A couple of years ago, I led a GT parent workshop on perfectionism. As I was preparing, I realized how many perfectionist tendencies I had, and I jokingly started the presentation by saying, “Hello, my name is Jennifer, and I’m a perfectionist.”
I guess that was something I always knew about myself, although I don’t think I would label it as perfectionism because I am so far from perfect. But, I am harder on myself than anyone else, and I can remember mistakes I’ve made long after they happen and cease to be important to anyone but me. When I make something, no matter how it turns out, I can always find flaws. My to-do list is impossible to complete (although I’m getting better about this one!).
I try really hard not to pass on that perfectionist attitude to my students, especially now that I work specifically with gifted and talented students who are prone to perfectionism just by their nature, and with my own children. In both cases, I want them to always do their best, but I never want them to give up or berate themselves because something isn’t perfect.
Things that I do to help them also help me be more realistic. For example, perfectionism and procrastination go hand-in-hand. The logic is ‘if I don’t start it and rush at the end, I can blame my lack of success on the lack of time spent.’ This is especially true when projects are challenging. For my students, I assign big assignments that are broken down into smaller, manageable parts with due dates for each small part. This keeps assignments from snowballing and overwhelming the student. For my kids, we have a dry erase calendar where we write deadlines for projects. The calendar is in the kitchen so we are constantly aware of what needs to be done. For myself, I’ve started adding due dates to things when I add them to my to-do list. I love http://rememberthemilk.com because it organizes by due dates and sends me reminder emails. For the classes I’m taking this semester, I had to actually break down the readings each week so that I didn’t wait until Saturday to start the 300+ pages I needed to read by Tuesday. It’s amazing how much calmer I am when I plan ahead.
Another big thing is to teach them to accept their mistakes and learn from them. A few years back I had a student who could just NOT accept when she was wrong. She even argued with me that a word she needed wasn’t in the unabridged dictionary in the library! After I found the word for her, she admitted, through gritted teeth, that she was wrong. I had a good enough relationship with her that I was able to tease her a little and say, “Repeat after me. I was wrong. I made a mistake. It’s okay to make mistakes.” She repeated it and actually smiled a little by the end. From then on, when she wouldn’t back down, I would just say her name in a certain tone, and she would sigh and say, “I was wrong. I made a mistake. It’s okay to make mistakes.” As the year went on, I had to remind her less and less.
With my own kids, I try to do the same. When my daughter beats herself up over not blocking a goal in soccer or missing an easy problem on a math test, I remind her of all the goals she did block or all the problems she had correct. Then we talk about ways she can get better. It’s never about perfect, just better. Earlier this year, she commented on how she had never gotten less than a 90% on any test last year or this year. I asked her why that was, and I loved her reply, “It’s because I study, reread things if I don’t get it, and I ask questions.” I was so glad to hear her acknowledge her hard work rather than her natural talent.
My son is rather competitive and gives up when things get tough. He hates to lose and will try to quit or restart video games when he isn’t winning. If I catch him, I won’t let him. I tell him the only way to be successful at something that is difficult is to learn to work through it. He’s getting better about it, and he’s starting to see that when he works through the difficult parts, he actually learns more.
A few years ago I read a book called The Knight in Rusty Armor by Robert Fisher. It’s a quick little read, and I highly recommend it. It’s a good reminder of putting important things first. Sometimes, when I’m asked to take on just one more thing, I find myself thinking, ‘my armor is getting a little rusty,’ and I say no.
For me, perfectionism is a daily challenge. Finding a balance between doing my best and expecting the impossible is tough. Like my students, I have to be reminded that it’s okay to make mistakes. I still take on more than I should, but I’ve started approaching my commitments like my sweaters. When a new one comes in, an old one goes out.