On Being a Perfectionist

I’m a perfectionist. It has cost me plenty of fun and freedom in my life. My school days, from elementary all the way through grad school, were spent working non-stop for that 4.0 GPA. My artwork is often abandoned because I can’t perfectly recreate the image I see in my head. Daily maintenance and cleaning of my house drives me crazy because I can’t keep everything pristine. While it is self imposed, it is no less controlling, and has caused me a great deal of stress in my life. Sadly, I seem to have passed that trait onto my children. I know that it is a common trait in gifted children and is probably part of the genetic package; but that is no comfort when you see your kids headed down that same path.

When my daughter started kindergarten she was very nervous about what was expected of her. We talked about her fears and I tried to comfort her by telling her that not much was expected in kindergarten, that what she didn’t know they would teach her. The night before her first day, she again asked me what to expect. I told her about the basic daily routine and then I casually mentioned that they may do a little test to see if she could write her name, say the alphabet, or count to ten, “No big deal honey, you can do all those things no problem.” I thought that would give her comfort but later that night, after I had put her to bed, I overheard her spelling her name over and over as if she were prepping for a big test. I almost cried when I realized how desperately she wanted to get those answers right.

That trend continued all the way through the time she was at school. She worked so slowly and carefully that she always had a pile of unfinished work on her desk and she often had to stay in at recess to finish up a worksheet. We began to notice she was reluctant to learn to read. I went through the gamut of reasons why she might be a reluctant reader, had her tested for disabilities, and used several programs designed for struggling readers. To no avail, she simply refused to read. One day she confessed that she didn’t want to read because she wasn’t a good enough reader. She was comparing herself to her brother (who began reading at eighteen months) and he seemed to do it perfectly. For my daughter, it was too overwhelming to see how much practice it was going to take before she got it right. If she couldn’t do it perfectly, effortlessly from early in her attempt, she wasn’t even going to try.

My son also displayed this trait at an early age. When he was less than two years old, he used to line his little cars up in a precise color ordered straight line. If someone moved one of the cars or altered the pattern, he would get really upset. When he was first learning to use a pencil or crayon, he would cry with frustration because he couldn’t make his hand write the letters quickly or neatly. He gets fixated on subjects and can’t let go of them until he feels he has mastered it. It is not unusual for him to study and pursue a topic day in and day out for months until he feels competent. If the subject is too large for him to master, he often abandons it. For example, he studied the periodic table until he had memorized it down to the atomic weights; but when he tackled John Conway’s Game of Life, a complex mathematical study, he ended up giving up after a few months because he couldn’t get it perfectly mapped out in his mind. Yet when I asked him if he wanted his math tutor to help him with it, he replied, “Oh, I’m done with that,” even though I know he has only scratched the surface.

Being a perfectionist is a double edged sword. It can drive you to attain competency and achieve goals; but in excess, it can cripple you and make you give up. I am reading, studying, and trying to find ways to help my children learn to mitigate this trait. I hope to teach them how to walk the fine line between tenacity and obsession; to keep trying and practicing until they meet their goals, but not to be too hard on themselves if they don’t master everything perfectly. I try to make this lesson an integral part of our daily lives. I point out when I make mistakes and try to model how to pick yourself up and start again. They have seen me practice and practice to master a skill or two. I tell stories and point out real life examples of people who have finally achieved their goal after years of practice. I have quoted from “Outliers,” by Malcolm Gladwell, about how it takes 10,000 hours of practice to really master something. I have strived to teach them that mistakes are a powerful learning tool and most of the world’s great inventions and innovations came only after years of mistakes. I want them to feel the freedom to approach a project without the fear of failure. I want them to have the determination to stick with something, even if they fail and fail and fail. I want them to see the image of the Phoenix rising from the ashes as a metaphor for learning. Most of all, I want them to try new things, find what they love, and pursue their dreams without fear of failure.