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By Ranu Boppana, MD

The Evils of Perfectionism

"Don't let the best be the enemy of the good."
"Perfect is a waste of time."
"Nobody's perfect!"

Despite cautions about perfectionism, it is rampant in our culture these days. We are bombarded with perfect, edited, airbrushed role models on a daily basis. It doesn’t help that they appear to have better bodies, clothes, and intellects and live more glamorous and organized lives. Our children are also inundated with the same messages. There is intense pressure around college admissions, for example, with kids aware that they need to present themselves as perfect packages of well-rounded intellect combined with athletic/musical/leadership skills to get into that brand-name college. Socially, kids also feel intense pressure to have the perfect clothes, friends and social lives, all the while appearing not to be trying too hard.

Photo by Rodrigo Torres

What is Perfectionism?
Perfectionism is the black and white view that if something isn’t perfect, it’s useless. Perfectionists experience intense anxiety about making mistakes and tend to underachieve rather than succeed. They will procrastinate or avoid tasks so that they can’t be judged on them.

Academically, perfectionist children sometimes freeze up when they need to perform during an exam or presentation. The anxiety can also cause somatic symptoms such as headaches and stomachaches that can even result in school absenteeism and school refusal.

Socially, perfectionist children sometimes avoid seeing friends or going to social events. Perfectionist girls are known to obsess about their weight or their clothes, and avoid participating in their school’s social life until they are “perfect.” These children often avoid life choices that would make them happy because those choices don’t fit the “perfect” mold. As a result, they maintain the appearance of perfection while being unhappy.

Some children are just born with a perfectionist nature. Bright kids can be especially prone to academic perfectionism, and socially adept kids can experience pressure to be perfect in that sphere. But our South Asian culture can play a role in perfectionism as well.

Perfectionism and South Asian Kids
These days everyone talks so much about South Asian kids succeeding, that we often miss the ugly underbelly of this phenomenon—the intense pressure it puts on our kids to succeed. Though there is nothing wrong with high expectations if they are attainable, unchecked and unrealistic standards can do a lot of damage. Fear of mistakes is also harmful, but it is through mistakes that we grow as individuals. I have seen many South Asian children in my psychiatrist office who feel that they do not measure up, and they shut down as a result. Often, these children, like the media, think that all South Asian kids are the same—that they are all academic superstars or beauty queens! When reality doesn’t match those high standards, there is no room for mistakes, and it seems like there is no alternate path to success—everyone is in for a let-down.

What Parents Can Do
Though we all want to encourage achievement, we need to be careful about the messages we send to our children. South Asian culture already puts enough pressure on kids with its emphasis on filial duty and how one’s actions reflect on everyone else in the family. If you have a child who has a perfectionist tendency, you need to also emphasize how everyone who has ever achieved success, including yourself, isn’t perfect! Teaching children to embrace mistakes as an opportunity to grow is key.

Also important is to get kids to appreciate different kinds of success and the many paths to it. Their job is to discover their own paths, because someone else’s way may not suit them! We need to help our kids recognize their strengths and how they can best bring out their own talents.

Some children give up too easily, expecting everything to come naturally on the first try. Everyone has some aspect of a task that they will find challenging. Learning how to overcome obstacles is often the key to success later in life. So teach your children good study and organizational skills. Show them how to organize tasks or break them up into manageable pieces to make the task seem less daunting. Then, applaud their hard work and perseverance, not the results!

Also, show children how to avoid social pressures. Talk to them about your values and explain how real friendship means that you don’t have to present yourself as someone you’re not. Make sure you are a good role model of this in your own life. Encourage them, as well, to find and pursue their passions and talents because that’s what will ultimately lead to success.

Of course, if perfectionism is taking too much of a toll, don’t be afraid to seek some professional help.

Ranu Boppana, MD is an Adult and Child Psychiatrist in private practice in New York, NY and a Clinical Instructor at the NYU School of Medicine.

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