Out with Perfectionism!

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by Danelle Spence

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07.28.2016

A road with the words "Imperfection is Beautiful".

As I was writing this article, I wanted to make sure my grammar was perfect. Then I thought, wouldn’t it be awesome, if there were mistakes throughout? And I was ok with this? The perfectionist in me didn’t like this idea, but,  if you see any mistakes, you’ll know I did them on purpose 😉

I have always struggled with the writing component of school. Even though I have a lot that I want to say, it is often difficult for me to get it down on paper. However, I have since leaned-into-the-discomfort of knowing I am not a great writer, will likely never be a great writer, and I’ve accepted this. Self-acceptance is a good thing! But this is not so easy for teenagers whose self-identity, confidence and sense of themselves are only beginning to develop.

More and more in sessions, I hear both the teen and their inner perfectionistic. This is the voice that tells them they need to excel; the voice that says they are doing something wrong; the voice that insists they are not good enough. This is all-encompassing for a lot of teenagers, even if some aren’t consciously aware of this.

I fear teens have a limited capacity to know what it feels like to fail, come in last (or god forbid – second!). They lack the capacity to truly feel proud or accomplished, always needing to strive for better, faster, or more. Many teens now define themselves from the outside in versus the inside out. External accomplishment or achievement shouldn’t define them; but they often “abbreviate” their thinking: “ I didn’t get that job” (I’m a failure),  “I got broken up with” (I’m unlovable), “You’re mad at me” (I’m not good enough). They lack essential frustration tolerance that is required in life.

Why is this? Too many everyone-gets-a-ribbon situations? Too many instances of let-me-call-your-teacher-and-get-your-mark-up?

Well, yes.

We rescue too much. We try to take kids’ pain and suffering away too quickly,  which produces kids never being able to tolerate pain, discomfort, or sadness.  Life throws obstacles, and sometimes even tragedies in our paths and we have to learn to deal with them. If we don’t teach our teens how to do this, they’ll be without the resilience, grit, and stamina they need to be confident.

So on a more practical note: we have to unteach perfectionism. Parents should pull their children’s projects away from them when they are working on the 4th draft. Parents need to tolerate the argument that may happen when they tell their teen to go to bed when they would rather stay up and cram for a test. Parents have to tell them they are lovable and good enough, even if they only get 85%. Parents must assure their children they won’t withdraw their affection if they fail at something. Teens internalize comments we think are harmless (e.g., “95% … what happened to the last 5%?”) These comments aren’t harmless. They are remembered and integrated your teen’s sense of self.

Teenagers are meant to be messy and imperfect. But in my experience, they don’t think they can be. We need to teach our kids they will fail and that doing so is absolutely necessary. They need to take non-threatening risks:  bomb an exam and survive; be broken up with and move on from it;  get cut from a team and try out for another.

I love the saying that “perfectionism is the enemy of progress”. If we are perfect, we compromise the amazing character development we can gain from failing, from doing something wrong, from have a weakness and working through it. Just like me and my writing  – I am no Margaret Atwood, but learning to be a good enough writer is now good enough for me. My inner perfectionistic voice has learned to zip it.

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About the Author

Danelle Spence

Danelle Spence is a Registered Psychologist with a passion for helping teens effectively manage emotional distress and helping their parents’ understand the complex and developing teenage brain.

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