Your sloppy, unmotivated child might actually be a perfectionist!
By Judith E. Lipson, M.A., LPC
The irony of perfectionists is that they are often the ones who appear uncaring and unwilling. They appear to have no, or low, standards yet the paradox is that they have set the bar so high that it can’t be achieved. Therefore they offer no effort or attempt given at all. After all, why try when success is unexpected?
Parents and educators observe:
- Lack of motivation
- Poor grades
- Refusal to attempt, or complete
- Somatic complaints
The individual suffers from:
- Low self-esteem
- Obsessive/compulsive behaviors
- Discouragement for not meeting own expectations
- Fears s/he can not live up to others’ expectations
I frequently meet students described as lazy or unmotivated. Perfectionism is often an underlying reason. I ask the individual about goals and grades. Though often reluctant to discuss these things, the perfectionist explains that A’s are imperative (not just important) and though the teacher’s requirements are less challenging than their own, they strive for their own standards that are more rigorous.
I try to help my students and clients understand perfectionism and how unrealistic it is. Given that they respond best when I can use concrete examples for an abstract issue, I explain with a ‘container metaphor’. I show them a glass and say the following:
“Let’s say that I want to be perfect at what I do. And I need to get you a glass of water. So I take the glass to the sink and I fill it. But my need for perfection means that I need to do things more than 100%. You agree right? … So I fill it more than full. With surface tension (the ability for water to actually be higher than the top) I can bring you a glass that is truly full. But do I feel it is ‘perfect’? Not if it isn’t inches above the top (as my standard requires). And now I’m bringing you a glass that is all wet and likely spilling as it is delivered; just so I can bring you a product that is ‘better than 100%’. I doubt that you appreciate this wet glass that is filled to the top, potentially spilling into your lap.
“You can see that attempting to be greater than 100% is visibly impossible, AND leaves the person full of angst.“
Here are some tips for your child who has perfectionist tendencies:
- Visual learners need to see the completed process. Want that clean room? Take pictures, from all angles, so there is a visual to reproduce, rather than an unrealistic mental expectation.
- Persuade your child to do something. Anything! Momentum is important. Beginning feels like being halfway there.
- The end result generally comes with practice and instruction. Identify a skill for which your child already has proficiency. If it’s soccer, for example, remind them that in order to be the soccer player that s/he is, first the game rules had to be learned, as well as how to pass, kick, etc. The current player wasn’t observed on the soccer field, when the child came out to play on that first day!
- Praise effort rather than outcome. Parents and society tend to focus on the result. But a satisfactory outcome isn’t guaranteed. It is important to emphasize effort. Thomas Edison had many attempts before he invented the light bulb. If he had expected success on that first attempt, someone else would be admired now.
- Don’t ask your child to reach your own lofty expectations.
Goal setting, doing one’s best and working hard are essential attributes. And when they are accomplished in a healthy manner, then mistakes along the way become incentives to work harder. But the unhealthy perfectionist sees that same mistake as a sign of a personal defect. This is the important difference and the reason why our children need to master trial and error. If your child is unable to demonstrate healthy perfectionism, consider seeking professional support.
Judy Lipson is a Licensed Professional Counselor and educational strategist in West Bloomfield. She helps clients of all ages who have learning difficulties; work or school related anxiety; ADHD; Asperger’s Syndrome or Autism Spectrum Disorders; and those who wish to Remember and Become Who You Really Are. Contact Judy at 248.568.8665 and firstname.lastname@example.org, and visit www. SpiralWisdom.net for more information.