Let’s talk about the “p” word… PERFECTIONISM! Does this word describe anyone at your house? It comes up all the time in my work as an art therapist.
This might be because perfectionism and anxiety often go hand in hand. This means that children who experience high levels of anxiety often also have very high expectations of themselves, and struggle to tolerate mistakes in themselves (and others). If a task isn’t going well, the child’s experience of anxiety increases. Or if a task seems like it will be challenging, the child experiences anxiety just thinking about it.
Anxiety and perfectionism are both connected to our relationship with control. Anxiety reminds us of how little control we have, and tries to get us to grab onto control wherever we can find it. Perfectionism is about controlling the outcome of a task or a situation – either by working at it until it’s completed perfectly (to prove our mastery), or by avoiding it altogether so we don’t have to risk imperfection (and we preserve our sense of mastery).
Neither of these options are great. Because being a human in this world means that many things are messy, out of our control, and imperfect.
When perfectionism shows up for kids, it may mean that they keep working on something while becoming increasingly frustrated. They have a difficult time stepping away, taking a break, or accepting a result that doesn’t match their expectation. These kiddos cry over their homework until late at night, crumple their drawings over and over again, or feel devastated if they don’t get a good mark on a test. Despite reassurance from caring adults, they may really struggle to let things go. Telling them “It’s no big deal!” doesn’t seem to help. I can relate – I was one of these kids!
On the other hand, children who struggle with perfectionism may feel so uncomfortable with the idea of not getting it right that they may refuse to even attempt a task in the first place. These kiddos tried to draw an airplane once, and when it didn’t look exactly like the photograph, they swore off of drawing forever. They won’t get on their bike because they feel afraid of falling in front of their friends. If the test contains a tricky question, they skip the whole section. These kiddos are incredibly skilled and talented! And watching them refuse opportunities can feel pretty frustrating.
Perfectionism can be like a pesky bug that makes so many situations feel unpleasant and challenging. And if you’re familiar with this challenge, you know that the perfection bug is PERSISTENT. Because it’s so persistent, pervasive, and vulnerable, perfectionism can be a difficult challenge to address directly. Many kids get really defensive about it.
So how do we approach perfectionism with kids?
As caring adults, I believe that the most helpful thing we can do is to acknowledge when we “mess up”, and show kids how we deal with it. This provides real life proof that it’s okay to not be perfect, that most mistakes are “fixable,” and that our performance is not at all linked with our worth.
If we tell children that it’s okay to make mistakes, but then they see that we demand perfection of ourselves and speak very harshly of ourselves when we mess up, this creates a mixed and dissonant message. And we know that children believe our actions more than our words. So it’s natural that they will expect us to respond to their mistakes in the same way that they see us responding to our own, no matter what we might say!
If this feels hard, I invite you to be so gentle with yourself. The process of noticing how we respond to our own mistakes, and considering how that might contrast with the messages we tell our kids, is incredibly powerful. Increasing our curiosity and awareness around this can lead to “aha” moments and big shifts. It’s something we can all work on together, at every age and stage!
I’ll go first. This blog post is “perfectly” timed, because it offers me an opportunity to practice accepting imperfection. You may (or may not) have noticed that I did not write a blog post last month. April 2021 is the first month I have not created at least one new post since I started this blog in February 2019. Now, a month is missing in my perfect blog archive history. This might sound small, but it’s been really hard for me!
And guess what? It turns out that it’s totally okay. These past few months my time, energy, and attention have been required elsewhere. I’ve realized that there are so many things that are more important than a perfect posting schedule or email campaign. And as difficult as it was to accept, now that there’s an imperfection added into the mix, it actually feels really expansive and freeing.
Another great way to challenge perfectionism and model new responses is to read children’s books together about this! I love using children’s books in my art therapy sessions. As I explain in this blog post, reading a story can be a great way to share ideas about an emotionally challenging topic. The story offers some safety and separation from the emotional content, allowing children to connect with a message that may otherwise make them feel defensive.
So today I’m sharing three awesome books that help to model how we can challenge perfectionism both in art making, and in life. I hope you’ll enjoy learning about them, and that they might bring some playful hope and inspiration to your little perfectionist.
1 – “Beautiful Oops!” by Barney Saltzberg
First up is “Beautiful Oops” by Barney Saltzberg. This is one of my all-time favourite books. It shares the message that “mistakes” are opportunities to learn, invitations to explore, and inspiration for art.
As an art therapist I love these ideas. I use this book with kiddos to explore our relationship with perfectionism, and to talk about our inner critic.
