On the surface, perfectionism doesn’t seem like such a bad thing. Surely it’s all about ambition, attainment and the creation of astounding things? This is a myth. Having high-standards and big dreams is wonderful, but perfectionism limits productivity and leads to anxiety and depression, especially among teenage girls (https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/540563/LSYPE2_w2_research_report.pdf). Studies from the US have suggested that women are more likely than men to suffer from perfectionism and it's negative impacts, particularly high-achieving females (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/8072739.stm). Perfectionism can lead to a fear of failure and an unhealthy link between identity, esteem and success. We become nervous about taking risks, which is how we learn, grow and enjoy new things in life.
At times, we all feel the pressure to have perfect looks, as well as impressive achievements, friends and social status. We form our aspirations based on the accomplishments of the most astounding professionals in any given field. This tendency is fostered by the media, which often edits out countless rejections and disappointments, even for those whose names have become synonymous with success. It is always worth remembering that J.K. Rowling’s work was rejected by 12 publishers before she found anyone interested in Harry Potter, Oprah Winfrey was fired from her first television job, Albert Einstein’s teachers believed him to be mentally handicapped and Charles Darwin was forced to give up careers in medicine and the church before becoming a naturalist. Remember, while you may be privy to an individual’s greatest achievements, you rarely get to witness the crippling work and many pitfalls that got them to that point.
So, how can you help your children or students avoid these conceptual pitfalls? How can you stamp out such negative thinking in your own mind? The first thing is to establish a “growth mindset”. You need to believe that your abilities can be developed, no matter how good at something you already are. Therefore, each new project becomes an opportunity to hone your skills, not merely prove them. Learning environments should be supportive and non-threatening, as should educative relationships. Positive statements yield better results, as do questioning approaches to work. Students can be asked about why they chose a specific approach, and hypothetical situations can be explored.
Lastly, it is important to aim for excellence, not perfection. Excellence involves taking pride in your work and being good at something for it’s own sake, not because of some imagined rewards. It is about becoming a better version of yourself, which involves making mistakes because of the opportunities they afford. Mistakes are not a shameful thing to be concealed, they are how we grow. It also never hurts to remind yourself that nobody is perfect. Models are airbrushed, the greatest tech developments involve many beta-tests and somebody really did once fire Walt Disney for a “lack of imagination”.
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