There exists in my house a parasite. A tiny vampire that feeds off of the insecurities that hide below the surface and infects the inhabitants with an obsessive need for perfection.
He rears his ugly head in different ways for different family members but his existence plagues us all.
Sometimes, it’s the fear of failure that stops me in my tracks. Others, the tears and frustration that flow when Little Man realizes that he didn’t say what he meant to say. The most vicious is the fear that stops Little Miss from writing anything without help.
I have struggled with this little monster for most of my life. He claws at my brain telling me “you can’t do anything right so why should you even try.” For a long time I gave up drawing, my most favorite thing in the world, because I felt that if I couldn’t make the images in my head come alive on the page in the same way that I saw them in my minds eye then I just wasn’t an artist and I should give up. I watched my father and grandfather draw beautifully intricate doodles, I saw my younger brother growing quickly in his talent (which he hid from most, while he was young) and I knew I just couldn’t compare. I loved art so much that I would look at the amazing drawings of my favorite artists and convince myself that I could never be that good. In truth I never tried. I never once took a class, I never once read a tutorial book. I never once spent time practicing a technique. This is just one example of many, many instances where I allowed the monster to stop me from trying something that could have been fun or a great experience all because I was sure that I couldn’t do it perfectly… I wasn’t afraid of failure, I knew it wouldn’t be abject failure but I also knew I couldn’t do it perfectly and so I quit while I was a ahead.
For Little Man, two years in speech for stuttering when excited were more harmful than helpful. Both of his speech teachers were amazingly kind and helpful, encouraging him with love and working with him to become more fluent. Both agreed that his brain simply moved too fast for his mouth and that this was a sign of his intelligence. He saw it differently. He instantly realized that his repetition of syllables, as he formulated his thoughts into words, wasn’t normal. He began stuttering more often, as a result of his own self induced pressure which caused even more frustration and tears. When we started homeschooling there was the option to procure speech services on our own but not only could we not afford them, we didn’t think they were a good fit for him. We consciously chose to stop doing speech and instead encouraged him to take his time to sort through his thoughts on his own. He still stutters when he gets excited and at times, depending on where we are, he gets visibly saddened. It is an instant reminder to him that he can’t do something the way he thinks he should.
Little Miss refuses to write. Little Man used to hate writing too but for him it was physical, his fine motor skills were weak and so it hurt to write very much, but Little Miss is very different. Tears well up in her eyes and anger lashes out at the mere mention of writing down any of her own thoughts. She loves workbooks. She loves copywork. She loves to draw and has the fine motor skills to do so for hours. The problem occurs when she has to figure out how to spell a word she hasn’t memorized yet. I have tried introducing her to phonetic spelling as is normal for kindergarteners and the thought of purposefully writing something that is wrong gets her angry. Throwing the paper across the room angry. Breaking pencils angry. Crying and yelling at the possibility of being so wrong. A conversation might go like this:
“Jo thats such an amazing story, why don’t you write it down for your journal?”
“Ok but can I draw all the pictures for the story?”
Three minutes later
“Mommy how do you spell farm?”
“Why don’t you try sounding it out? I think you can figure this one out because there is only one blend.”
“But then it might be wrong! I can’t do it! JUST TELL ME!”
“Alright lets do it together, Fff-AaaRrr-mmm, what letters did I use”
“Close but your missing a vowel, you did great, lets try once more ok”
“I told you I couldn’t do it! I can never do it! It will NEVER be right” followed by the ripping of her page or the throwing of her pencil.
It seems like such a mundane issue, something that I have never made a big deal of, something her brother used to struggle with too (and is completely developmentally appropriate for her age) and yet she demands absolute perfect the very first time, every single time. It makes it worse that this is the only area where she struggles. In general it boils down to anything that has to do with phonics but it is most prominent in her writing. She has no problem with getting a math problem wrong because the second I have her look at the problem she immediately sees her own mistake and fixes it without me saying anything. Writing, is an entirely other story.
There are a few things that we have done as a family to help everyone fend off the little bugger.
For Little Man, We have made it a point to tell him that he is not alone. His Grandfather and great grandfather also struggled with stuttering and they have both taken the time to tell him their stories. I let him listen to a TED talk with Megan Washington, an Australian singer who can separate her stutter from her professional voice. But above all, we have encouraged him to own his own voice. No matter how it comes out, no matter what he thinks it should sound like, own what it is, as it is. The result is that he is more confident in his own skin, more often. He still struggles, and he gets defensive but in comparison to what used to be… night and day!
With Little Miss we backed off. This is one of the reasons we choose to use child-led learning. We value the relationship over the concept. She will get it when she’s ready and as she gets more used to Phonics in general she will be more comfortable with how they work…in both reading and writing. We started the reading process because she wanted to read so badly, we have been following her lead this whole time and to me this shows that she is just not ready yet. There are other ways to write, there are other ways to get her stories written down and we have used those instead. Sometimes she dictates the story and watches me write it out underneath her drawings, other times I write what she says in highlighter and let her write it out on top in pen, still other times we write things on one sheet and she copies it on another. We find what works with minimal tears and focus on building relationships.
Then there are the more general ways we deal with perfectionism in our house.
– We listen to/watch Improvisational Jazz on youtube : The amazing thing about improv in any form is that there are no mistakes, or if you put it another way, the entire perfection of the show rests on your ability to make your mistakes in the grandest way possible.
– We look at professional art: Jackson Pollack, Dali, Picasso…even whole movements like Impressionism, cubism and pointillism are great ways of looking at how little mistakes can create beautiful masterpieces as long as you take a step back.
– We always watch the gag reel at the end of movies: because not only are they hilarious but I love how the actors always laugh at their own mistakes.
– When we are having a particularly rough time with perfectionism I always go to science: Science is filled with mistakes, even the scientific method is built upon the idea of failure. In science you learn nothing if your always right. The best inventions were born after years of failure or from complete accidents…hello penicillin.
-Our faith: It’s comforting to me to have a faith based on the concept that all humans have been screwing things up for Millenia…even when things are spelled out in front of us, humans still find a way to mess it up for everyone else.
Mistakes and failures help us to grow, teach us life lessons and make us stronger. Over my lifetime I’ve learned this to the extent that I can ironically write a post about Perfectionism, while dealing with perfectionism regarding this post and post it anyway. I am not perfect, I will never be able to claim that I have finished something to the extent that I believe I possibly should. My expectations are usually higher than my ability, and I know that my children have inherited this as well, but we are working on that…daily.
That little bugger still hangs out around here. The vampire that enjoys torturing us in such horrid ways will probably never be something I can completely get rid of, so instead we will learn how to repel it, fight it and remove it as quickly and painlessly as possible…like a tick.
This post is a part of the GHF Blog Hop on Perfectionism and other Gifted/2E Quirks