This book is also a great starting point to explore how we respond when things don’t go according to our plan. This happens all the time in the art process!
We can’t always control what happens, but we get to choose our reaction. We can usually find a way to work with a “mistake,” if we see it as an opportunity rather than a failure. What incredible practice for life outside of the art room too!
For me, making magic out of messes is a very hopeful activity.
I feel inspired to create every time I open this lovely book, and I hope you will too! 💛
2 – “The Book of Mistakes” by Corinna Luyken
“The Book of Mistakes” reminds me of “Beautiful Oops.” Building on a similar concept with more subtlety, complexity, and detail, “The Book of Mistakes” is well suited for an older kid audience. It gives readers a glimpse into the very real and messy creative process. Author and illustrator Corinna Luyken shares her step-by-step journey of creating a magical fantastical drawing. She shares how some parts were a mistake, and other parts definitely were not a mistake.
Even when a mistake happens, the creator finds inspiration in the mistake. Rather than giving up or throwing away the drawing, she finds a way to work with the mistakes. In the end, the mistakes allow the character to become who she is.
This book is visually stunning, and the message works on so many levels. It has inspired some amazing conversations in the art room about the creative process, perfectionism, the power of the inner critic, the process of becoming, learning from mistakes, and practicing self love.
3 – “Ish” by Peter H. Reynolds
Finally, if you don’t already know it, please allow me to introduce you to the power of “ish”!
Peter Reynolds tells the story of Ramon, who loves to draw the world around him. But one day, someone laughs at his drawing. This plants a seed that his drawings don’t look right. Ramon tries and tries to create the perfect drawing, crumpling each “failed” attempt.
Meanwhile, Ramon’s little sister has been collecting these discarded doodles. When she shows Ramon her gallery, Ramon gets to see his creations from her perspective. While his drawing doesn’t look exactly like a vase of flowers, it looks vase-ish!
This opens up a whole new world of freedom and creativity! Ramon rediscovers the joy of drawing and self-expression, now that he has released himself from the goal of perfection.
I absolutely love this story. It reflects the immense power we have when we witness someone else’s self-expression. We have the power to discourage and criticize, or to encourage and appreciate. This story also demonstrates how a simple reframe can change everything. By shifting our goal from perfection and allowing ourselves permission to explore, we unlock immense creative potential.
I’m so grateful for my friend and colleague Brianna Kestle who introduced me to this story. She also one day reflected back to me that my drawing style is “scribbly.” For me, this had the same freeing and encouraging effect as Ramon being told that his drawing was vase-ISH. Acknowledging and embracing my scribbly drawing style has given me the confidence to draw anything and everything, in the most perfectly imperfect way. (Check out my carnation-ish scribble below.)
Challenging Perfectionism in Art Therapy
If kiddos are really struggling with perfectionism, art therapy can be a fantastic modality for working on this challenge. As these children’s books demonstrate, art making naturally provides so many opportunities to face and challenge perfectionism. And when art is made in the context of art therapy, the art therapist is there to support and guide kiddos when that perfection bug shows up!
In art therapy, we take a unique approach to art making where there’s no such thing as a mistake. Art therapists understand every creation as a form of self expression. There’s no right or wrong way to make art within the context of a therapy session. The only “rules” are about keeping ourselves and others safe. There are no “grades” assigned or critiques given. The value of the art is in its ability to help the child share something about their experience.
I explain this framework to children before they ever pick up a pencil in the art room. It offers permission to explore, and an invitation to try a low-stakes kind of art making.
But it’s only a matter of time before the perfection bug buzzes in. Inevitably we will be working on an art task, and something doesn’t go as planned. This is a great example of how what happens in an art therapy session can be an opportunity to work on therapeutic goals and to practice new skills or strategies in the moment. Kids say their self talk out loud. So I also get to hear what the perfection bug says to them. It usually sounds something like “I can’t do this! I’m so stupid. I’ll never get it.” And then the drawing is crumpled, the playdoh sculpture is smashed, the line is erased. Now we have a chance to stop, reflect on what just happened, and explore some different options.
The picture books above offer inspiration for me and my little clients as we experiment with different responses. What if the airplane could be airplane-ish? What if the paint splatter can add a fun unexpected element to the scene? Oh, the freedom and possibilities!
To learn more about how art therapy can support kids to challenge perfectionism, please feel free to send me a message.
As I sign off until next month (maybe! 😉), here’s my challenge for you: what can you create “ish-ly” today?
Written by Rubi Garyfalakis, DTATI, RP, RCAT