Practical tips to help yourself and daughter with perfectionism are unpacked by Strathcona’s School Psychologist, Kerri Rhodes.
This month at our Parent Seminar Series, Dr Charlotte Keating, child and adolescent psychologist, presented on the topic of perfectionism. Charlotte has a Master of Clinical Psychology, a PhD in neuroscience in eating and body image disorders, mood and anxiety, and is a member of the National Centre Against Bullying, an initiative of the Alannah and Madeline Foundation. You may have also heard Charlotte talk on ABC radio over the last few years.
Charlotte discussed with parents of the Strathcona School community, practical ways to help young people (and maybe ourselves) understand and manage perfectionism.
What is perfectionism?
Striving for perfection is not necessarily a problem – pursuing our best, setting flexible, realistic, achievable goals where we can, and do, celebrate our successes and accept that our mistakes are part of learning (and move on from them without dwelling in distress), is healthy.
Unhealthy perfectionism involves the relentless pursuit for extremely high, unrealistic standards, despite the personal cost. Individuals often judge their self-worth based on the outcome, which can be highly distressing (and exhausting) when the outcome falls short of expectations. Rather than celebrating or experiencing pleasure from success, people often describe instead feeling a sense of ‘relief’ that it wasn’t a disaster – this means that there is seldom joy experienced for a job well done, despite the effort put in.
What does it look like?
Perfectionism can both look like doing too much e.g., spending eight hours on a SAC worth 10% when you have three other assignments that need doing, that are worth more, but also, perfectionism can look like ‘doing nothing.’ For example, having a pile of research papers or books on your desktop that you haven’t read (the absolute universe of the worldwide web on a topic), and anxiety about not knowing where to start, blankly staring at YouTube videos without taking any of it in – this can sometimes give the impression of laziness, or not caring, when in fact it is quite the opposite – paralysing fear about how to start and what to include and leave out.
Perfectionism is not something that happens overnight. It is something parents will often describe that they have noticed for quite some time. It can look like anything from: difficulty making decisions, seeking reassurance, changing your outfit 1,000 times before going out, excessive to-do-lists and re-writing of these lists (which is often about procrastination – the “doing nothing at all, paralysis”), giving up too soon, our inner critic telling us it will be worst case scenario (if I don’t get above 90% on my test, I am a failure. My parents or teachers will be disappointed in me), black and white thinking/it is all good or all bad (I will stuff up my talk to the class and embarrass myself, I must get above 95 on my ATAR otherwise, I won’t get into the university degree I want and I won’t be able to secure my dream job, I won’t be able to live the perfect life!), attempts to change others’ opinions when they do not align with our own, emotional meltdowns that appear to be an over-reaction to the issue, distressed at the idea of asking/answering questions in class…the list goes on.
Why can it be so difficult to shift unhealthy perfectionism?
When faced with a situation where there is the threat of a challenge, e.g., a mathematical question that is complex, or a mistake on a piece of artwork, it can trigger the thought “I can’t do it” and the belief, “I’m dumb.” The physical experience associated can be an increase in heart rate, prickling sense of discomfort, and a desire to run away from the task, never to return! What happens in these situations is a flight or fight response. The perception of “not being able to do it” triggers the stress or fear system which begins a cascade of biological events in the brain and body. The amygdala, the emotion centre in the brain which usually responds to danger in the environment, responds to these situations as if there is a real threat, and hijacks the rational frontal lobe of the brain, which prevents us from being able to think rationally, or reasonably in the moment. This is because our brain is preparing to help us flee from the situation. Add to this, the developing brain is not yet wired like an adult brain, it is more vulnerable to being emotional, impulsive, and does yet have the mature neural architecture that adults do, to regulate these emotional experiences.
This biological cascade actually reinforces our sense that the situation is catastrophic (it certainly feels catastrophic when our heart beat is racing, our stomach is churning, and we are struggling to concentrate), and often results in avoiding the challenge or task, or resigning ourselves to the belief that we “just can’t.” The problem here is that we often do not provide ourselves the chance to work through it. Common examples of this include avoiding social situations because the anxiety we have in anticipation of the event is so high (and a racing heart and sweaty hands, are real) that we believe we will not be able to cope. But, these are just thoughts and beliefs we have, they are not facts.
