Parents often reach out to me to ask how they can support their perfectionist children, who can’t seem to cope with failure. I’ve been on the lookout for someone to talk with us for a while, but just as with our episode on anxiety, it took quite some searching to find an expert who doesn’t take a behaviorist-based approach – meaning that if the behavior is fixed, the problem is fixed too.
I was really glad to find today’s guest, Dr. Paul Hewitt, who is a Professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of British Columbia. Dr. Hewitt has spent decades researching perfectionism and recently received the Donald O. Hebb award for his distinguished contributions to psychology as a science by the Canadian Psychological Association. He is currently doing research on the treatment of perfectionism, and trains clinicians in the treatments of perfectionistic behavior. In this interview, he tells us what we know about perfectionism, what we still don’t know, and how to help our children who have perfectionist tendencies.
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Hi, I’m Jen and I host the Your Parenting Mojo Podcast. We all want our children to lead fulfilling lives. But it can be so hard to keep up with the latest scientific research on child development and figure out whether and how to incorporate it into our own approach to parenting. Here at Your Parenting Mojo, I do the work for you by critically examining strategies and tools related to parenting and child development that are grounded in scientific research and principles of respectful parenting. If you’d like to be notified when new episodes are released and get a FREE Guide to 7 Parenting Myths That We Can Safely Leave Behind, seven fewer things to worry about. Subscribe to the show at YourParentingMojo.com. You can also continue the conversation about the show with other listeners in the Your Parenting Mojo Facebook group. I do hope you’ll join us.
Hello, and welcome to the Your Parenting Mojo Podcast. Today we’re going to look at a topic that bubbles up fairly often in online parenting groups, and that’s related to perfectionism. The typical post goes something like this, my child starts an activity but as soon as something doesn’t go exactly the way they hope to maybe a crayon wasn’t the color they wanted, or they extended a mark too far on the paper. Or they got an answer wrong on a quiz for school. They screw up the paper in a ball and throw it away. And when this happens on a regular basis, it just seems debilitating. How can I help my child to overcome this now while they’re still young, so it doesn’t have a big impact on their life?
And I was actually in the library a while ago looking for books on another topic for another podcast episode and right next to the one I was there to get was an edited volume on perfectionism. And inside was an essay by our guest today Dr. Paul Hewitt. And when I read that essay, and I delved into his body of work, I knew he was exactly the right guest to speak with us.
Dr. Hewitt works mostly with adults. But just as we learned when we covered anxiety a few months ago, it can be really difficult to find someone to interview who doesn’t just focus on treating the symptoms of the problem, and instead goes beneath the symptoms to understand the real causes, which is what Dr. Hewitt’s work does so effectively. Dr. Hewitt is a professor of psychology, and a registered clinical psychologist who has conducted extensive research on the construct of perfectionism, which is the idea of what perfectionism actually is, and whether it’s harmful to people. He’s currently doing research on the treatment of perfectionism and trains clinicians in the treatment of perfectionistic behavior. Dr. Hewitt received his BA from the University of Manitoba, his M.A., and his PhD from the University of Saskatchewan, and he currently leads the Perfectionism and Psychopathology Lab at the University of British Columbia. In 2019, Dr. Hewitt received the Donald O. Hebb Award for Distinguished Contributions to Psychology as a Science for his work on perfectionism.
Welcome, Dr. Hewitt.
Dr. Hewitt 02:58
Thank you very much.
All right. So let’s start with definitions because it seems as though this should be kind of an easy thing to do, right to define what perfectionism is, but the more you start poking at it, the more you realize it’s a pretty nebulous concept. So, can you please tell us how you define perfectionism?
Dr. Hewitt 03:15
You’re right it on first blush, it feels like something that should be fairly straightforward. And indeed, a lot of people in the literature, treat it as something that’s very simple, straightforward – cognitions, or thoughts or attitudes – in reality, I’ve spent about 35 years doing research and clinical work with people with problems with perfectionism, and my definition has evolved over the decades. At this point, I couldn’t really think of perfectionism as a really complex, sort of multi-dimensional, multi layered personality style. So, it’s like a character style that people have that really serves a fundamental purpose for individuals.
Dr. Hewitt 04:00
So, it’s, again, it’s an ingrained, stable kind of personality style that people have. So, it’s very generally, you know, we got, we got very specific in terms of what that might entail, and maybe I can work my way through that.
That would be great. Thank you.
