Another Slant on Perfectionism

I can remember back in the late ‘70s when there was a push on for parents to enroll their child into a top-notch pre-school program in anticipation of their one day attending a top-notch college. I was working in a school system at the time with a group of other professionals who were evaluating learning disabilities in children from kindergarten to sixth grades. My role was to work with the parents in order to determine what role the family had in explaining the child’s learning problems. It was a Federal project requiring research to be done after seven years of operation. Interestingly, our research found that in over 70% of the cases studied, the family was found to be the #1 factor in explaining disabilities in children with especial emphasis on the emotional aspects of their parenting as well as certain pressures that may have been exerted.

I remember wondering back then what it would be like in 30 or 40 years. Well, I’m still around to be able to answer that question for myself. What prompted this writing was an article that appeared in the July 23rd, 2010 issue of The Week. On page 22 of that magazine there was a small article entitled “Postpartum perfectionism.” The article focused on new mothers who are overly concerned about being the “perfect parent” as being more at risk for postpartum depression.

“Researchers at York University in Canada surveyed 100 first-time mothers and found a much higher rate of postpartum depression among women who hoped to live up to the expectation that they’d be perfect parents.” Furthermore, it found that “the link between  postpartum depression and perfectionism was strongest among women who’d never admitted they were scared or overwhelmed, and always acted as if everything was fine.” A psychologist named Gordon Flett commented that this pattern has to do with people not being able to tell others when they are doing badly. He concludes: “Hey, you haven’t got a lot of experience with this; you don’t need to be perfect, just do your best.”

Nevertheless, don’t you see, the best isn’t good enough! In my work with people of all age groups in all different roles in life, the problem of believing that one needs to be perfect is a resounding pattern that is repeated over-and-over again. Contrary to most beliefs, many people who tend to flounder in their roles are not lazy or unmotivated as one might think. Instead, these individuals oftentimes become burned out trying to be perfect and just quit giving the impression that they are failing. I remember working with a beautiful child who was nine years of age who was being labeled lazy and resistant to learning by her teachers. Indeed, that was not the case. The outstanding example of her need for perfection can be cited in her inability to withstand making a mistake and correcting it on a piece of paper by erasure or whatever else. Instead, she would crumble the paper up and throw it into the wastebasket and filling it every night as she did her homework. I worked intensively with her, taught her to use some relaxation methods and within about three months, she climbed from a “D” average to an “A”. I should add that when she had achieved her goal, I severely admonished her teacher who was a very rigid perfectionist herself.

Running the risk of being repetitious, I have written several articles on perfection. I really don’t consider that to be a tendency toward redundancy but more a matter of how important this particular topic really is. Sitting in my chair now as a personal consultant and for over 40 years as a psychotherapist, I’ve witnessed the intense emotional damage this pattern has wreaked on people … children and adults alike.

I’ve been privy to the process indirectly ending marriages, creating delinquency patterns in adolescents, being a major contributor to depression and suicidal tendencies and creating rifts in parent-child and family relationships. It is an insidious process that creates a toll that is sometimes irreversible and disastrous. I believe the basic first step is to step back, honestly assess whether an individual is into the pattern, and then take steps to relax the rigid standards and expectations that result. As with all other emotional issues, the sooner one is able to accomplish that, the better. The longer the pattern exists, the more serious the damage becomes.


Both as a consultant and author, Charles Bonasera’s story-telling have motivated people to change patterns and resolve problems in their lives. All of his books contain valuable, practical lessons that people can easily apply to bettering and managing their lifestyles. He has also written a myriad of articles which can be found on his website at www.charlesmbonasera.com.

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