We do not necessarily test the truth of our thoughts or beliefs. To do so, would require that we experience the very thing we are fearing. The same goes for fear of exams and tests. We imagine the worst, and often, in the situation, we may find that our anxiety or fear reinforces to us, at least initially, that it is overwhelming. Ideally, if we have some strategies to calm down, and move past the initial biological cascade, we might have a chance of pleasantly surprising ourselves.
What can you do?
People who experience perfectionism are intellectually and emotionally intelligent people who often have insight that the standards they are placing on themselves are unreasonable, and they “wouldn’t expect the same of their friends.” For parents, this can be challenging to know how to support, because it can be both difficult for someone to let go of their approach to goal-setting, when they are defining part of themselves based on it.
The way we discuss perfectionism can have a big influence on whether the conversation will be a productive one. As parents, carers, or teachers, the way that we respond when a young person is experiencing a pattern of perfectionism creates a key opportunity to understand and connect with them. Share your experiences of making mistakes with them. They need to know that their role models [you, their parents] make mistakes too. Mistakes are opportunities for learning and developing. Show them how this has been the case for you. And that it has not diminished how you feel about yourself, and hopefully, the way they feel about you!
Thoughts and beliefs about ourselves, and our abilities can be reinforced when our expectations are not met because of the intensity of the emotion that we feel – the fear feels ‘bad.’ There’s little point trying to convince someone in that moment, that their thinking is unhelpful, they first need to de-stress and use diaphragmatic breathing to calm down, go for a walk to shift the stress hormone, cortisol, so that ultimately, the front, rational part of their brain can come back online post-the amygdala hijack. It is more important to take a break to calm down, than to push through once there has been an amygdala hijack. It is equally important to then try to return to the task or put a strategy in place to get help on it, so that the brain learns that it can cope when things don’t go the way you planned, that engaging in ‘solving’ or ‘next-steps’ is the “go-to” rather than avoidance. Persistence and persevering can be key lessons here – there are always opportunities for developing.
The language we use when talking to young people about mistakes and learning, is key. There is a big difference between saying to someone “mistakes are a good thing, they help you to learn so that you can do better next time.” Someone struggling with how they are performing, and how they feel about themselves, could internalise this to mean that they’re not good enough (if they need to “do better” next time). Instead, saying “so you can learn about this and develop your understanding.”
Strategies to help a young person, indeed ourselves, manage perfectionism:
- Help to acutely calm an anxious mind using diaphragmatic breathing, walking, distracting, taking a break or changing task (to then come back). Help them to work out their “circuit breakers.”
- Help to identify the thinking going on – “I can’t do this” “I am so stupid” and perhaps link this type of thinking to their “inner critic.” We all have one.
- Help them to problem solve. With an assignment for example, begin with chatting about the topic. Gentle probing questions that allow them to speak, will likely result in articulating something well worth writing down. If it is socialising, have some friends over or head to the movies, rather than attending a gathering or bigger party at first, which might be overwhelming. It helps get the brain get used to, and feel safe, and able, rather than overwhelmed.
- Know when to encourage them to push through their safe zone versus honouring when they feel like they’re in their threat/danger zone. If it is the later, there probably needs to be a hierarchy leading up to the feared situation so that the brain can adjust to it. Mastering little steps allows for resilience to develop that will help them through the greater challenges.
- Build self-worth that is robust to set-backs. If there are multiple eggs in your basket that you derive some of your self-worth or confidence from (e.g., relationships with friends at school and outside school, having drama, self-defence class, music, athletics, footy etc.), and occasionally a few of them seem to crack, there are other positives that they can focus on, which help them to feel good.
- Help motivate a young person to evaluate the expectations they place on themselves by curiously discussing with them, the cost the current expectations have. Set up an experiment in which they substitute one particular goal or standard (e.g., the time spent on a particular task) with a more realistic one, and to see how it feels – do they appreciate having more time for other things, do they realise that the outcome was not all that different despite less time spent, do they feel less stressed? It may take a few goes before this happens (given we are creatures of habit). Do it together, find a goal of your own where it may help to change your expectations a little.
Strathcona’s School Psychologist
To view the Presentation from the Parent Seminar please click here
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