How to reward a perfectionist without destroying their lives
5 messages all students must hear before being recognized.
As a student, I always doubled checked my exams.
I was the kid who studied for hours the night before, memorized until my brain couldn’t hold anymore, and then stayed way past other students during exam time. I would literally take the exam twice, sometimes three times, to make sure everything was perfect.
I received many affirmations from my teachers. They saw my hard work and kindly rewarded me for it.
I saw a pattern and went with it:
Step 1. Work extremely hard.
Step 2. Get noticed and appreciated by teachers.
Step 3. Decide to work harder next time.
On the surface, my life seemed perfect, but it was that perfection that turned into one of the darkest storms of my life.
The Downside of Perfect
After ninth grade, I had straight A’s and over a 4.0 GPA.
I didn’t give myself room for error. I became deeply sad and afraid.
I would judge myself harshly. As a result of my obsessive behavior, I would grab on to certain thoughts about myself and the world around me and would not let them go.
The odd thing was, my perfectionism was inconsistent. My room was a wreck, but the most important areas of my life at the time had to be perfect: my spiritual life, my grades, and my behavior.
I could not keep up with the stress.
I would go home and sleep for hours right after school just to escape the pain of imperfection and obsession. It was a hard time full of worry and tears for my family.
After months of battling my thoughts, I was clinically diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.
Every night I would go to the medicine cabinet, put my “Happy Pill” in my hand and think, “Here’s another pill for the crazy kid….”
I have never felt so alone.
I had the best parents in the world (parents who were wise enough to seek help when I needed it). I had many amazing school teachers. These are the teachers who saw a calling in me and encouraged me along the way. They are a large part of the reason that I teach today. However, perfectionism is a tough battle to fight.
It was the perfection cycle that drove me to depression. Even after receiving help and healing, it was these same tendencies that continued into my adult life. Employers would take advantage my perfectionism. Even with good intentions, they would overload me with work because I always said, “Yes”.
Are Educators Contributing?
It is tempting as an educator to want to give preference or favoritism to students who always turn in excellent work. However, as a recovering perfectionist myself, I can say that teachers also need to be cautious when dealing with perfectionist students.
Here are some inner battles your “perfect” students are dealing with:
- Perfectionists live in the fear of rejection.
- Perfectionists feel their value is based on their ability to deliver results.
- Perfectionists live in a constant state of anxiety. It usually doesn’t manifest itself as full-on panic. It is a dull, but constant pain.
- Perfectionists are scared of error. It feels like a dark task master constantly looking over their shoulders.
As educators and parents, what do we do? Where is the balance?
The Right Way to Reward Excellence
Please don’t misunderstand me. Hard work SHOULD be rewarded.
However, if we play the tape forward, rewarding perfectionism THE WRONG WAY is a terrible thing. We are training those students to live in anxiety. We are teaching them to let people (even those with good intentions) exploit their desire to please.
I am a practical guy and wish I had a list of practical steps for this topic.
I don’t have that.
However, I can offer some messages that perfectionists must hear BEFORE they are rewarded for a job well done.
1. “It’s good to take risks.” — This is the best way to grow and achieve potential. Risk means that there might be errors along the way. That is ok. It is the bravery of trying something new that is important and beneficial.
2. “Be kind to yourself.” — We are all human. “Good enough” really is “Good enough.” — From Codependant No More by Melody Beattie
3. “You are valuable because you are YOU.” — Your value is not based on what you do or can achieve. You are simply valuable because you are God’s creation. That is more than enough reason to be loved.
4. “Failure is a good thing.” — Failing means that you now have more experience. You know more about a topic and have grown more in character because you failed. — More on Failure.
5. “You are deeply loved.” — You are loved unconditionally. As much as is in my capacity, I will always want the best for you, and I will fight for you. You don’t have to earn this. This love is free.
I want to be clear. Excellent work should be rewarded, but make sure it is accompanied by the above messages.
Encourage risk, creativity, and true failure in your classroom. Then freely and proudly award any student (even the perfectionists) who have done well.
…and if you mess up, don’t worry. No body is perfect! :)
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If you are breathing, you are an educator.
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