Perfectionism Paralyzes October 30, 2014 20:42

I presented at a conference this weekend.  I met many wonderful teachers and parents.  I will be addressing their questions here, so everyone can learn from their challenges.  My goal is to offer strategies teachers and parents can add to their backpacks before they need them.

Questions:  How do I deal with a perfectionist?

Dr. David Walsh stated, "There is difference between perfectionism and striving for excellence. Perfectionism is a profound fear of mistakes."

Embracing mistakes as indicators that there might be a better way or a better answer is not an indicator that one is not smart enough. In fact, making mistakes and learning from them by changing what didn't work is smart!

Strategy: Evaluate mistakes and decide, "What can I do next time to avoid this mistake?' Ask yourself, "What did I learn from this mistake?" Then celebrate the learning opportunity.  Parents: Shift your review of mistakes from over reacting to the mistake to celebrating the opportunity it offers.

Three weeks into her freshman year, I received a distressed call from my daughter.  "I don't belong here.  I am not smart enough to be here." Once she settled down, I was able to determine that the she was judging her ability to manage college life by one event.

To help this make sense, let me give you a little background. After taking AP courses in high school, my high achieving daughter decided to attend an honors college on the opposite side of the country. She had gained confidence taking the AP courses, so she felt prepared for this big change. To help herself adjust to the new environment, she retook Psych 101 even though she could have opted out of it.  The first week the professor assigned a small paper on a topic she had researched in high school. So, in hopes of building a relationship early on in the class, she visited the professor to ask if he would look at her paper and see if she was on the right track. The professor was impressed and returned the paper the next day riddled with red pen.  This devastated her. She was certain the paper would be returned with rave reviews, because this same paper got an "A" from her high school AP Psychology instructor. She judged her ability to manage the class by the criticism of this professor. I shared another way of looking at it.  "You do belong there.  Your high school teacher was looking for one thing from your paper. This professor is looking for another. He just handed you back an "A" paper.  Go do the research and give him what he wants. If you handed  that paper to sixteen different professors, you'd get sixteen different types of corrections.  So go give this professor what he wants." 

Not only did that make her feel better, it taught her a way to make sure she is on the right track for each of her future professors.  

Lesson One: Asks instructors to look at your papers a few days before they are due to see if you are on the right track.  The feedback from each professor will be different.  The only one you want correcting your paper is the person who will be grading you. 

I once heard a student stay, "I read the text book and research the topic of each class I take before the class, so I will be able to answer the instructors questions and know what is going to happen in the class."  This student shared she was fearful of being called upon and not knowing the answer.

Another student shared how getting anything less than an "A" on a paper was unacceptable because she was bright and that was the expectation. She struggled with turning in papers in fear that they would return with something less than the expected "A."

Many students feared asking questions in class because they feared being dropped from a college class.  They had a common misconception. They believe questions are an indicator they are not smart enough for the class. This is inaccurate. The truth is, professors want their students to ask questions so they can be sure they are being clear.  It's impossible to teach the same way year after year without questions. 

Next Blog Topics: Cheating and Overcoming Boredom