Perfectionism is all about fear of failure. The worst case scenario for perfectionists, then, is that we make a mistake or fail-and someone finds out about it.
Perfectionist logic: I stop obsessing about being perfect? I won't be perfect ? I'll feel terrible.
This is faulty logic, of course. The way to wean someone from perfectionism is to show them that when they make mistakes and fail, they actually don't feel terrible. In fact, they might feel terribly FREE (at least that is what happened to me).
According to perfectionism researcher Randy Frost, perfectionists believe that their self-worth is contingent on their performance-that if they don't do well, they are worthless. That's why they think it is going to feel bad when they stop trying to be perfect. Perfectionists tend to think that failure to achieve will seriously diminish the affection and high-regard of their parents.
Here's how to help the perfectionist in your life quit it:
1. Have your perfectionist(s) engage in whatever they tend to be perfectionistic about. Pick a quick task that they don't want to be bad at, but that it is unlikely they will be able to do perfectly on the first try, like drawing something they've never drawn before.
2. Ask them to give it a go, even though it is unlikely they will do well. When I was in high school, my dad used to beg me to get a C just so that I could see that my heart wouldn't stop beating if I wasn't a star student all the time. I finally learned this lesson rock-climbing: the first thing my instructor made me do was fall off of the rock at 50 feet up. Once I felt the ropes catch me, I knew viscerally that I would live even if I did fall, and my legs stopped quaking with fear. Perfectionists need to learn this lesson: usually it doesn't hurt very much or for very long to fail.
3. Ask them how it felt to do something badly. Does she think it means that she is not a good artist? Does he think that not being a great player diminishes his worth? Point out that Thomas Edison had to try more than 1,000 times before he invented the light bulb successfully. If they actually did pretty well in their own eyes, ask them what they thinks that means. Let them see that you don't care a whip whether or not their performance actually WAS any good - you love them just the way they are.
4. Ask them how they feel. Chances are they don't feel terrible, but that they feels loved and cared for by you. Point this out empathetically: "Sounds like you feel okay even though you did something you were afraid might make you look bad." Offer enthusiastic congratulations: "How great! You are learning to try new things and take risks! Whoo-hoo!"
5. At this point, you can help develop a strategy that might work better on their next attempt. Try to keep this light-hearted. If you find your kids laughing at themselves as they reflect on their jobs-imperfectly-done, you know you've succeeded!
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Christine Carter- Bio
Christine Carter, Ph.D., is the executive director of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley and is the creator of the "Science for Raising Happy Kids" website (greatergoodparents.org). She is a sociologist who studies the childhood roots of happiness. Carter received her B.A. from Dartmouth College, where she was a Senior Fellow, and her Ph.D. from UC Berkeley. Her first book, The Other Side of Silence, has been dubiously recognized as one of the books most often stolen out of university libraries.
Carter has worked in marketing management, as a school administrator, and as an innovation consultant for Fortune 500 companies. She has two children and lives with her family outside of San Francisco. Sign up to receive to her blog Half Full: Science for Raising Happy Kids by email at http://greatergood.berkeley.edu.