A gifted individual is a quick and clever thinker, who is able to deal with complex matters. Autonomous, curious and passionate. A sensitive and emotionally rich person, living intensely. He or she enjoys being creative. -definition of giftedness written by the Netherlands Study on Giftedness in Adults

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Perfectionism

I'd been married for 7 years and had been raising a child for 4, when I finally realized why the three of us were driving me up the wall. It was perfectionism, but paired with my optimistic tendencies and the other two's pessimism. See - I need to do everything right, but they need everything to be perfect. I try to make a nice meal, plan a nice vacation, buy a nice present - and the response I get to my inquiry, "are you having fun?" is "yeah, I guess so. But..." It was driving me crazy - why couldn't I do anything right for these two? At least it did until I realized that it wasn't because I was doing things wrong - but rather that we had different expectations of the world. Both the kidlet and the husband want perfection, but expect to be let down. I want perfection, and am willing to look for it to find it. 


Once I got that cleared up in my head - I didn't feel so bad when the kidlet's birthday party, planned to perfection and went off without a hitch, received an "it was okay, but everyone went home too soon" mark from the kidlet. He was let down because it went too fast. Bummer. I also didn't feel so bad when the meticulously-planned meal I made for my husband's birthday got a "nice dinner" response from said husband. He knows better now (after 15 years) not to give me the "but..." response - or sometimes he does with a twinkle in his eye, just because he knows how it gets to me. 


Perfectionism is a fantastic tool, but can also become a tinderbox of frustration and immolation. I see how it hinders the kidlet's ability to communicate, because he must speak every word precisely as he intends - he hesitates mid-word as if he is checking to make sure it's the right one, and that he is using it exactly right. I see how it hinders my husband's ability to excel at work (in software design), because he hates "hacks" and wants to write the code right the first time - but sometimes that's not possible or feasible with a deadline. I see how I have difficulty in getting started writing something down on paper, knowing that the writing process requires revision which implies imperfection. I see the kidlet frustrated when trying a new skill - like bicycle riding or swimming. He's not used to something requiring practice; everything has always come so easily to him. I see him refusing to try something until he knows he can do it.


But perfectionism is also a fantastic motivator toward great accomplishment - if it is harnessed and paired with resilience. If the team in Houston hadn't demanded perfection when the Apollo 13 mission seemed doomed, we would have lost not only the lives of our astronauts, but a great opportunity for learning. If Jonas Salk had given up when he felt most discouraged in his research to find a vaccine for polio, millions more would have been crippled, paralyzed, and possibly killed by the disease. 


So this perfectionism - this need to get everything just right, just so, exactly perfect - is a blessing  and a curse. With my child I want to support it, but also give him the tools to manage it - to make it work for him, instead of against him. I try to teach him to reach for the stars but manage expectations - because I know if the stars don't come easily, they are easily given up. And that would be a tragedy. 

5 comments:

  1. Yep. I have this in my 7 year old. It stopped him in his tracks learning to read. If he didn't know the word, he would refuse to try. In desperation I turned to phonics. Armed with his 'decoding skills', he'll now tackle any words. It also stopped him cold with writing as did his incorrect formation of letters (bottom up). He'd erase and correct. Nice handwriting, but the writing wasn't getting done. Enter Handwriting Without Tears and a narration/copy writing program with me mixed with phonics spelling lessons. It gave him the confidence that he could figure it out, rather than just 'guess' as his teachers wanted him to. As I slowly peel away the safety net, I am amazed at his reading, writing and spelling skills. A big headache, but - wow - impressive progress.

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  2. This is so familiar. I really like reading your blog; you have a great way of sharing your experiences in a way I can relate to. Intensity is a great way to describe it. This used to happen a lot with my son and it took me a while to connect it to him wanting to do things perfectly...sports and physical activities as well as playing a new game or school work. Perfectionism can cause so much anxiety. Great post.

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  3. All of us suffer from it here, too. I've been trying from day one to prevent the bad side of it in my six year old by adopting a "growth mindset." When I'm feeling resourced it works great, but under stress my perfectionism shows its ugly face again. Anyway, you might enjoy this bit about the growth mindset if you haven't seen it before. http://www.highlightsparents.com/parenting_perspectives/interview_with_dr_carol_dweck_developing_a_growth_mindset

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  4. Hey!! Maybe that's our problem too!!!! I will view our frustrations with new eyes. And you can come plan a perfect birthday party for my kids any day :-)

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  5. Ha ha... I gave up on the perfect parties years ago when I realized how completely sensory overwhelmed he would get. He always had fun, but major meltdown the minute it ended. Now we keep it to playdates with friends or a simple family deal. (This is especially true since his birthday is in December - the combination of birthday and Christmas makes the whole month a disaster anyway.)

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