Perfectionism and High Sensitivity
I have wanted to tackle the question of ‘perfectionism’ and the highly sensitive person for some time, because it is something I ‘suffer’ from. Somewhat ironically I have struggled to get started and have procrastinated because of the very thing I wanted to write about – would what I say be good enough? Would it perfectly convey what perfectionism is all about?
Perfectionism is talked about as a ‘natural’ product of the “do it once and do it right” strategy of the high sensitivity trait, and the associated in-built conscientiousness of many highly sensitive people.
Yet it is mentioned without any real explanation of what it actually means and the significant problems it can create. Most of all, very little is mentioned about what to actually do about it!
Perfectionism and High Sensitivity
Highly Sensitive people reflect and process information more than others before acting. They also tend to be highly conscientious, and hate to make mistakes. This is interpreted as an approach to “do it once and do it right”, to do it ‘perfectly’.
I think it is certainly true that taking time to assess a situation, to context it, and to draw on previous experience, makes it more likely that any response will be better suited to and tailored to the situation, than a more reactive response. From a survival perspective it is clear that this can yield great benefits, such as in recognising and then avoiding danger that others miss, and by greater internalisation of learning to avoid the same thing next time, for example. By virtue of this HSPs may well get it right first time more often, and this could be taken to show that by nature they are more ‘perfectionist’.
However, I don’t believe this interpretation is quite the true picture, because perfectionism inherently is not a good thing. There is a big difference between a strategy for pausing to check, making a considered response in the context of all the available information, and this leading to getting it ‘right’ a lot of the time, and the feeling that we should and must get it right first time, every time.
Perfectionism -vs- Striving for Excellence
Sometimes when we talk of perfectionism we think of it in positive terms. We think of the high standards that people set themselves and aim for, the high quality we see in work and sports and the arts. This is not so much perfectionism though. Rather it is Striving for Excellence.
Striving for Excellence allows for mistakes and for personal growth. Mistakes are expected and are taken as learning opportunities, not as an indication that the person has failed and is a failure.
Striving for Excellence
- is a healthy desire to set high standards that lends itself to enjoyment of difficult tasks because there is a focus on the process, not just the outcome, and there is an acceptance that things will not always work ‘perfectly’, so when things do go wrong, and mistakes are made, the person is able to view these objectively and learn from them.
- creates resilience by enabling people to set challenging but achievable goals, work towards them, overcome difficulties and thereby boost self-esteem.
- is a positive base for learning and, from an evolutionary perspective, this is a healthy strategy – it ensures that over time, danger signs are accurately identified, and the most helpful responses are learned, repeated and shared with others to a ‘good enough’ standard.
In conjunction with reflective tendencies, HSPs who strive for excellence will not only be trying to get it right first time, but will learn from their mistakes if they don’t, so that next time, their response will be even more finely tuned. It doesn’t mean perfection every time, it just means properly considered, risk assessed, targeted, accurate, appropriate, effective, and good enough responses to a situation and similar situations in the future. As Adrian Furnham says “ It’s all about being OK; human but not super-human; among the best, if not the best.”
In contrast – What is Perfectionism?
“Being a perfectionist is not about things being perfect; it’s about thinking things need to be perfect and vigilantly pursuing it. Emotionally, this means that instead of living your life in self-acceptance perfectionists are on a continual treadmill chasing the elusive feeling of having everything in their lives be ‘right’. “ (Jennifer Kromberg).
“At worst, perfectionists believe they should be perfect – no hesitations, deviations, or inconsistencies. They are super-sensitive to imperfection, failing and weakness. They believe their acceptance and lovability is a function of never making mistakes. And they don’t know the meaning of “good enough”.” (Adrian Furnham)
Brené Brown explains it as a shield we use, a defensive mechanism, to protect us from feelings of fear and shame, which stem from our concern about what others will think, about how others will judge us, and from our own perceptions of our own self-worth (or lack of it).
This drive for perfection is therefore exhausting. It compounds feelings of low self-esteem, as perfection is not possible in everything we do, and a vicious cycle begins. With perfectionism, mistakes are often equated with failure, and that failure is often then generalised to the person, not just the task being attempted. So a mistake becomes a failure which translates as “I am a failure”. This is where shame comes from.
At its’ worst perfectionism has been linked to performance and social anxiety, eating disorders, OCD, depression and other mental health issues.
Perfectionism begins in childhood
Whilst there may be innate tendencies to be predisposed towards perfectionism, and certainly being highly sensitive is likely to be a contributory factor, it is often childhood experiences that precipitate its’ development. This may come from:
- excessive praise around attainment, or demands from significant adults,
- from a child’s observation of adults (especially parents) modelling perfectionist characteristics
- the child feeling that love for them is conditional upon these exemplary achievements and characteristics
Why are HSCs particularly prone to perfectionism?
