Cameras capture the split second “perfect” of family portraits, but those slivers of time with perfect hair and sparkling smiles often fail to capture the true reality of family life. Trying to appear happy, perfect, and carefree can be great for the portrait hanging in the dining room or can headline the family Christmas greeting, but expecting that most (if not all) of family life can somehow be orchestrated to meet a picture-perfect standard is unrealistic.
Somehow, family life has a way of exposing everyone’s imperfections—especially at close range. However, family life lived authentically and with good doses of love, patience, and intentionality can eventually help families reach their goals and find happiness along the way. Unfortunately, attempts to be too perfect too quick can short circuit the long-term processes that can bring the real growth we all desire. Think about it. Toddlers quickly learn that they must repeatedly fall in order to finally learn how to walk. So why is it that as we grow older, we seek for perfection first and hope that achieving it means never trying and failing in growth-producing ways?
Practicing perfectionistic strategies in the home can weaken relationships and diminish the chances for children’s healthy development. But how can you tell the difference between healthy strategies and those that might harm more than they help? Below are 4 signs of perfectionism could be creeping into your family.
Overtones of Control
Children need direction and instruction to develop new skills. A famous Russian psychologist, Lev Vygotsky, theorized that children close to learning something new can benefit from skilled help, but that as soon as reasonable, the “scaffolding” should be taken down, so the child can independently accomplish the task, just like taking the hand off the back of a two-wheel bike as soon as the child has gained balance and can pedal themselves. They might fall a few times, but before you know it, they are pedaling up and down the street enjoying their new independence. In short, children need new experiences, but they need to exert independence and learn from their own experiences as they discover their unique set of talents and abilities.
Sometimes “too much control” can limit kids’ creativity and opportunity. For example, researchers from National University of Singapore conducted a study where parents and their children were given a chance to solve a puzzle. The researchers analyzed how much parents intruded on solving a puzzle (fixing errors or telling the child exactly what to do) and examined the levels of perfectionism and anxiety found in the child. They found that children with highly intrusive or controlling parents were naturally more self-critical of themselves and were more likely to develop anxiety and depression.
If danger or harm is not a factor, parents who worry they might be too perfectionistic or too focused on the end product instead of the process can exercise caution and take a step back. Celebrate with the child as they create, solve problems, and learn from their fledgling first attempts. Give help along the way, celebrate successes, and be there to comfort them with loving arms when the inevitable failures and skinned knees come along with this healthy process of growth.
The Presence of Shame
Coming from a family with high expectations can help children reach towards their potential. I came from such a family and because of those high expectations, I have achieved more than I would have without them. However, as a child I didn’t understand that I was still a good person when I did not meet those expectations. My parents were very loving, but I don’t know if I ever really learned how to distinguish the difference between feeling shame and feeling guilt when I couldn’t live up to their expectations despite my best efforts.
If shame could speak, it might say, “You are wrong and that makes you bad. You are the problem.” Whereas guilt says, “You made a mistake. You created a problem. You can fix it and move on.” They are very different. Guilt can propel an individual to have a desire to improve, while shame shuts down growth and facilitates self-loathing. Wise parents help children to understand that their under-achievements or mistakes do not reflect their self-worth and give them the courage to keep trying.
As Sam Louie in his article from Psychology Today points out, oftentimes “children are only praised for ‘doing’ well and never for just ‘being.’ Consequently, children internalize negative internal core beliefs about themselves that they're ‘not good enough’ unless they meet these rigid standards of success to garner parental acceptance. We can still aim for success and establish expectations and goals in the family, but when those goals are not met, we need to verbally distinguish the difference between making a mistake and being the mistake.
Signs of Unnecessary Exhaustion
Perfectionism is stressful. Trying to reach far-off goals is hard work. Looking perfectly in control or appearing to have it all together, even when that’s not possible, is clearly exhausting. Those who are paralyzed by the thought of failing—maybe even more than they are focused on succeeding—can develop unhealthy levels of stress and put in many more hours than are necessary. Other important concerns are set aside and sometimes relationships languish while a certain standard of “just rightness” is achieved in the eyes of the perfectionistic individual. As enticing as perfectionism may be, the closer we get to what we think is perfect, the more exhausted we become in meeting some imaginary or unrealistic standard for self or others.
Experts, Andrew Hill and Thomas Curren have conducted dozens of studies on perfectionism. They have found convincing evidence that perfectionistic concerns (meaning fear of failure and disappointing others) resulted in frequent burnout (physical, emotional, and motivational exhaustion). In other words, perfectionists are trying so hard to be perfect that it is becoming detrimental to their overall well-being. Specifically, Huffpost reported that perfectionism causes “extreme self-criticism, chronic stress and health problems like depression and anxiety, compulsive disorders and even heart disease.”
So for all parents who feel any of these symptoms or see it in their family, it may be helpful to take a mental break. Try setting more flexible goals. Allow for imperfections, especially when valiant efforts have been made and avoid burnout. You might need that energy for other more important responsibilities.
Whether we are comparing ourselves to our own ideal self or to others who seem ideal, the truth is that comparison is dangerous. We have all scrolled through Instagram or Facebook, feeling as if our lives are far below the ideal we perceive in others’ lives. Unrealistically comparing our current family with an idealized family can create a gap of disappointment. Striving to close that gap can create greater stress if we try to do so through inauthenticity. To meet those expectations, some people pretend they are something they’re not just to reach the idealized expectation they have observed in society or go to unhealthy lengths in trying to achieve those idealized standards.
To avoid inauthenticity, keep those comparisons at bay and start where you are. Jane Clayson Johnson is a successful journalist, author and mother who struggled with severe depression as an adult. In her book, “Silent Souls Weeping” she provides an example of how she identifies unrealistic comparisons that lead to inauthenticity and encourages everyone to try this activity at home. Using pictures from magazines or the internet, find things that describe you and the person you want to be. Cut out and glue those things on the outside of an old shoe box. Then, find things that describe who you really are on the inside. Glue those things on the inside of the box. Compare the inside with what you put on the outside.
Is the outside of the box different from the inside? Sometimes when there is a difference between the outside and inside, inauthentic actions try to shorten the gap. Which of those expectations are unattainable or not right for you? How might you be expecting your child to meet a standard that doesn’t respect or honor the person they are? Letting go of unrealistic expectations from the outside of the box can help anyone better enjoy and accentuate the talents of the authentic person they are on the inside of the box.
Although these four characteristics are often associated with perfectionism, they may be difficult to let go. So begin today to help your family re-capture any joy that perfectionism has robbed. Day by day, let your kids make their own mistakes—guide, but don’t overcontrol. Let your family know that when they don’t meet your expectations and are still on the journey towards shared goals, they are loved and cherished in the midst of the process. In the midst of heavy stress, let go of unrealistic expectations and give yourself a mental break. And finally, seek to embrace the person and family that you already are, rather than wishing you were something perfect. Finding ways to make progress toward less perfectionistic habits will create a more satisfying and fulfilling family culture.