The Perfectionist Shuffle

We have some young, high-strung perfectionists in our house. I don’t want to get into any judgement call about whether nature or nurture is to blame. They are our biological children and one way or another we are probably the culprits.

This tendency to always want to be right and to always perform at a superior level can make it difficult to learn and do new things. True learning involves failure. Initial attempts are usually messy and ugly. Admitting that something is confusing and knowing that merely following directions will not, in and of itself, create a beautiful essay, an elegant art project, or a masterfully played piano piece, creates issues.

Like many highly gifted students, early learning of the basics wasn’t much of a challenge. They are still developing the mental and emotional muscles they will need throughout their lives to persevere in the face of difficulty and unexpected setbacks. Gumption and tenacity are increasingly important in the work world as well as in life. When they head out into the job market they will enter an economy that is ever shifting. An economy where jobs and companies are constantly changing and their individual success will depend on their ability to welcome new challenges with positive energy and hard work.

They aren’t quite there yet.

Right now, many new and seemingly difficult homework assignments and tasks are greeted with what I’ve taken to thinking of as the perfectionist shuffle. First, there is the avoidance prelude. During this time, they try to pretend the assignment doesn’t exist. They hide in the world of books or waste time on the Internet, without having even read through the assignment.

When they can avoid no longer, usually due to parental intervention, they then start the excuse sidestep. Offered reasons for failing to begin the assignment will range from, not having enough time, to not having the correct materials, to being too hungry to think, to needing “a break” before they get down to work. Once they exhaust their list and it slowly dawns on them that they have to start working on the new, seemingly impossible task, we begin the exciting part of the perfectionist shuffle, the angst whirl. At its peak, if the project seems particularly daunting to them, the next couple hours include Insecurity, arguing, crying and carrying on about how they can’t do it, don’t know how to do it, shouldn’t have to do it, etc. It is exhausting. Amazingly enough, once they have tried all alternative routes, are emotionally spent, and there is no other path save forward, they usually settle down, dig into the task, and do a decent job.

Although it serves an emotional purpose, perhaps helping the kids cope with uncertainty, the perfectionist shuffle is not going to help them in the long run and is not fun for anyone within hearing distance in the short run. Being able to intellectually understand the difference between high quality work and mediocre work has its downside. It can make trying something new seem pointless. The fact that all the world’s experts were beginners at one point is easy to understand but difficult to internalize emotionally. We are trying to help them understand that lack of success after a solid attempt is not the worst outcome. That confronting every new challenge with an emotional firestorm is far worse than just learning to put in a good effort and see what happens. That if they can develop and maintain a positive resilience, success will find them.

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