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The Perfect Child: Cases of Perfectionism and Performance

Written by: Lane Gormley, EdS, LPC, NCC
(* Clients are never identified by their real names.)

Simona S. was the middle child and only daughter of a mother, Laura, who needed to prove something to herself. Laura had a difficult time in her teenage years and early adulthood, resulting in a lack of confidence and self-esteem. If tiny Simona were a “star”, Laura came to believe, then she would be a success at motherhood if nothing else.

Simona was, in fact, a gifted child whose astounding report cards went into the loose-leaf notebook her mother kept to document her progress. She was also an early writer and poetess whose works became part of that same record of excellence. Most importantly, at least as far as Laura was concerned, Simona”s unusual talent for dance often placed her at center stage. The aura of the young Prima Ballerina in her tutu and sparkling tiara made Laura feel as though she, too, were in the spotlight.

As Simona finished high school, it was important to Laura that her daughter succeed in the rigorous application process required to enter a top university – which Simona dutifully did. Everything seemed to be going well until a variety of family stressors – the loss of a business, an older son wounded in active combat, and the disintegration of the marriage – shattered the family”s stability. Not even Simona”s perfection could save their home and unity. Simona was fragile as she entered the university and promptly dropped out. It was at this time that she became my Client.

In therapy, Simona was sad. She had worked so long and so hard, and for what? She had been the Perfect Child… Or had she? If she had really been perfect, Simona unconsciously believed, she could have saved her family, her parents” marriage, and her mother”s happiness. Couldn”t she??

Lisa J., a Client in marriage counseling, echoed Simona”s need to succeed for reasons other than interest in her studies and joy in her abilities: I knew my father loved me; but I also knew that if I made perfect grades, he would love me just a little bit more.

Jacquelyn S. came to marriage counseling with her husband when she found that she was simply unable to get over his one-night stand with a woman he met after getting drunk on a business trip. Her husband was stricken by what he had done, and he had immediately told her about his error. But… Jacquelyn could not move on. In therapy, she remembered a childhood spent trying to be the Perfect Child in order to avoid her father”s criticism. She had succeeded. She had, in fact, been his favorite child. In session, I asked her, “Does part of you blame yourself for Dave”s mistake? Does part of you think that if only you had been perfect, the perfect wife creating the perfect marriage, this would not have happened?”. Jacquelyn burst into tears.

These Clients and many like them believe, at some level, that they have to be perfect. They often assume responsibility for everything that goes on around them, and they attribute any mishap, snafu, contretemps, flub-up, error, or accident to some failure on their part.

Perfectionism is often rooted in a child”s quest for love. If making an A, playing the piano in a recital, or dancing brings a smile to Mommy”s face, then the child begins to perform in order to win that smile. Personal achievement for the joy of learning and doing is subverted. It ceases to be an aspect of growth and development and becomes an exercise in trying to earn what should be the child”s birthright – her parent”s love. That child might spend years in joyless achievement and come to wonder, as an adult, how she could have achieved so much and still feel so empty. That adult may come to therapy to answer that question.

There are other reasons for perfectionism. Steven F., one of my Clients in an inpatient crisis unit, said in group, “My stepfather hated me. He always told me what a loser I was and how I would never amount to anything. Just to see the look on his face when I got into Harvard was worth all the effort I put into high school. The whole time I was in college, I knew that every A I made was a nail in his coffin.”. It was sheer hatred that made Steven so perfect at his studies, sheer rage that made him succeed, and the sheer emptiness of all his achievements that made him, at the age of 24, attempt suicide.

There are two types of perfectionism. One type is called maladaptive perfectionism. It is the type of perfectionism that sends my Clients to the hospital. “If I can”t be perfect, then I do not deserve to live. If I am not perfect, then I am not worthy of love. I am a loss to myself and to others.”

Adaptive perfectionism is somewhat happier. An adaptive perfectionist tries to be perfect with the clear understanding that perfection is not, or not often, possible. I am going to do this as perfectly as I can, but the outcome is not in my hands. Many world class athletes and musicians are adaptive perfectionists. As long as the adaptive perfectionist has an arena in which to try to excel, he or she can be happy. When they have climbed all the mountains, however, they can become restless and frustrated.

When people come to therapy with perfectionist issues or symptoms, it is helpful to look into the past. It is important for such Clients to understand why they have such a strong need to be perfect. I will discuss with them the risks we run when we try to be something we cannot be; and they can learn how to temper, or mitigate, perfectionism so that it can become more of an asset and less of a danger to mental and physical health.

To end on a happy note, Simona S. worked hard in therapy to understand and to accept that she does not have to be perfect for her mother or anyone else. She has a high grade point average at the university to which she returned when she – not her mother – decided it was what she wanted. Jacquelyn S.”s marriage healed when she came to see that she is only responsible for her half of the marriage, including her ability to love and forgive David.

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