It has taken me many years and I wish it hadn’t. Perfectionism drives you crazy and it’s exhausting. Especially at this time of the year when all my little clients have got their heads in books and are preparing for end of year exams.
I feel for them. I really do. I see how hard they work and I try really hard to put it into perspective and reframe it more positively. I tell them that when they look back on their school days, will they wish they worked harder or that they had more fun?
I look back on mine and every time, I wish school had been more fun because I am a life long learner. I love to learn.
One Mum said ‘We’ve never been the type of parents who are pushy or who are fixated with grades.’ Mmm I know when she says this to me, that this is true but it’s not the point. No matter how lenient you think you are about grades, how are you about making mistakes and how much of a perfectionist are you?
Perfectionism as we know is not possible
Although when I tell kids this, they gaze at me wide-eyed and say ‘Really?’ Perfectionism is actually a form of self loathing and rejection. You are effectively saying: ‘I don’t accept myself this way and I need to be different or hide my bad bits.’
If you are a perfectionist parent or highly critical, your children live with that and so it’s highly likely they will have it. You know, when parents say ‘Oh she gets that from me!’ That’s only the good stuff but nobody talks about the things that aren’t right in ‘perfect families’. That is shameful. Perfect families don’t exist either. I know because I was raised in one and the pressure of maintaining that exterior image is painful and unhealthy.
It’s not about the need for a top grade
So when it comes to exam time, it isn’t always about the outcome, it’s more about the fear of getting it wrong or avoiding making a mistake. At 8, I would go to my teacher and ask him to mark one sum at a time. My teacher would feed back to my parents: ‘Lisa needs so much reassurance and she won’t do a whole page of sums.’ The lengths we go to to avoid the pain and discomfort of mistakes or getting it wrong mean that we spend hours on everything. My clients make homework into an art form. They don’t want to be late or forget things. They don’t want to get into trouble. This is obviously highly stressful, unrealistic and anxiety provoking. As I’ve already said, It is impossible.
Around exam time the risk of these things is higher because they do not have the luxury of time. It is normal to feel nervous about exams but the fear around not being perfect and getting it wrong are huge. Living with it is exhausting. As I keep saying, it will drive you crazy or at worst make you anxious.
If you or your child are perfectionists here are 10 helpful Smiley suggestions:
- Get yourself a copy of the book What to do When Mistakes Make Your Quake’ which you can find in my Reading Resources Library
- Get used to making mistakes and breathing through the uncomfortable feelings that come up for you when you feel ‘wrong.’ You may feel embarrassment, some guilt or you may feel shame and humiliation. These feelings will be driven by thoughts which are usually unhelpful thoughts like black and white thinking or false beliefs. eg. you think you can have control about what people think about you or you think there is something wrong with you and you need to keep trying harder to cover up your flaws and appear to be better than you are.
- Reframe making mistakes as learnings. This is actually a Smiley Thought Card and you can get your own box here if you want to start focusing on the good and positive in your family.
- Improve your emotional resilience so you can withstand the disappointment (see point no 2) and then bounce back from it. This comes from having high emotional intelligence. Have a go at my Happiness Test and see how emotionally intelligent you are.
- Watch your self talk and response to everyday ‘mistakes’ like a knocked over drink or out of character forgetfulness. If your internal dialogue is critical and mean, that will leak out sideways and infiltrate your child’s psyche. Be kind to yourself. Talk to yourself like you would a best friend.
- Focus on repair instead of blame because I’m sure the person who made the mistake feels bad enough already.
- Focus on effort instead of outcomes or rewards. I don’t believe in punishment or reward charts because children need to be intrinsically motivated to do well and this comes from them knowing that they are a good person and not what they do or if they are successful or not.
- Lighten up and allow your child room for error. They are learning every day. We are too. We are back to self compassion again. We all have off days and nurturing self compassion will help you to have more for your kids too.
- Forgive yourself when you mess up. Being a parent, this is going to happen a lot, so have the courage to get comfortable with the un-comfortableness of that. Be a ‘Good Enough’ parent.
- Love yourself and your child exactly as they are.
I have OCD tendencies which feel like they come as part of this package – oh joy! It’s the gift that keeps on giving. This can manifest in rituals or checking things or having intrusive thoughts (thoughts that go around on a loop that feel very overwhelming). I used to mentally will my Mum to make it through traffic lights before they turned green and wash my feet at bedtime. My duvet had to be symmetrical and if you want to find out about my rattly mudguard, you can read my blog post Learning to love life’s little imperfections!
Isn’t it about time you cut yourself and your child some slack? How are you going to make that different today?