Dr. Hewitt 04:18
One of the ways to think about perfectionism is that people – children, adults, adolescents, seniors – will have a requirement of perfection that is, some will need themselves, they’ll require themselves to be perfect, or they will require other people to be perfect, or both. And when we talk about what we’ve talked about the need to be perfect, we talk really about perfectionism traits.
Dr. Hewitt 04:49
Actually, before I go any further, let me let me state this. The conceptualization that I’ve put together with my colleagues over the years has not come just from research or from reading in the literature. It’s come from working with patients and it’s come from working with people and my patients over the years have taught me what perfectionism is. So, this whole aspect of my work has really fueled everything that I do from the models we’ve created to the treatment that we’ve developed to the understandings.
Dr. Hewitt 05:23
So, we can go back to this need to be perfect. We talk about perfectionism traits, and traits are personality characteristics that we have that are stable, they are long standing, they’ve been there for a long time, often, most of our lives. They don’t change very easily. And we’ve talked about perfectionism traits. And these traits, these perfectionism traits, drive and energies, perfectionistic behavior.
Dr. Hewitt 05:55
So, it’s these traits that drive first off the need to be perfect. And there’s three ways that we’ve talked about people needing to be perfect. The first, we’ve just called self-oriented perfectionism, meaning, I need me to be perfect, I have the requirement that I have to attain perfection. And so that’s one element. It’s kind of what everybody thinks about when we talk about perfectionism. There’s another element whereby individuals don’t, I don’t necessarily need me to be perfect, I need you to be perfect, or my children, or the other drivers on the road, or my wife, or my students or the world, in general, I need everybody else to be perfect. And I will be harsh and critical of those people when they’re not perfect. In the same way, that when I have a requirement for myself to be perfect, I will be harsh and critical of myself.
Dr. Hewitt 06:53
There’s a third element. And this one really came from my clinical work, where it became clear that there were people who needed to be perfect, but it wasn’t arising from themselves, it wasn’t this intrinsic kind of need. It was more that other people require me to be perfect. And it’s the perception that other people require me to be perfect. Now that can be absolutely true. Or it can simply be a perception that’s not objectively accurate. But nevertheless, the person has that experience of their world where I am expected to be perfect. And that can come again, from spouses from your boss from the world in general, where a person feels like the expectation by others is that I need to be perfect. And those are the traits and they kind of drive. All of this need to be perfect.
Dr. Hewitt 07:51
So that’s one element of perfectionism. Another one that came out of my clinical work was not the need to be perfect. But the need to communicate to the world that I am perfect. So, you may know people that you had described, yeah, that person needs to be perfect, I can see them being really concerned with being perfect, or maybe even striving or driving to be perfect. I don’t know these other people who don’t necessarily strive and drive, or even concerned about striving, they are more concerned with communicating to everybody that I am perfect. There are certain politicians that exist in the world, for whom that rings very, very true.
Dr. Hewitt 08:37
So, there’s three ways that I can essentially appear perfect to you. One is I can communicate to you how perfect I am, I’ll tell you all kinds of things that I do, I might even show you something that I do incredibly well, I will promote myself as perfect in with the goal that you will then see me somehow as perfect. Another way to do that, and that’s by me kind of doing the opposite is I will conceal things from people, I will not show you any behavior that I exhibit that might be imperfect. So, I might have a concern with you’ll never see me public speak, for example, because if I speak publicly, I might falter. And you will then see an imperfection in me. And that is very aversive. So, there’s that element. There’s also and this is particularly pernicious one where I will not disclose or verbally reveal imperfections. And if you think about the establishment of intimate relationships, it’s all about this process of more and more kind of revealing truly who we are as people – perfections, imperfect and everything. You can see that there’s a whole domain of revealing of the stuff felt that this kind of perfectionism would really interfere. So, there’s that domain, you can start to see that we’re talking about a complex personalities found here. And that is in the interpersonal domain, that’s about how the perfectionism is expressed: interpersonal.
