Three myths your perfectionist believes

A six-year-old with two braids down her back sits in a classroom quietly. She wields a pair of scissors as she trims her activity page. It’s DARE time and the class has been instructed to cut out a grid of six square pictures. She’s so focused on the task she doesn’t notice she is the only one still working. A brief reprimand and sigh from the teacher compel her to hustle, and a little piece of her dies inside as she sacrifices quality for finishing the cut and glue assignment. Instead of cutting across the grid lines like her classmates, she had been cutting out each individual box, inside the lines, so the thick, grainy ink wouldn’t show unevenly in each picture. It was a top priority, for her at least.

It’s been several decades since I was that first grader, but this is a memory I’ve recalled many times as I work with kids inside and outside my home. Perfectionism has sent me through some challenges over the years, and I hear so many parents lament their child’s perfectionist tendencies. These habits are not efficient, not productive in the moment, and often lead to tears. I have some ideas I’d like to share in a series regarding this popular topic, and I thought I’d start with the perfectionist’s point of view.

What are they doing right?

There are many strengths that come out of perfectionism. Perfectionists take pride in their work and are internally driven. They show prudence when things go awry and when they slow down it’s because they care. They have a willingness to manage tedium that makes other people cringe. But all these potential strengths a perfectionist may have are sometimes masked by fear and thus frozen. No action happens when a perfectionist is overwhelmed by the myths she is believing.

Myth one: Learning means knowing the right facts right now.

Perfectionists may reduce the complexity of learning into two categories: known and unknown. The unknown is off in some murky, magical potion bubbling over the fire. Someone may tell (teach) you what’s in the cauldron, and if you cannot remember, then you don’t know it and probably never will. This is called a fixed mindset and when kids subconsciously adhere to it, they are working off the assumption that their intelligence is something determined at birth. Why bother learning if there are certain things that are just always going to be out of reach?

Reality: Learning is not about knowing a discrete set of facts. I remember feeling bewildered in math when I was young. It wasn’t until I was a Junior at Ohio State that I finally realized math is much more than procedural knowledge. It’s about reasoning, finding patterns, making predictions and testing them. It’s as much about discovering as it is knowing! Someone with a growth mindset sees the mysterious cauldron bubbling over with unknown knowledge and they grab a spatula to give it a good stir and see what’s inside. They believe that unknown things can become known because their intelligence can grow.

Myth two: My achievement creates my worth.

Perfectionists love the attention they get for the high quality work they produce. They take pride in it and positively glow when their loved ones express pride, too. They begin to believe that this love and attention is only linked to their achievement. So when they encounter challenges they feel compelled to hide. They hesitate to ask clarifying questions and reveal that they are not naturally adept or skilled at something.

Reality: I know you’ll agree with me emphatically when I say my children’s worth is not attached to their achievement! But maybe you need to hear that, too? I know I am much more generous about reminding others about this than telling it to myself. Your identity and worth are so much more than what you achieve.

Myth three: I am alone in my struggle.

I remember being in advanced math courses and marveling at how easy it seemed for all my classmates. Today social media validates that instinct I have to believe the same thing about other families having it all together. When a perfectionist is faced with a challenge they assume they are the only one, and that there must be something wrong with them if they can’t do it as easily as everybody else.

Reality: Everyone is fighting their own battles! Sometimes there is overlap, and sometimes not, but even the most confident, intelligent, well-adjusted people have fears and insecurities they face.


Rewarding your child with treats or “good job” for trying may yield results now, but it will not change the way they think about learning. Taking time to go slow and uncover deep seated beliefs, expose them as untrue, and rehabilitate that thinking – that is what will equip your child to face failure with confidence and resilience. More on how to do that coming very soon!

Up next in the growth mindset series: Three truths your perfectionist can learn. Read about three ideas that will help your kiddo become more resilient over time.