Finding a balance
Karen Kasdin says she was obsessed.
When her oldest son, Dan, was on the verge of finishing high school, she wanted to make sure that he had the best chance of getting into a good school.
She read all the college manuals and she talked with guidance counselors. She tried to get her son to study for the SATs.
And it drove everyone around her nuts.
"This could have really ruined my relationship with my son," she says. "But luckily he has a sense of humor and knows how to deal with me."
Her drive to get her son into the "right" college led her to write her book, "Watsamatta U: A Get-A-Grip Guide to Staying Sane Through Your Child's College Application Process."
The drive for perfection, especially when it comes to academics, can be as competitive as an athletic contest. In an age when more students are applying for the same number of slots at colleges, the perceived need to have all A's and a resume full of extracurricular activities can be daunting. But even when the goals are smaller, day-to-day achievements such as finishing homework or simply socializing, perfectionism can become a handicap.
In his book, "Freeing Our Families From Perfectionism," Dr. Thomas S. Greenspon says a perfectionist is someone whose entire self worth is based on how they perform and how other people perceive them.
"It's one thing to push yourself and to do the best you can," Greenspon says, "It's another thing to feel that you have to do every single thing perfectly, otherwise you are not acceptable as a person. This isn't about being a workaholic."
He says that a perfectionist is someone who worries a lot and who feels the need to be in control of things, otherwise they won't turn out right. They also might be easily angered and can be hard on other people.
Perfectionism has no chemical root, he says, as do obsessive-compulsive disorders or anxiety. Perfectionism wouldn't even be classified as a "disorder" per se, since it is more like a constellation of personality traits.
"Perfectionism is a lot more complex," Greenspon says, "It's a deeply rooted, complex behavior."
Part of the problem, he says, is that our culture is one that likes to rank everything, like the best colleges, doctors, even television shows. He says that when we promote the idea that everything is either "in" or "out," values get placed in areas where there might be no objective way to measure them.
An example of this would be choosing a college.
"The payoffs of getting into an Ivy League school are huge, but there are still people who think that if they don't get into one, then what's the use of going?"
Kasdin says she feels a lot of this pressure has been brought on by the baby boomers, a generation that has achieved a lot of success and who often had immigrant parents who pushed them to take advantage of all this country offers. She says this group might also have the resources to offer their children a quality education.
But resources don't always equate success, and success doesn't always translate into going to an Ivy League school, Kasdin says. She blames what she calls "sticker lust," the desire to have prestigious college decals on the back of your car, as one of the driving forces behind all the madness surrounding getting into college.
Kasdin says it's one thing to encourage an interest in a child, like music or sports, but she has learned that they don't have to pursue several interests all at once and be great at all of them.
"I say that if your child gets up every morning and goes someplace where they feel good, then you've done your job," she says.
Greenspon says the best way to deal with perfectionism and the rigid idea that things are either "right" or "wrong" is to first identify the behavior.
From there, he says to look into ways to change the way a person thinks about their goals and the way they view themselves. He says that often, perfectionist behavior is rooted in experiences within the family.
"A lot of times it is a self-esteem issue," Greenspon says. "By the time I see them I like to know how they got that way and then find way to change the behavior, which you can. I like to think of it as reworking the software."
By changing their thinking and setting more realistic goals, parents and students should be able to control their impulses and learn to be at peace with their decisions and accomplishments in life.