Dr. Hewitt 10:20
The third element that we focused on is more intrapersonal, that is within the individual. And the way I like to frame it is when we’re talking about needing to appear perfect to others, that is about the relationship one has with other people. The intrapersonal is about the relationship one has with oneself. And one of the ways best to capture that is we all have this internal dialogue that we have going on, not necessarily constantly, but a lot of the day. So, prior to this podcast, as I was getting ready, you know, I’m quiet, so my wife is there, she just sees me kind of doing whatever. But in my head, I’m doing okay, well, I’ve got 15 minutes, I got to make sure that I do this, I got to do that sort of thing and make sure my headphones are on. And it’s this simple dialogue that I have with myself. Often, it’s just something like that but sometimes it can be a dialogue that really reflects how the relationship I have with myself. So I could be us the self-statements, things I say to myself, Oh, I got a task, I’ve got to do this perfectly, I’ve got to make sure I don’t come across as silly or stupid, or flawed or defective or anywhere like that. It’s just dialogue. And if you think about that, if you had a partner that you were doing this podcast with, and you sent those words to your partner, okay, you got to do this perfectly, you got to make, it would cause real problems. And you probably wouldn’t have a partner for very long.
Dr. Hewitt 12:05
It’s very hostile and aggressive. And yet, so if we think of that the way we’re interacting with ourselves, it’s a very hostile and aggressive way of interacting with ourselves. We can also do things like after the podcast, we say, Oh how can I be so stupid, I can’t believe I said, after all these errors, I’m just horrible, I should quit this, I’ll never succeed. And these self-recriminations are self-critical element. Also, if you said that to a partner would be very abusive. And so, we can have this abusive relationship, we can also have a soothing self-congratulatory relationship with self-love for perfectionism, this relationship with self tends to be perfectionistic. As I said, I’ve got to do this perfectly, but also very harsh and critical.
Dr. Hewitt 12:57
So, we’ve got these three domains, three layers of perfectionism and perfectionistic behavior. And again, this is this is the truth is we’re very complex creatures. And it’s great to try to have simple models. But when the models sort of eliminate the humanness of people in all their complexity, it’s really not much help to us at all. That’s what we call a descriptive model of perfectionism. That’s how the group that I work with, that’s how we see perfection.
Dr. Hewitt 13:35
So yes, it’s broad.
It’s big, and it’s complicated. And so, this is really driven. I mean, the vast majority of your academic career, right? I mean, why is it so important to understand so much about perfectionism?
Dr. Hewitt 13:51
One, because as soon as people kind of hear about it, it very often resonates with them. They say, Oh, I understand that, oh, I can relate to that. Or I don’t know how many thousands of times I’ve given a talk both professionally and to the public. And people come up afterwards, all the time. And they’re often moved simply because I’ve described something that resonates.
Finally, somebody understands me.
Dr. Hewitt 14:18
That or now I understand, my beloved aunt, or my beloved father or grandparent where they want my sibling or my child. And so, it really kind of resonates with people first off, but also it’s important because when I first started this work, I was actually an undergraduate, third year undergraduate. And I discovered that people kind of written a little bit about nobody done any research. And there were these implications that might be associated with depression, and anxiety, and eating disorders, and this, that and the other thing, and nobody checked it out. So did some initial work and developed ways to kind of do that. Some research and then began a process of finding out what not only perfectionism was, but all these different components that we’ve talked about. That, what are they related to, and we just find a gain into that it’s related to all kinds of different problems, and problems in things that we might call psychological or psychiatric diagnosis, very significant relationship problems, very significant achievement problems, and very significant physical health problems, including a study that was done by a colleague of mine here in Canada, on early death, that perfectionism is associated with knowing your control some of the other death factors is predictive of earlier death. So, it’s important because it’s really associated with all kinds of difficulties for people. Now, there’s lots of reasons theories we have as to why that, why that might be and how that works, and that sort of thing. So, a big part of my research and many others across the world has been to try to figure out what are the problems with this personality style? And then how does it work? Ultimately, how do we help people with it?
Mm hmm. Yeah. Okay. So, it’s associated with a lot of negative things. But one idea that I’ve seen both in the literature and that I think parents have heard of, as well as this idea of positive perfectionism. And the first reference that I was able to find on it was back in 1978, and I kind of traced it through the literature a little bit, and found a definition in a paper from 1988, where the author’s described positive perfectionism, I’m going to quote, as cognitions and behaviors that are directed toward the achievement of certain high level goals to obtain positive consequences. That is positive perfectionism is driven by positive reinforcement and desire for success. And they actually described developing a positive and negative perfectionism scale that drew heavily on a model that you would develop. So, I’m wondering, can you talk us through your ideas about whether this idea of positive perfectionism exists?
Dr. Hewitt 17:11
Oh, no, it doesn’t.
