or improve, but at some point, I have to say done is better than perfect!

Perfectionism is not a complimentary flaw to speak about at job interviews; it can be a debilitating condition that impacts on lives.

Perfectionists often:

  • Set excessively high personal goals and are overly critical in self-evaluations. These individuals possess a strong internal motivation and attempt to meet unrealistic expectations. Perfection is an impossible goal and is rarely achievable because it has targets that keep changing.
  • Compare themselves to others and think that if they can’t do something as well as someone else, it’s not worth doing at all. Young people today feel pressure to keep up with the perfect lifestyles presented online and may feel a sense of inferiority, inadequacy or unworthiness. Our fear of disappointing ourselves or disappointing others often stops them from having a go.
  • Fear making mistakes and need to be 100 per cent confident of success before they try something. To avoid not being good enough, they will use avoidance. They concentrate on the potential consequences of making a mistake, which can restrict them from taking any action and leads them to procrastinate. Getting started is the hardest part.
  • Fear shame if they think they might be ridiculed or rejected if they don’t do something perfectly. They may believe they have to be perfect in order to be liked and accepted socially. Winning the validation of others and demonstrating their worth through flawless performance is considered important. Shame is considered to be one of the most powerful emotions because it makes people feel like they are not good enough.

Brene Brown, well known for her TED talks, speaks about a human characteristic called vulnerability. When we are brave, we are exposed to failing or not being perfect. We are vulnerable, and this is what humans try to avoid.

How can we help girls overcome perfectionism?

Here are 4 things you can do to help your daughter overcome perfectionism:

  1. Encourage her to take risks: Help her see that taking risks is a part of life and it’s okay to make mistakes. Encourage her to try new things, even if she’s afraid she might fail. Encourage her to be brave. One of the most important things you can do is to provide a safe environment for your daughter to try new things and make mistakes. Let her know that she can come to you with anything and that you’ll support her no matter what. Model making mistakes, show her that it’s okay to make mistakes by admitting your own. Help her see that you’re not perfect and that you are still a good person, even when you make mistakes.
  2. Help her set realistic goals: Perfectionism often comes from setting unrealistic goals. Help her break down her goals into smaller, more achievable steps and help her focus on the process, not just the end result. Very few great pieces of work look perfect when they first emerge as an idea. Ideas are born as rough, unpolished thoughts which need to be refined. The first draft should be known as the downdraft – you just get it all. The second draft is the updraft – you fix it up. Encourage her to say done is better than perfect!
  3. Encourage positive self-talk: Encourage her to focus on her strengths and accomplishments and to let go of negative thoughts about herself. Encourage her to be kind to herself: Help her see that she is worthy of love and respect, even if she makes mistakes. Teach her to treat herself with kindness and compassion.
  4. Value effort over achievement: praise your daughter’s effort instead of her grades. This will help her see that you value her hard work and that you are not seeking the perfect score. Improvement and considering what went well and what can be done differently are important. Celebrate the process, the learning, and the journey, not just the final outcome or score.

 As parents, the most important thing you can do is be supportive. Your daughter doesn’t have to be perfect to gain your love and respect. The teenage years are when girls need to be loved and accepted for being courageous and having a go, not for perfectionism. There’s no such thing as failure – only detours, only opportunities to try again, only stepping stones and lessons learned.

Let’s celebrate the joy and beauty of imperfection!

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