“It’s okay to make mistakes.” Schools and communities are raising awareness about perfectionism’s dangerous impact on students’ mental health.
“It’s okay to make mistakes.” This is something of a simple idea, but if we don’t hold onto the belief that mistakes are “okay” and a natural part of life, we let ourselves slip into a self-destructive line of thinking. Mistakes should be something we learn from, something that we hold outside of ourselves. But too many times, mistakes seep into our identity. When we let ourselves stop thinking, “Mistakes happen,” and instead start thinking, “If I make mistakes, I am a failure,” we move from a healthy mentality to an unhealthy and dangerous territory called “perfectionism.”
I recently attended a lecture hosted by a nearby school on the topic of “mental health.” The keynote speaker was the director of psychiatry at a nearby children’s hospital. This is what struck me most from what he said: more than depression, more than bipolar disorder or any other disorder, the number one risk factor for teen suicide is perfectionism. That really surprised me and made me think. According to the speaker, perfectionists tend to see things as “all good” or “all bad,” so any caliber of mistake is unforgivable. Especially if a child didn’t get an “A” or didn’t get the “win,” they cannot see that anything they did was good. Perfectionists internalize mistakes and let something they do wrong define who they are. As parents and educators, this is something we must help our kids fight against.
Whether we are talking about school assignments, friendships, or sports games, nothing is ever perfect, so perfectionists will never reach their goal. According to this article in Psychology Today, “Perfectionism seeps into the psyche and creates a pervasive personality style. It keeps people from engaging in challenging experiences; they don’t get to discover what they truly like or to create their own identities.” One speaker from the lecture I attended pointed out that a student who is a perfectionist has a very difficult time accepting a compliment or naming anything they did well. Kids who are perfectionists also often struggle with anxiety. Perfectionists are afraid of any of their mistakes being seen by others, so they tend to hide away. They don’t want to share their work or put themselves into a position where they may be open for critique. Even constructive criticism can be crushing. Surely no one wishes on their child the weight of such impossible burdens. But unfortunately the things we say and do, even unintentionally, can have great bearing on our children.
Praise the Process (It’s OK to Make Mistakes!)
“Perfectionists, experts now know, are made and not born,” writes Hara Estroff Marano, editor at Psychology Today. How we talk to our kids matters. How we praise our kids and what we praise them for matters. Praising our kids for the wins and not the effort or the grades and not the learning communicates to them that they are only as good as what they achieve. Which leads me to question: Which came first, the participation trophy or the perfectionist? Do kids always expect to be rewarded out of entitlement, or do we feel we have to dole out rewards because it is the only thing that matters to kids? Do our kids find work and effort rewarding in and of themselves? How do we help teach our kids to find their own internal sense of accomplishment?
Developing a Growth Mindset
I hear a lot of talk about a “growth mindset,” which means teaching our kids that our abilities are not set in stone. We need to talk about the difference between “talent” and “ability.” People may be born with particular “talents,” things that just come naturally. “Ability” is how well we can do those things. Let’s just take for example, music (but you could substitute math, writing, sports, etc.). People who are born with natural talent but never practice may still have a lower ability, while someone with little talent, but who works hard may have a great amount of ability. This mindset guards against perfectionism by demonstrating that everyone is a work in progress and by showing how we can work on what is within our control. If we bring the focus off of the end result and onto the process, we are helping our kids guard against the defeat of perfectionism.
We have to communicate to our kids often and intentionally that no matter what, we love them.
Perfectionism is defeat because perfection is an illusion, not a reality. The biggest enemy of perfectionism is unconditional love. We have to communicate to our kids often and intentionally that no matter what, we love them. We have to communicate that they are accepted for who they and are not what they do.
I had a friend share with me that her middle school daughter struggles with perfectionism. The girl’s counselor worked with the parents and told them “our role as her parents should be to help her take the pressure off, never to add pressure because she is already adding it for herself.” It is great to strive for excellence, but that is different than perfectionism. Excellence is freedom and enjoyment in what you are doing. Perfection is always striving and always falling short. Let’s help our kids recognize that it’s ok to make mistakes. Together, we’ll fight against perfectionism in order to protect their mental health so that they find enjoyment and success.
About the All-Star Blogger:
Melanie is a home educator of her four children ages 6, 9, 10, and 12. Melanie’s background is in science and she has a bachelor’s degree in Biology. Before becoming a mom, she worked in biomedical research. Melanie has many interests and whether it is science, literature, history, art, or music, she enjoys learning alongside her kids and helping them discover new things about the world. Her kids are involved in 4-H, Girl Scouts, horseback riding, piano, drums, and some sports, but at the same time, Melanie guards her family’s time and believes in leaving enough space in the schedule for rest and relationships.