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“Perfectionism” and the Importance of Process

Girl And Mother CookingIn this blog article, Birmingham Clinic therapist Dina Berdy discusses the problem of “perfectionism”, why it’s prevalent, and how to help your child have a more realistic outlook.

The problem of perfectionism appears more pervasive among girls and women however it’s my observation that this problem is becoming more prevalent with boys and men as well. That aside, I can offer some observations:

Children do not intuitively value “process.” They see outcome. The ability to understand that there is a graduation of stages for skill development requires modeling. We do not have mentors, apprenticeships, skill building opportunities in contemporary society as we once did. Parents leave the home to work and their work is invisible. At home there is little time or value for working together on projects that build something of real value for use or purpose. Clothing, food, etc requires no effort or often very little. When children have the opportunity to participate organically with adults in valuable work, working alongside adults, the skill level they offer at any developmental level should be valued and coached. Without this , there is no guideline, no yardstick, for how to acquire skill. Without this, children make mistakes and expect themselves to be able to perform at a skill level that they are not capable and have very low frustration tolerance for their skill acquisition and error. I see this over and over in treatment of young children and certainly with girls.

I see many girls who have perfectionistic traits who perform at a very high academic level. I think this is related to a similar problem of “performance in a vacuum.” Many perfectionistic kids have been denied the opportunity to learn by practicing new skills with no particular goal or end product like a grade or a win. When they are school age, I often tell these girls, “you have a kid brain/hands/ muscles!” You are supposed to think like that/ look like that/ be still learning that/ have trouble with that.” There simply is no internal voice for perfectionist girls to talk to themselves about the fact that they are in process.