In order to successfully do something, like coach a perfectionist teacher, you need knowledge and skill—and your own emotional intelligence. I’ve written about this concept (the Gaps) here and here. So in order to coach a perfectionist teacher, you’ve got to know what perfectionism is, and then you need some skills to respond to this tendency, and then you need awareness of your own emotional experience in coaching a perfectionist. Therefore, because this is a big topic to unpack, this is the first of three blogs on coaching the perfectionist teacher. The next two blogs will come out this week!
What Is Perfectionism?
At the heart of perfectionism is a belief that, in order to be loved and accepted, we must strive to act and be the best all the time. Our very worth as a human being is tied to our perfection. The pursuit of perfection consumes a great deal of time and energy because every time we feel shame, blame, or criticism, our response is, I wasn’t perfect enough. So let me be more perfect next time.
- Get upset when someone else or life in general doesn’t measure up to how they think things “should” be
- Have uncompromising rules about how things should or must be
- Blame themselves and others for things that aren’t under their control or the control of others
- Think in black-and-white terms
- Quickly discount positives
- Are relentlessly hard on others and on themselves and hold rigidly high and unrealistic standards
- Use the word should a lot
- Claim they’re “not a perfectionist"—they just have high standards
Is Perfectionism an Emotion?
Perfectionism is not actually considered to be an emotion but, rather, a dysfunctional emotional tendency. It is one of the most challenging emotional tendencies to confront, but, left unchecked, it can be physically and emotionally damaging. Perfectionism has been associated with increased stress, physical health problems, mental-health issues, and a high risk of burnout.
If you suspect you’re a perfectionist, it’s worth getting some professional support to uncover the roots of this tendency. Perfectionism is about self-worth, and many perfectionists had childhood experiences that led them to doubt their self-worth.
The Dangers of Perfectionism
Here is why perfectionism is so dangerous: There is no such thing as perfect, at least among humans. We make mistakes, and without mistakes, we would have little chance to learn or grow or adapt to new situations. So perfectionists are always striving for the impossible, and when they inevitably fail, they experience a surge of difficult emotions—shame, inadequacy, fear, anger. These hurt the perfectionists as well as those around them.
Perfectionism shouldn’t be confused with a commitment to excellence and a strong work ethic. You can have tremendous energy, conscientiousness, and persistence and not be a perfectionist. Perfectionism is about seeking external validation, whereas healthy striving is all about internal drive. A healthy striver has high expectations and commits to a task while also making mistakes and knowing that those mistakes don’t indicate a personal flaw. A perfectionist’s sense of self-worth is overly tied to external praise and accomplishments.
Perfectionism is not a protective shield; rather, it stops someone from being seen. Brené Brown is an expert on perfectionism, and I highly recommend her TED Talk, books, and speeches.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of this series: Eleven Strategies to Coach the Perfectionist Teacher! Coming tomorrow.
The opinions expressed in The Art of Coaching Teachers are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.