Perfectionism is one of the most destructive diseases among American children today. Perfectionism is a double-edged sword. One edge of the sword drives young racers to be perfect. These children push themselves to win races, qualify for the next level of competition, and set extremely high goals for themselves. The other edge of the sword is that I have never met a happy perfectionist. Why? What’s to be happy about because they aren’t perfect.
What is Perfectionism?
Perfectionism involves children setting unrealistically high standards for themselves and striving for goals that they will never, ever achieve. Yet they believe that anything less than perfection is unacceptable. When they fail to meet those impossibly high standards, they berate themselves unmercifully. Perfectionistic children are never satisfied with their efforts no matter how objectively well they ski, they punish themselves for the smallest mistakes, and dwell on their failures rather than reveling in their successes. After I spoke to a group of racers not long ago, a girl from the audience described to me how she had won three out of four races in a recent race series, yet all she could think about was the race that she didn’t win (she came in second!) and it was eating her up inside.
At the heart of perfectionism lies a threat: if children aren’t perfect, their parents won’t love them. This threat arises because children connect whether they are perfect with their self-esteem; being perfect dictates whether they see themselves as valuable people worthy of love and respect. The price these children pay and the burden they carry is immense and its toll can be truly destructive: unhappiness, depression, anxiety, eating disorders, substance abuse, and suicide.
By the way, children don’t have to be perfectionistic in every part of their lives to be considered perfectionists. They only have to be perfect in areas that they care about, for example, I have met many perfectionists in ski racing whose rooms were a mess and could care less about how they did in school.
Perfection and Popular Culture
We live in a culture that reveres perfection. Our culture has elevated success to absurd heights where being good is no longer good enough. Young ski racers must make it to the Olympics; anything less is abject failure.
Perfectionism and Failure
Though it appears that perfectionistic children are driven to succeed, in reality, their singular motivation in life is to avoid failure because they view failure as a voracious beast that stalks them every moment of every day. If these children stop for even a moment’s rest, they will be devoured by failure. These children connect failure with feelings of worthlessness and loss of love.
Though perfectionists often achieve a high degree of success, they often don’t fully realize their ability and achieve true success because of this profound fear of failure. Why? The only way to attain true success is to risk failure, yet perfectionistic children are often unwilling to take that risk. Though the chances of success increase when they take risks, the chances of failure also increase. For example, the only way to ski their fastest may be to ski a really straight line, but there’s always the chance of hooking a tip or not being able to hold that line and sliding low on a turn. So perfectionistic children hover in a “safety zone” in which they remain safely at a distance from failure, for example, they are solid top-ten finishers, but are also stuck at a frustrating distance from success. They know they can be really successful, but they just can’t understand why they can’t get there.
Perfectionism and Emotions
You would hope that perfectionistic children, like all children, experience excitement and pride when they are successful, but that is rarely the case. The strongest emotion perfectionistic children can often muster after they reach an acceptable level of success is relief! Where does the relief come from? They avoided that voracious beast of failure, so they can feel okay about themselves…but not for long. Recently, I asked a group of young racers how long that relief lasts and one girl threw up her hand and shouted, “Till the next race!”
What emotion would perfectionistic children who fail to meet their impossibly high standards experience? You might think disappointment. But disappointment is far too normal a reaction that all children should feel when they fail and disappointment is far too kind an emotion for perfectionists. Perfectionists experience devastation because they perceive the failure as a personal attack on their value as people.
Where Does Perfectionism Come From?
After almost every parent talk I’ve given, a parent says to me, “I swear that my child was born a perfectionist.” Yet there is no scientific evidence that perfectionism is inborn. The research indicates that children learn their perfectionism from their parents, most often from their same-sex parent. Through their parents’ words, emotions, and actions, children connect being loved with being perfect. This doesn’t mean that there are no inborn influences; some genetic attributes, such as emotional sensitivity, may make some children more vulnerable to perfectionism.
Parents pass on perfectionism to their children in one of two ways. Some perfectionistic parents raise their children to be perfectionists by actively praising and rewarding success and punishing failure. When children succeed, their parents lavish them with love, attention, and gifts. But when they fail, their parents either withdraw their love and become cold and distant, or express strong anger and resentment toward their children. In both cases, these children get the message that if they want their parents’ love, they must be perfect. Thankfully, in my twenty-five years of practice, I have only come across a few parents who were this overtly perfectionistic.
Other parents unintentionally role model perfectionism for their children. Examples of how perfectionism is communicated by these parents include having to have themselves and their home look a certain way, their career efforts, their competitiveness in sports and games, and how they respond when things don’t go their way. Children see how their parents hate themselves when they’re not perfect, so they feel they must be perfect so their parents won’t hate them. These parents unwittingly communicate to their children that anything less than perfection won’t be tolerated in the family.
Excellence: The Antidote to Perfection
You should remove the word perfection from your vocabulary. It serves no purpose other than to make your children miserable. You should replace perfection with excellence. I define excellence as doing good most of the time (I use poor grammar intentionally because that’s how most children talk-and I’m not perfect either!). Excellence takes all of the good aspects of perfection (e.g., achievement, high standards, hard work) and leaves out its unhealthy parts (e.g., connecting achievement with self-esteem, unrealistic expectations, fear of failure, devastation). Excellence still sets the bar high, but it never connects failure with the love you give your children (or the love they give themselves). Excellence actually encourages your children to fail-not repeatedly on the same thing due to a lack of effort, of course-because without some failure, true success isn’t possible. Excellence also promotes risk taking because only by taking appropriate risks will your children ski as fast as they possibly can. Without a fear of failure, your children won’t experience failure as that voracious beast and can focus on success and pursue it with commitment and gusto. Plus, because they
aren’t in a constant state of fear, they can gain more fun from their ski racing.
Dr. Jim Taylor drjimtaylor.com,
knows the psychology of ski racing! He competed internationally for
Burke Mtn. Academy, Middlebury College, and the University of Colorado.
For the past 25 years, Dr. Jim has worked with many of America’s leading
junior race programs as well as World Cup competitors from many
countries. He is the author of Prime Ski Racing drjimtaylor.com/books/index.php#prime_sport:
Triumph of the Racer’s Mind. Dr. Jim is also the author of two
parenting books and speaks regularly to parents, students, and educators
around the U.S..