“I’m not good enough” has been a frequent lament of clients in my office. It’s a belief that can stem from years of perfectionism-infected thinking that leaves people stranded on a plateau with feelings of ineffectiveness even in the midst of great talent, achievement, and competence.
As parents, we hold our breaths with a collective wish for a less debilitating and discouraging thinking pattern in our children. Here are a few suggestions for fostering a kinder, gentler internal voice in our children.
1. Model Self-Compassion. Your child is watching you closely for clues about how to handle life. They see and mimic your reactions to various life events and feelings. If you can give yourself a break and say aloud, “I’m not perfect. I made a mistake, but I’m going to keep trying hard,” they will be more likely to do the same. When you allow humanness in yourself and treat yourself kindly, you benefit and also model a way for your kids to grow up without perfectionism.
2. Look for the “Gray.” Perfectionism comes from dichotomous thinking, focusing on black-and-white extremes (e.g., “I’m either perfect or I’m a failure”) that create a false dilemma. Help kids see that there is a “gray” area where they can do a quality job even if it’s not perfect.
3. Focus on Internal Characteristics. Support your child for her internal characteristics of perseverance, discernment, humor, etc. rather than her performance. When children place too much value on their performance, they can get caught up in pursuing performance at the expense of developing a unique, stable and secure identity.
4. Focus on Excellence. Giving up perfectionism doesn’t mean embracing mediocrity or being “average.” It means not having unrealistic standards that foster self-criticism. Encourage children to pursue excellence, but to respond to setbacks with self-compassion. Pursuing excellence is empowering, while pursuing perfectionism is debilitating. So look at the fruit of your children’s thinking to determine which they are pursuing.
5. Stop Counting. Encourage kids to focus on strengths that cannot be labeled with a number. Instead of weight, focus on their ability to recognize and respond to hunger and fullness. Instead of calories, focus on including a variety of enjoyable foods and food groups. Instead of grades, focus on what your child learns in and beyond the classroom, and which topics stimulate the most interest and discussion and passion from them. What they learn about relationships on the playground is just as valuable as their math quizzes.
6. Encourage Activities that Support Healthy Values. Just like an adult can get caught up in an unhealthy work environment where self-care is devalued and perfectionism encouraged, kids can be on teams or in groups where performance is emphasized at the expense of the child’s well being. Look for activities that support and encourage your child to focus on positive internal characteristics, that involve fun, and that don’t encourage achievement at the expense of self-care.