Dr. Hewitt 17:15
From my perspective, there’s nothing positive about perfectionism. And there is within the field of perfectionism research, there’s somewhat of a controversy, although it’s becoming less and less of a controversy as we actually understand it more. The truth of it is, perfectionism is about perfecting the self, don’t define it as perfecting things like to make sure everything on my desk is perfectly aligned. That’s something entirely that’s obsessionalism, or compulsive behavior. Perfection is about having a sense of being defective, flawed, not good enough, there’s something wrong with me. And I don’t fit, I don’t, I’m not accepted. People don’t care for me, I get rejected, I’m abandoned, and so forth. And so the perfectionism the need to perfect the self is in service, of trying to repair, repair a defective self, and to find a place to feel accepted to find love, love, respect, which will be whatever interpersonal means the person has, when the behavior is driven by that there’s very little that’s positive that comes from it.
Dr. Hewitt 18:34
When you dig into what people call adaptive perfectionism, or positive perfectionism, what you’ll discover is people will have, for example, measures of it. And the word perfection will never show up. It will be, do you have high standards? Do you expect things, expect positive things? Do you try to attain really difficult goals? And I’m, from my perspective, that’s wonderful. That’s really important, that’s really healthy. Really difficult. Can be problematic, but it’s a very healthy kind of thing. That’s what we would call… There’s been research on this domain for a hundred years. Originally, it was called level of aspiration work, that it was need for achievement. Now, it’s mastery striving, and it’s very positive, conscientious-like approach to having high standards to trying to achieve to trying to do good things. Colloquially, or just in general, some people will call that perfectionism. But when we get into the world of science, we have to be quite a bit more precise. And no, we can’t call it perfectionism. It has little to do with what we’re trying to kind of capture with perfectionism.
Okay? That is super helpful. So, they’re measuring something and they’re measuring something that’s useful and interesting, but that is not perfectionism is basically the way of thinking about.
Dr. Hewitt 20:05
That’s the way we do it. That’s why many people think about it. But there are people who would disagree with that. Okay, I’m happy to do.
So, as we start to think about our children because obviously that’s the focus of our show here, what are some of the ways perfectionism shows up in children?
Dr. Hewitt 20:25
Well, we’ve, in all the research we’ve done, we’ve focused mainly on adults, and my clinical work has all been with adults. And we’re just beginning to move into doing work with children. But it absolutely is the case that perfectionism is evident in children and adolescents. In some ways, it’s similar to the kind of perfectionism that we see in adults, although we haven’t done a whole lot of work on really trying to get what it’s like phenomenologically for these kids, it can be identified, when you do research with the measures we’ve created, and other people have created. You find same kinds of things of depression, suicide, ideation, anxiety, eating problems, relationship problems, achievement of a whole host of difficulties that are there. For children, at this point, probably as young as seven, eight, that there’s the research kind of, there’s a little bit with younger than that. And we’re starting to do stuff with three and four-year olds. So, we’re just on trying to understand what that looks like.
Dr. Hewitt 21:29
But parents will be able to identify the frustration that children don’t see, they’re the pain that the children are in with these things that of course, that is deeply painful to parents to see a child struggle and to know that they’re doing a good job, they’re doing everything they’re supposed to be doing. And yet they’re kind of tortured with it. So I mean, I think it can be seen in similar ways, we’ve certainly seen the traits, we’ve seen the stuff for the interpersonal elements that what we call perfectionistic, self-presentation, presenting yourself we can see that in children, we’ve seen some of the automatic thoughts, those critical or perfectionistic, thoughts that exist, as well. So those things seem to be evident, again, in children as young as eight. Okay, as I said, there’s been research that’s been done with, with some measures we’ve created and, and some other ones, but we’re really just beginning to do decent research on that issue of how it manifests in children.
Okay. And I know parents are also really interested in understanding where perfectionism comes from. And so, it seems as though from what you’ve told us so far, there’s probably some kind of genetic component to it that also interacts with some kind of environmental circumstances. Can you help us think through what we understand about that?
Dr. Hewitt 22:53
Well, at this point, with all of this, these are theories of understanding. There is no final answer at this point. So, it’s, we don’t have the truth, yet. We have ideas. And anybody who tells you Oh, this is the way it is, based on science, Well, no.
What are the current ideas that you’re working with?
Dr. Hewitt 23:18
Well, the model that we have that came from was, I have a very psychodynamic or psychoanalytic perspective that I come from. And one of the things that’s important from that perspective is trying to get underneath the behaviors that we see in front of us. We are trying to get underneath where; what purpose does the perfectionism serve? And where might that arise? And based on this perspective, the idea is, it arises early in a child’s life. Some people actually talk about infants, early in terms of learning about themselves, learning about other people and learning how to be safe.
