Sunday, May 11, 2014

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 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'

flickr, Creative Commons


  1. Sometimes I actually think I'm edu-phobic, not sure if that's a real word or not. ;)

    I've noticed that I'm much more able to learn when it's through a YouTube video and I'm alone. Thank goodness for YouTube!

    1. Haha...I love that word! I do well with step by step tutorials that I can try by myself. The audio goes in one ear and out the other, while I start thinking of ten other things, but if it's in a list form, and I can concentrate - perfect!

  2. Love this! I'm totally in the "Why try?" camp. I've started guitar lessons and quit as soon as I hit a wall of having to work at it. I never played sports growing up. Pushing through discomfort is totally my lesson these days. <3 Thanks for writing.

    1. Oh, that comfort zone. Such a nice place to be. :) Thanks for commenting!