Perfectionists lack self-acceptance, a very basic ingredient that we all need if we value ourselves. We accept that we are still basically good, even when we don’t hit the ball out of the park. We remain worthy of others’ love even when we are in a foul mood. We feel good about our efforts even when the guy across the hall scored higher, produced more, or received more recognition.
We are OK because we see ourselves as more than a package of achievements. We accept and may even cherish our complexity. We don’t have to be a superstar all of the time, and we are comfortable that no one can be a star on every stage.
Perfectionists have learned somehow that they are not acceptable unless they meet a certain standard. Certain character traits make people susceptible to messages that they aren’t good enough unless they are flawless. But to become a driving force in a person’s life, those inherent traits have to be reinforced from somewhere. Generally, perfectionists have a global insecurity that they will not be accepted. Of course, they might have gained this insecurity somehow from their parents, but they also may have acquired it at school:
“We expect our students to exemplify the high standards of this institution,” from friends’ expectations: “To fit in, you need to…,” and even through the media: “To be successful you need to look this way, talk this way, own this, dress this way.”
We live in a culture that reveres success and barely notices regular people doing their darndest. When we know the names of sports stars and great actors but forget to acknowledge the generous acts of our neighbors, are we teaching children that to be noticed you have to be a star? Certainly the college admissions process is a big offender here by generating the folklore of the perfect, well-balanced, brilliant candidates who prove it with thick applications with high SAT scores, grade point averages, and class rankings. Most parents firmly believe that they’ve never said anything directly to their child that implied they expected perfection. Many are adamant that their words always reinforce the importance of happiness. Certainly most parents do send the right verbal message of unconditional acceptance. For many children, perfectionism may derive from the other forces in their lives. But we want parents to consider the possibility that children can pick up parental signals that reinforce their need to be perfect, despite the words parents are speaking.
Please ask yourself the following questions, but be gentle on yourself if some of the answers make you realize that you might be part of the problem:
- Are you a perfectionist yourself? Are you highly self-critical? Has your child seen you accept your own flaws?
- Do you judge people easily? Your other children? Neighbors? Other kids? Teachers? Might you have inadvertently communicated that you can be highly critical? Is it possible that your child will do anything not to become a subject of your judgment?
- If you and your spouse or ex-spouse fight about your children, might they do absolutely anything—being as perfect as possible—to prevent the two of you from fighting? Are you so busy that you forget to notice your children’s achievements unless they get a trophy, a ribbon, or an A?
- Are people in your home uncomfortable with expressing emotions? Does anger freak you or your spouse out? Or do people recover easily; even have healthier relationships after heated expressions of emotion? Is the only way to achieve harmony in your house to suppress problems and pretend that everything is just wonderful?
- Do you only notice champions, or do you acknowledge other players who have played a good, fair game?