Dr. Hewitt 23:59
The idea that we have is that in early relational experiences, infants and children will learn certain things, they won’t articulate it in the way that I’m going to describe it. But they’re kind of learned about, and I trust other people, are other people safe. What do I need to do to feel safe? How do I navigate the world so that I don’t have this profound anxiety or fear, or other emotions or a sense of being disconnected? And so, they learn these sorts of things, of course, usually in relation to the first experience in relation with other people.
Dr. Hewitt 24:40
So, a child’s job, really, is to figure out how to navigate the world, how to have a sense of navigating the world, and feel safe and secure. And a lot of this comes from what we as parents do to teach the child that. So, this is what’s called Attachment based approach. And one of the difficulties, one of the criticisms sometimes of an attachment-based approach is people very quickly dismiss it and say, Oh, you’re just blaming the mother, or you’re just, you’re just finding fault. And the truth of it is, it’s, it’s not that at all. Absolutely, there are parents who are incredibly abusive and very hurtful. And what we found is that if anything bad or negative is going on in the family, it predicts children developing protection. But there can be instances where a child will have certain needs. A need to feel like they fit, they belong, they are loved, they are lovable, which is a very different thing and that they’re safe. And so, they learn how to navigate that. So how what do I do in order to just have this sense of safety and security. And as parents, like for children, absolutely, we try our best every moment, every decision we make, has our best interests, and our children’s best interests at heart. But we are human, we miss we have demands, etc., etc. We cannot be perfect parents. So, we miss some times. Now generally, because I mean, the one thing I teach parents is one of the most important things to kind of reiterate with your children, again and again, not just saying the words, but demonstrating it is that they are cherished, and they are loved.
For whom they are, right? Because they exist in the world.
Dr. Hewitt 26:43
Absolutely. And that they matter to you, whoever they are. And you know, there’s this notion that it has parents, we just provided everything the child needs to grow, the love the carrying the support, the food, the shelter, the safety, all of that, and let them find their way, they would find their way. But too often, we all grow directing, we’re like, we have to do you know, look both ways before, we have to direct certain things that way. But if we allow them to kind of develop a sense that they can look internally, to guide their behavior, they just kind of grow. And everything else kind of sends a message to the child. So overprotective parents, for example, absolutely are trying to create a safe environment, they don’t want the children hurt. And that’s lovely. Except the message often is, you don’t know what you’re doing. You can’t trust yourself; you have to have some external entity control, you determine where you go determine what’s safe for you. That’s how the child never learns the sense of inner directedness, autonomy, or that intrinsic drive, or to trust, especially to trust that intrinsic drive. So, the child will learn to look to the external world. So, it’s those sorts of characteristics where we kind of a child can learn that they don’t have worth. And it may not be taught to them directly. But somehow they learn it they come to understand, or they come to understand the only way to feel safe and secure is by being perfect. Or convincing other people on perfect, or the only way to really it’s about safety and security, the only way to kind of navigate this world to correct what’s wrong with me.
Yeah, it seems as though it’s a lot about fit between the parent and the child, because a lot of parents will say, Well, my other kid doesn’t like this at all. And they live in the same house. And so what’s the deal, but it seems as though the interaction of the parents, you know, expression of love, and maybe some control and all the other things, and the way that that specifically interacts with that individual child’s needs is kind of what sets this up, right?
Dr. Hewitt 29:06
You’re absolutely right. It’s about fit. And that’s a really nice way to frame that. It’s also about time, because you know, you have different needs at different times. Children have different needs. Right. Let me give you an example of a patient who developed really severe perfectionism that was debilitating for her. And she came to see me when she was about 40 years of age and had a lifetime of just sort of torture. She grew up in a in a family that was an immigrant family. And when she was five, something was happening in her family. She doesn’t quite know what it was, but it was like some tragedy or some really stressful event. And the mother and father decided that the most loving thing they could do was to send their daughter with family members who love her who would look after her while they deal with whatever horrific thing was going on, but the whatever tragedy was kind of happening in the family, their daughter would be safe. She’s with loved ones and that’s a very loving thing to do. The girl did not, of course perceive that or understand that as loving, like a five-year-old, okay? No, I was sent away. My mom and dad aren’t here.
They don’t want me anymore.
