“I have to be perfect”
It sounds like a great thing, doesn’t it? A drive to get better at a task until you are the best you can be – a perfect swim, a perfect score, a perfect canvas, or a perfect story.
Um, no. For our family, it sucks.
Perfectionism is something both my kids have struggled with since they were babies. Yes, babies. My boy, C, was so obsessed with writing and drawing things just right, that he would practice for hours. We ran out of space to store his drawings – he could go through 500 sheets of paper in an afternoon. He had to get his drawings ‘just right’. Now, apart from the piles of paper, this was something we considered a good thing. Except … he had to get it perfect. For things that came easier than drawing – like mathematics, it was worse. He either ‘got it’, or he hated it. He loves to devour maths, but it has taken many many years of assuring him that getting maths wrong is the absolute best thing that could happen, ‘it means you are learning stuff’, ‘all mathematician get things wrong’, ‘getting things wrong is the start of the journey to new cool maths.’ And yes, we watched lots of videos on how mathematicians and scientists got things wrong, and the amazing things they discovered. Finally, after years of gentle encouragement, he is able to accept that if he gets one question wrong out of, say, ten, it’s OK.
But in many ways, my son has it easy. Because of his motor problems, he has had to live with the fact that he’s had to practice how to walk, how to climb and how to ride a bike. He’s often been the most awkward at gym and karate. And he’s had to keep going. His OTs and his physiotherapists work with him to get him to ‘hey, you’re OK!’
My daughter, J, in many ways, has it much tougher. Because she doesn’t have those physical limitations. She was born a spider monkey. And the perfectionism, coupled with her anxieties, mean that just getting her to try something new is an uphill battle. It takes a lot of gentle coaching, patience, and a willingness to praise even the smallest steps towards giving something a go. Whether that’s joining in at gymnastics, drawing a ‘little family’, or playing a card game.
Card games are really hard for my daughter. And it is not because she can’t play. We stick with card games that she can play – like Uno. The version we have doesn’t have words, just numbers and pictures. She can go through that card deck and name every card – colours and numbers. And we can usually play a game – once. Until she starts to lose – even if it’s just one card, or one turn. Then it’s “Hate Uno! Hate!” It’s the same with any game – even building Mr Potato Head.
It takes a lot of encouragement for J to try something after she has ‘failed’ it. And she often doesn’t believe Mummy and Daddy when we say she did great if it falls below her ideas of where she should be. (She has mastered ‘the look’.) Now a lot of this is probably just toddler-isms. But some of it isn’t – we’ve been here before with C.
Her anxiety with thinking about getting something wrong is often stronger than her innate desire play and explore. And it takes a lot of scaffolding on our part to overcome her fear of failure.
It’s not something I expect we will succeed at straight away. This is a long running campaign with lots of setbacks and twists and turns on the path. It’s a journey of little steps to help my youngest learn to live with ‘good enough’.
Because her her, the perfect is the enemy of the good. And it is no fun.
This post is part of the GHF “Perfectionism and Other Gifted/2e Quirks” Blog Hop.