When Payton Shuck was 3, she dressed up as a pink princess for Halloween. But not far from her house, she fell. When she discovered a dime-sized black smudge on her skirt she was inconsolable, and insisted on going home.
Seven years later, what seemed like a funny quirk has become a near-paralyzing perfectionism for the bright child, says her mother Paula, in London, Ont.
In Grade 4, Payton started hiding math tests because the grade wasn't perfect. She faked stomach aches to avoid going to school. She refused to do her math homework: After breezing through the English and science, she didn't want to try a subject that didn't come easily.
Her anxiety levels skyrocketed, her mother says. "I want my kid to be honest with me, and feel comfortable bringing home a C."
And what kind of life would she have if she couldn't adjust to messing up once in a while?
Sylvia Plath, the American poet, called perfectionism her "demon" – the constant striving she felt to be perfect, or to "run away screaming if I am going to be flawed, fallible." Her tragic life defined the double-edged personality trait: Ms. Plath was a brilliant poet who could never savour success. After years of struggling with depression, she committed suicide.
In these highly competitive days, the perfectionist demon rules in the classroom. Why achieve when you can overachieve? Your Grade 8 student locks himself up in his room with his English essay, obsessing over Hamlet. Your daughter weeps over the mistakes that cost her an A. That's good news, right? They care about school. They're motivated. They will succeed.
Maybe not, or at least maybe not happily. There's a difference, psychologists caution, between striving for success and being debilitated by a need for perfection.
Sometimes, parents who are intent on university scholarships and high-status jobs for little Tommy misunderstand what's driving all that wee-hour double-checking. What's more, they fail to see the role they may have played in creating a child who doesn't just want to be perfect, but needs to be: The drive to succeed has become a torment when she falls short even by the smallest measurement.
"Failures and mistakes are ultimately opportunities to learn and grow and get better, but to the perfectionist it's a catastrophe," says Simon Sherry, a Dalhousie University psychologist who studies perfectionism. He sees the results in his office every spring, when graduates show up for therapy with the ink barely dry on their magna cum laude diplomas.
They're destined to be defeated by a workplace where bosses don't hand out A-pluses, or they may land a top job and a good salary, but be miserable.
Perfectionism is strongly linked to depression and anxiety, eating disorders and poor personal relationships.
"Perfectionists really seem to struggle to play nicely with others, including their romantic partners," says Dr. Sherry. And not only can they not enjoy success, he says, but perfectionism often stymies success. A recent study he co-authored found that psychology professors with higher perfectionist traits published less often than colleagues who weren't perfectionists.
People with these characteristics are less likely to take risks and more likely to procrastinate. "Perfectionists are often overwhelmed by the enormity of their own expectations," he says. "But they don't happily watch TV or lounge about. They sit paralyzed and relentlessly criticize themselves."
They are also the most at risk during major life transitions. Aneesa Shariff, a counsellor at University of British Columbia student services, sees this kind of student hit hardest a few months into school, when they receive marks that are lower than they expected. She also sees graduate students who are missing important deadlines, or are unable to type the first page of their thesis. "They are so worried that it won't be the best," she says.
Dr. Sherry says perfectionism is often inherited, but it is also modelled by parents, either in their own behaviour or in their focus on grades. Perfectionists need to learn at a young age that failure is inevitable, and not disastrous. These kids don't need more pushing: They often need to be pulled away from their work, to find value in play.
After consulting with experts at her daughter's school, Ms. Shuck enrolled Payton in martial arts because sports don't come naturally to her. "She's not going to be the rock star," Ms. Shuck says. "But you can still see it on her face, that it's not something she is comfortable with."
The family also plans to introduce a "neutral homework basket," a place where Payton will throw all her tests and assignments so they can be looked at later without an emphasis on grades.
"You want to her to be competitive – that's how we learn to succeed," her mom says. "But you have to learn to deal with failure – you can't be perfect at everything."
TIPS FOR TAKING THE PRESSURE OFF
Watch your own behaviour. Do you obsess over mistakes? Learn to laugh off errors, and stress what you learned from them.
Be careful how you praise and criticize. Dr. Sherry says the perfectionists he treats often share the same anecdote: parents who focused, for example, on the 5 points missing in a test score of 95 per cent. The result is adults who minimize praise or don't savour their own accomplishments. "They go forward in life overly focused on the 5 per cent that's imperfect and they become blind to the extraordinary 95 per cent," Dr. Sherry says.
Set them up to fail – gently. Put them in activities where they won't be perfect, so they learn that sometimes falling in the middle of the pack isn't the end of the world.
Take the competition out of daily activities. Don't focus on grades. Play board games where the goal is family time, not winning.
Set time limits on homework. Perfectionists may work endlessly on revisions or checking mistakes – they need to learn to walk away from that English essay.
Demonstrate that successful people can fail. Show them real-life examples, such as the hockey star who flubs an important goal.
Give them skills to help them relax. Introduce them to yoga or teach them positive self-talk: "I may not be perfect, but that's okay, because I did my best."