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Perfectionism is Shooting Yourself in the Foot

Updated: Jul 14, 2018

The number of children I know who seem riddled with perfectionism astounds me.

High performers, average performers, lower than average performers – it doesn’t matter. In truth, almost everyone seems to have some perfectionism in them, especially in our culture.

I was well into adulthood – no, I was late into adulthood — before I realized I had a perfectionistic streak in me. In my case, I was blinded to it because the people around me had bigger ones.

We could ask, what’s wrong with perfectionism? It motivates us to do our best. It helps us attain our goals, become successful adults. But I beg to differ.

My problem with perfectionism relates to the language that accompanies it-the must or should vs. the want. When we tell ourselves or others tell us we must do something or we should do something and we fail, the fallout can be tremendous.

I must get into this college. I must get an A. I must get an A to get into this college. I must finish my to do list… tonight.

If we don’t accomplish any number of goals like these and use the words must or should, the picture often isn’t pretty.

We make huge assumptions, the predominant one being we ARE utter failures and will never succeed if we don’t do our musts or shoulds. In fact, we will never have a good relationship, never make money, never support ourselves. There are hordes of other dire consequences our brains fabricate if we don’t do our shoulds and musts.


I often tell children the words mustand should are not allowed in my room.

I explain by asking them to pretend they love basketball and to tell themselves they must get on the basketball team. But when the results come back they learn that they didn’t make the cut. Then I ask them how they would feel. They fess up immediately, always with the same word: bad. Some indicated they would give up. Success was hopeless.

I follow up by asking them how they would feel if instead they told themselves they wanted or desired or were even eager to get on the basketball team but then weren’t selected. Their language is varied, but the essence is always the same: they would feel fine. They might feel disappointed, but they always said they could practice more and try out again the next year.

Language is important. The words we use affect how we think. How we think affects how we feel about ourselves. How we feel about ourselves affects how and what we learn and this affects our entire lifes. Depending on the words we tell ourselves, we create a vicious downward spiraling cycle or a confident upward spiraling cycle.


To help my students combat this should/must thinking, I ask them 4 questions I’ve adapted from cognitive therapy. I apply them to the must and should thoughts and the ensuing assumptions.  Assumptions like the one concerning getting on the basketball team: I should have gotten on the team. I didn’t so I’m a bad basketball player. I will never become a good basketball player. I will never get on a team, etc.

The four questions are:

Is it factual? Is it factual I should have gotten on the team?Is it logical? Is it logical to think that I’m a bad basketball player?Is it provable? Is it provable I will never become a good basketball player?Does believing this make me feel happy?

If the answer is NO to all four questions, then I ask them for the reason they still believe the way they do. They usually look blankly at me and mutter, “I don’t know.” I tend to rub it in. “Well, if you don’t know the reason you believe that way, maybe there isn’t one.  Maybe it’s time to give up that belief.” Sometimes I ask them to draw a picture of themselves without that belief.

Then I show them the Michael Jordan quote and ask them what would have happened if he had given up after he was rejected from his high school basketball team.

We as adults may also want to ask ourselves these 4 questions when we hear the words must and should uttered from our lips. When I ask them, I more easily recognize my own perfectionism, and this benefits me and those around me, including children.*

Perfectionism is a form of self abuse.”

—  Marshall Rosenberg

*Byron Katie has developed a program of self-awareness based on four related questions.

“How we communicate affects our joy of being alive.” – Linda

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