The perils of perfectionism
Monday, June 21, 2010
Noelle Berrios says she's always been a bit of a perfectionist-and that wasn't always a drawback. "I owned a hair salon in Lincoln Park, and everyone wants their hair to be perfect," says the South Elgin resident. "And I worked for the family business, which was in security, and when you're dealing with people's lives and safety, you can have no error there."
At home, "everything had a place and everything was in its place, and I had everything really neat," she says. "If I needed it, I knew exactly where it was."
Then, at 32, she had her first child-and now has four little ones ranging from 6 years to 3 months at home. Things have definitely changed but it hasn't been easy to let go of her natural desire for order. "It's a completely different world with small children," she says. "There are toys everywhere, and clothes and laundry. … I'm still a perfectionist, but I realize the children are going to make a mess with their toys and as long as the children are clean and safe and happy, I'm all right with that."
Berrios, 38, has learned firsthand that perfectionism and parenthood make a tricky blend.
"The biggest problem is that perfection is hard to attain when you have plenty of time and energy and have slept well," says Clinical Psychologist Monica Ramirez Basco, Ph.D., author of Never Good Enough: Freeing Yourself from the Chains of Perfectionism (Harper Collins, 1999) and The Procrastinator's Guide to Getting Things Done (2010, Gilford). "But once you have children, you no longer have time, energy or perfect sleep and so it becomes even more impossible."
What about you? If you push yourself to be perfect, you may be setting yourself up for failure and even hurting your kids in the process. Learning more about perfectionism, how it develops and how it impacts you, will help you decide whether you still need to aim for an A+ every time-or whether it's time to cut yourself some slack.
Making mom (or dad) happy
Some of us are just born with perfectionist tendencies, but most become full-blown perfectionists in childhood. Maybe your dad expected nothing but the best from you, or your mother constantly nagged you to "try harder." For whatever reason, your parents' standards (or your belief that they wouldn't be happy with anything less than perfection) became a mindset that's difficult to change.
"The most common cause is a critical parent. … These parents may have tried to be encouraging and tried to praise their child, but they always added some kind of criticism to the end of it," says Basco. "A kid who's sensitive to this will just hear the criticism part … and over the years, start to take this as an indicator of her worth."
Most perfectionists are "inwardly focused," where they require perfection of themselves. The classic perfectionist is extremely hard on herself, hates making mistakes and believes she must be perfect for everything to work out OK.
"The prototypical perfectionist can't notice something amiss and then ignore it," says Basco. "Like if she sees a picture crooked on a wall, she can't leave it alone-she'd have to actually fix it. It would seem totally unacceptable for her to see a mess and leave it alone."
Other perfectionists are outwardly focused-they feel fine about themselves but have unreasonably high standards for others. (Ever had a boss like that?) And some perfectionists are both-expecting no mistakes from themselves and from everyone around them (and obviously setting themselves up for disappointment!).
And perfectionists have a hard time accepting that others can "settle" for anything less than the best. "It's very hard for the perfectionist to understand why other people don't have the same standards," Basco says. "They have a hard time even conceiving how someone would not give it their all at all times and would not live up to their particular standard expectations."
Still, perfectionist tendencies can play a positive role in your life. "Perfectionism has a good function in the workplace and can make people very good at their jobs, especially if they're detail-oriented," says Basco. "It's very helpful at home in terms of keeping things organized, keeping people on schedules and can be very helpful in relationships in keeping people on time and accomplishing quite a bit in a busy family with a hectic schedule."
And it can be gratifying to be a perfectionist-at least when things go your way. "When you do something well or perform well, it can make you feel very good and improve self-esteem," says Basco.
The drawbacks of perfect
But it can go too far, especially when you're a parent.
"In general, it's a problem when it causes you stress when you're unable to be perfect or when it causes you stress in order to be perfect," says Basco. Perfectionism can also have a negative impact on your relationships as people see you as too controlling or rigid, and it can definitely hurt your kids if you're holding them to unreasonable standards.
"Kids naturally want to please their parents and the bar keeps getting higher and higher," says Basco. "If you find yourself saying, 'Well, that was really nice but you could have done better' all the time, chances are you're actually setting a perfectionist standard that your child cannot meet."
Even if you act pleased, most perfectionist parents can't help but show disappointment when their kids "fail" at something. "And if the kids always feel like failures, the parents are perpetuating the same problem," says Basco.
Breaking the cycle
Perfectionism usually runs in families, so if you don't want your kids to spend a lifetime worrying about being perfect, you have to let yourself off the hook first. "If you're no longer acting like a perfectionist, you're no longer modeling that for your kids," says Basco.
To break the cycle, identify your own perfectionist standards and see if you can determine how they developed.
"Reflect on what it was like for you growing up and what kinds of things your parents might have done that made you a perfectionist that you don't want to repeat," she says.
Even if you've always had the highest standards, you can change.
"I have always been a perfectionist but didn't know that's what it was. When I was growing up, everything in my closet had to be lined up and facing the same direction," says Brooke Roché, a stay-at-home mom of two in Woodridge. "In school when I had assignments that had to be done on white lined paper, if it wasn't neat and perfect I had to start over. I couldn't take the 'sloppiness,' even though it really didn't look bad to anyone else. Now as I'm getting older I still want things to be perfect. I still consider myself a perfectionist, from my house to my kids, but I know what to let go-even though I don't really want to."
Roché doesn't want her kids to inherit her overly high standards and makes sure they know they're not supposed to be perfect and that mistakes are part of life. "If they do get upset because they can't do something right away, I usually tell them that that's why God invented practice-because in order to be good at something you have to practice," she says.
Practice can also make you less than perfect. And if you can't give up your stellar standards altogether, decide where you're going to channel that must-be-perfect energy.
"It might be at the workplace or it might be with your boss," says Basco. "Put your energy into where you think it's going to be most valuable. Focus your perfectionist energy … and consciously make the decision where you're going to use it-and where you're going to turn it off."