Highly sensitive children may be more susceptible to developing perfectionist tendencies because we know that Highly Sensitive Children notice more, feel things more intensely and are more affected by their environment than other children, so this means that:
- They are more likely than others to pick up on the feedback they get from others, particularly more subtle cues; they are more likely to notice themselves when they have made a mistake or done something wrong.
- Not only will they notice more, they will also be more affected by the messages they receive from others, especially parents and other significant adults (and remember they are more likely to pick up on subtle & implicit messages than others).
- They are also more likely to observe and notice how they see others’ behaving. If they have parents who are modelling perfectionist behaviour they are therefore perhaps more likely than others to model that same behaviour.
- They will feel the ‘high’ of achievement and the bad feelings of making mistakes and things going wrong more deeply and intensely. They will be more affected by how all these things makes them feel. So in response to mistakes, intense feelings of disapproval, disappointment, embarrassment, guilt, self-criticism and shame are more likely to be felt, and they may be more likely than other children to seek to avoid eliciting those responses from others. Similarly they will feel the elation and joy of praise more deeply, so will be more inclined to actively seek it.
These intense feelings can ultimately make HSCs more prone to confusing their achievements with their sense of who they are so that their achievements (or failures) become a measure of their self-worth and they can begin to feel that they need to achieve perfection in order to be ‘perfect’ in order to be loved and accepted.
HSCs, perhaps more so that other children, need help with learning emotional regulation. Their intense emotions can feel much bigger than them, which can be scary, and can feel very lonely and result in shame and fear if others are telling them they are over-reacting etc.
Perfectionism offers a means of trying to control things, and the ‘logic’ of perfectionism is that if you don’t make a mistake, you can’t be criticised, you won’t feel shame and you therefore won’t feel like a failure as a person. Except of course no-one can do things perfectly or be perfect all the time, so it is inevitable that mistakes will happen, and when they do, you feel bad. It is a vicious circle, which is why it is not healthy.
So how do I know if my child’s high standards are simply a healthy dose of striving for excellence, or if they are trying to be perfect?
Take a look at how they approach new and difficult tasks, and at what tends to happen when things go wrong or when they find things difficult.
A child with a mindset of “Striving for excellence” will ‘rise’ to a challenge, responding with enthusiasm and showing pleasure during the process of the task. If things go wrong or not as planned, they will have the resilience and determination to try again, to learn from the experience and to separate failure of the task from their abilities as a person.
A child who is a perfectionist will come to the challenge from a place of stress and avoidance of overwhelming negative emotions. They are more likely, therefore, to show anxiety about the task, and to focus more on the end result and less on the process. They are more likely to avoid the task for fear of not being able to complete it flawlessly, and they are more likely to procrastinate about starting. Moreover, if things go wrong they are more likely to get upset and anxious, and to give up. They may even talk about themselves as ‘stupid’ or ‘failures’.
For me, therefore, perfectionism it is a ‘symptom’ that probably goes to the very heart of the struggle for self-worth and self-esteem that many highly sensitive people report, and one that starts in childhood. It is not inherently what the trait is, but it is something that is perhaps more likely to develop amongst highly sensitive children in our culture, as a response to feeling ‘different’ and feeling ‘judged’ such that their identify and self-worth becomes bound up in ‘being perfect’ – because that’s when they feel good.
As parents we have a key role to ensure that we help our highly sensitive children thrive as Strivers of Excellence, not wilt as Perfectionists.
How can we prevent our children becoming perfectionists and if they are perfectionists, how can we help? First and foremost take a look at yourself (especially if you too are highly sensitive):-
- You may well be passing on messages of perfection by being a perfectionist yourself!
- You may inadvertently be driving your child to achieve by excessive praise of outcomes rather than helping them to focus on the process of learning and the effort the child is making.
- Remember that Highly Sensitive Children will experience BIG emotions – consider how well you acknowledge and accept that in your child and whether you are doing enough to help your child to understand and regulate those emotions.
- Reflect on how accepting you are of your sensitive child for who they are; do you truly show them unconditional love and positive regard? Let them know not just that you love them, but that you also like them.
- Help them to recognise that failure at a task does not mean they are a failure.
- Help them to see when things are ‘good enough’ by giving praise for effort, and for excellent rather than ‘perfect’ work.
- Lead by example – tell them about mistakes you make, talk about what you have learned, and laugh about it!
What’s your experience of Perfectionism? We’d love to hear from you especially if you have any great tips for how to help your perfectionist HSC!