Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Parenting Pointers: The Perfection Deception

Disclosure: I received complimentary products to facilitate this post. All opinions are my own. 

Dr. Jane Bluestein's new book The Perfection Deception is often confused with a healthy drive for excellence. Dr. Bluestein, however, explains the dangers of reaching for total perfection. There is a difference between reaching for great achievement and the physical wound that develops, or the voice of the inner critic that screams "failure” even at the face of true effort and success.

I had a chance to post a Q&A to learn more:

At the beginning of the book you mention that you had several people asking you, "What's wrong with perfectionism?” How did you answer them?
Well, it actually took most of the book to answer that question! The shortest possible answer compares perfectionism (and the need to pull off a certain image or avoid anticipated negative reactions from making mistakes) with the healthy pursuit of excellence. I'm actually quite a big fan of accuracy, precision, and doing the best we can do. As an educator, I also know that our best efforts can always be improved upon, and that growth and learning involves imperfect steps along the way.

What does perfectionism look like?
This is where it gets tricky, because it can look a lot like the healthier version of trying to do our best. But "healthy striving” does not usually involve trying to prove ourselves or our worth, nor would it likely be used as a way of avoiding feelings or dealing with the real issues in our lives. Not only that, but my perfectionism may look very different from how it shows up in someone else.

I tend to cross the line when I'm over-committing or over-correcting, or when I actually think I can accomplish a to-do list that would reasonably take weeks to finish. For other people, it may demand plastic surgery or self-starvation to get their body to look a certain way, a failure to start a project (or finish one), not letting their kids have friends over because it will mess up the house, or, say not being able to work if there is one stray paper clip on their desk.  

How can parents contribute to the development of perfectionism in a child?
Children will try to get attention and approval from a parent who might be neglectful, distracted, depressed, addicted, or angry, for example. That makes sense—trying to create a sense of safety from the people on whom we depend. But there are also perfectionistic parents who "turn their tots into trophies,” looking for status in their children's achievements, performance, or appearance. That's a lot of pressure to put on kids, and fusing our identity and worth to another person is always going to be a risky endeavor.

How can parents encourage their kids without encouraging perfectionism?
It's all about responses—to achievements and mistakes. If we express anger, impatience, or even disappointment whenever kids make mistakes, it's easy to develop a false sense of our ability to influence and control how people feel. The same is true when we connect their achievements to our happiness. I'd like to see kids making choices for some outcome besides how-other-people-will-react. (Look at the connection to the power of peer pressure here.) Kids' mistakes are great opportunities for helping them learn how to make better decisions next time.

If we can shift from labeling kids as "good” or "smart” to focusing on their efforts, we don't tie up their value with their performance. Likewise, if we can describe what kids have done and connect their choices to some meaningful positive outcomes of their efforts, kids start to see the power they have to influence and change their lives when something isn't working for them. Let's just quit telling kids that they're good or worthwhile or that they make us happy when they do good things, and respond to failures and mistakes simply as steps along the way to learning.

About the Author:
Dr. Jane Bluestein is an educator and an award-winning author of twelve books. She is a dynamic and entertaining speaker who has worked with thousands of counselors, healthcare professionals, parents, childcare workers, educators, and other community members worldwide. She has appeared internationally as a speaker and talk-show guest, including several appearances as a guest expert on CNN, National Public Radio and The Oprah Winfrey Show. Formerly a classroom teacher in inner-city Pittsburgh, crisis-intervention counselor, teacher training program coordinator, and volunteer with high-risk teens at a local Day Treatment Program, Dr. Bluestein currently heads Instructional Support Services, Inc., a consulting and resource firm in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

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