How to Help Teens Recognize and Tame Perfectionism
The teenage mind is quite possibly one of the most complex systems on the planet. Just because we managed to survive our own teen struggles, doesn’t necessarily leave us well prepared to help our kids. Teens today face pressures we never dreamed of—college entrance exams, peer pressure from social media, lack of worthwhile role models and mentors, a sense of entitlement, schools that are not necessarily “safe”, and hints of even global instability.
When my daughter recently told me that she is struggling with being “too critical of herself”, it opened the door to a really interesting and valuable discussion about the dangers of perfectionism.
A quick Google search made me realize that this is a prevalent problem with gifted children and, in particular, girls, but it can affect any child. Multiple books dedicated to perfectionism have been published, so I quickly loaded up my Amazon shopping cart with guidebooks for kids and adults. ( The Blessings of a B Minus by Wendy Mogul is a good starting point). But there was a pressing need to intervene immediately and without “professional help.”
If you follow my blog, you may know that my daughter is a ballet dancer which can be a dangerous world for a teenage girl. The odds are already stacked against her. For three hours a day, she stands in a room cloaked in full length mirrors, striving for two additional millimeters in her extension, another turn in her turn series, holding a pose for just one split second more—all in the name of reaching “perfection.” Then, there is the unrelenting game of comparison. Who is getting the most attention in class, who is getting the best parts, which kid can do the most turns? Friendships can turn to rivalries without warning. Layer that on top of a deep history on both sides of the family in overachieving, perfectionistic and even obsessive compulsive tendencies, and we have the makings of catastrophe.
It’s the classic nature vs. nurture scenario. How much of this is genetically predisposed, and how much of this is created through her environment? Is the combination leading to “the perfect storm?”
Forget the guidebooks, we needed immediate intervention!
As so often happens in parenting, I took a deep breath and ventured into the void. I happen to know a thing or two about perfectionism. I didn’t begin to let go of my own perfectionistic tendencies until giving birth to two children in 10 months while trying to (and failing at) running a company. I had to admit to myself that I am not “super woman.” I made a conscious choice to give it up, but it was still a struggle.
I began to recount the day I learned the important distinction between perfectionism and high standards. Understanding the difference has set me free.
Perfection is a worthless standard. Period! Exclamation point! Vulnerable teens must be made aware of this. It is virtually impossible to achieve perfection and those who spend time in its pursuit are wasting their time. A better alternative is to maintain high standards and to learn that “good enough is.” I asked her to make a conscious choice to wipe the words “perfect” and “perfectionism” out of her vocabulary and replace them with “best in class”, and “good enough.”
I also explained that some of the many successful people have found that perfectionism can work against them. They have learned to move on when they reach the point of diminishing returns, which is often the last 5% of an endeavor. An example of this concept is prevalent in the software industry. New software programs are enthusiastically conceived to solve complex problems and enable enhanced capabilities or significant advancements in productivity. The goal is achieved in the first 95% of the project, which often moves quickly and efficiently. The danger zone, where budgets are blown, deadlines are missed, and earnings destroyed occurs when companies get stuck in the zone of perfection—that last 5%. That is why we have software patches, upgrades and technical support.
The same concept applies to life in general. The moral is to keep it all in perspective. When you have reached the point of diminishing returns, it is time to move on. Good enough is! Don’t let the parasite of perfection eat your from the inside out.
I asked her to think about our recent visit to Cirque du Soliel’s Iris. When we were handed the program, the perfectionist in her pointed out that the dancer featured on the program cover hadn’t pointed her toes—a cardinal sin of dancing. I asked her to put that aside and to remember how the show made her feel. We were mesmerized by the choreography and awestruck by the grandeur and scale of the show. When the Chinese acrobats had to try three times to land a stunt, and one of the trapeze artists missed her cue, it humanized the performers and made us realize the true magnitude of their talents. There was beauty in their imperfection. For two hours, we forgot every problem in our lives and lived vicariously through them, dreaming of flying, leaping, turning and being fully self-expressed.
That is the miracle of the arts.
I reminded her that she has a rare gift and it is meant to be shared with others and that this is what dance is about. Being sucked into the vortex of perfectionism will strip the joy away from her. The audience won’t know that her arabesque could have been higher or that she missed a triple turn and replaced it with a double. The audience just sees the beauty of the dance.
This is an example of a discussion you might have with your teen. I think we took a step in the right direction, but perfectionism (especially in dancers) cannot be cured in one discussion. This will be a process that requires constant monitoring along the way.
I know that many kids (and adults) suffer from the excruciating burden of trying to be perfect. Teens today face unfathomable pressures to overachieve. Many succeed in presenting a calm, cool and collected façade, but are an emotional mess on the inside. Busy parents too often miss the barely perceptible signs of potential trouble.
Your teen may be suffering similar challenges. I was fortunate this time. I knew that something has been “off” lately, but was quick to attribute it to hormonal changes. Thankfully, my daughter reached out to me with her frustration at being too hard on herself. What if she hadn’t? How far would it have gone? Now I am watching for the signs.
The experts state that common symptoms are overachieving, problems with procrastination or turning in assignments, thinking they are stupid, general negativity, relationship issues where they were previously non-existent, low self-esteem, and becoming withdrawn. If your child exhibits these traits, it’s almost a dead give-away that he/she is struggling with perfectionism:
- Intense competitive drive (directed towards self and others)
- They won’t try something if there is a chance they won’t get it right the first time or will look silly trying.
- They constantly find fault with others or themselves.
- They start demanding perfection from you, and/or others.
- They have a hard time asking for help even though they are struggling.
- They accuse you, others, or society in general of always expecting them to be perfect.
- They have unusually high standards for themselves or others (overachiever).
- The joy of a big accomplishment is short lived, or non-existent.
- They are just unhappy, constantly dissatisfied, or negative.
Many doctors believe that perfectionism is a serious behavioral problem or psychiatric disorder. If left undetected, it can lead to eating disorders, obsessive compulsive disorders or worse, cutting and self-harm or even suicide during the teenage years. Adult perfectionists become abrasive bosses, poor marriage partners, and often live in isolation as a result of anti-social behavior and their own fears. You may be able to help your teen yourself if the symptoms are mild, but please seek professional help if it has progressed to latter half of the above list.
Many kids don’t aren’t even aware that perfectionism exists. They might know instinctively that something is wrong, or that they are bearing a huge burden, but not be able to pin-point the problem. What a dark and lonely place for a young adult to be.
I suppose the conclusion is that perfectionism is just another hazard to put on your radar screen while navigating the complex psychological conundrum of the teenage mind. Watch closely for the signs. Introduce the concept of perfectionism to them. Ask them about the pressures they are feeling from themselves and others. Create a safety zone of non-perfection. If you are a perfectionist, give it up. Lead by example. Talk to them about your own struggles and work on letting go together. And by all means, if your interventions are not effective, enlist professional help.
Don’t let a kid enter, let alone live in that scary, demonic place. Be a life line to a kid who is already there.
This was posted with permission from my daughter and is dedicated to all the teens out there who struggle with perfectionism.