Dr. Hewitt 30:27
They don’t want me anymore. I don’t matter to them. I’m not important. I’m not good enough. And, you know, it’s kind of heart-wrenching when you whenever I tell the story, and she remembers incidents, when she first told me that she never had any connection that this was an important event in her life. But it was pivotal for the development of professionalism. Anyway, she remembers incidents of, you know, crying and not knowing what she did, blah, blah, blah. An incident of when she saw her mum coming to pick her up. So, she was at the airport. And at that time, you could, you could look through the windows and see people deplaning and she remembers watching her mother deplane to come get her and how beautiful she looked. And it was after that time that she became the absolute perfect daughter, perfect student, perfect sibling. I did absolutely have never created a ripple. Importantly, the mother was a nurse, she became a nurse. The mother worked in a geriatric unit; she became a geriatric nurse. She arranged things so that she worked on the same ward as the mother, the same shift as the mother. When she got to be in high school and met a man and they decided that they weren’t going to live together before they got married, they lived in the mother’s house. When they decided they needed to move out, they moved downstairs into an apartment in the mother’s house. When they bought their own home, it was two doors down from the mother’s house. And all of this sort of illustrates that when people ask what perfectionism is, they usually say it’s a way of being in the world. And here you see how she was the perfect daughter, doing the perfect thing, ensuring in every way, she’s never going to be separated.
Dr. Hewitt 32:21
The problems came when the mother died of cancer. For 16 years, this woman was absolutely devastated with grief over this, and people couldn’t understand why she was so devastated until we did this kind of work. So here, you have a very long-winded story, I’m sorry. It’s my way of saying to parents, you know, we do these loving things, we do the best we can. There’s nothing wrong with us. And yet our kids can somehow it’s like, you look after your child every day. And you say the child says, I’m just going out in the backyard, and they fall, and they break their arm. Stuff happens. We do the best we can. So, it’s a way to try to say this is not about blaming the parents. It’s not about that there are bad parents, and absolutely, they create problems. But for the majority of people, No, they’re not. So that’s kind of from our perspective, where it comes from.
Okay, and it also leads us really nicely into the next question on how to treat perfectionism. Because I mean, the story that you walk through makes it so clear that so many of the traditional treatments that we use for this kind of disorder, focus on changing the symptoms. But if the behavior is gone, then the problem is gone. So, can you help us to understand some of the things that we know about treatments that and whether the treatments in air quotes “work or don’t work?”
Dr. Hewitt 33:58
Actually, I’d love to do a podcast on what you just said and how we got into this place where somehow treating symptoms is the norm, and we’re supposed to all be okay. Now, it drives me insane as well. So, the question, how do we treat?
Let’s just treat the symptoms.
Dr. Hewitt 34:19
A lot of treatments are focused on symptoms. A lot of treatments. There has been this treatment work that’s been done on protectionism, there’s been different treatments that have been developed. And a lot of them really take a symptom-based approach. And it’s not that symptoms are unimportant, but there’s a reason symptom exist. Symptoms are there to communicate to you: there’s something wrong. So when you have excruciating pain in your knee, hopefully when you go to the emergency room, they don’t just give you painkillers that somebody actually pokes around and tries to figure out what’s wrong with your knee that you’re experiencing pain. And that they actually figure out, okay, we need to. And lo and behold, if you actually treat what’s wrong with your knee, the pain goes away, the symptoms go away.
Dr. Hewitt 35:14
And so psychiatric psychological symptoms from psychodynamic and psychoanalytic, that’s kind of the idea, you need to get underneath and figure out what’s wrong and treat that. And from my perspective, the treatment that I’ve been doing for 35 years, we’ve been doing research on does that. It tries to get at, it tries to get at the perfectionism and what’s underneath the perfectionism. So, the anxiety goes away, the depression goes away, the eating disorders, the suicidal tendencies, the physical problems, the stress responses, blah, blah, on and on and on. And you deal with those issues underneath.
Dr. Hewitt 35:53
So, when I was talking about the development, that’s where we spend a great deal of time, is to try to help the person understand the relationship with others and the relationship with self. Most particularly, if I had to just narrow it right down, it would be about working on the relationship that person has with themselves, that somewhere along the line, they learned, I am defective, I am flawed. I’m not good enough. I’m not acceptable. People don’t love me. I am not lovable. And they then become perfectionistic, to try to correct that. And so, we work with that whole element of Oh, where did you learn that? How did you get there? You know, how did you deal with that. And it tends to be a very emotional type of treatment and we get to work very deeply with people. And we’ve actually found some very, very good results with our kind of treatment, as we find results with there’s quite a huge literature on the effectiveness of psychodynamic and psychoanalytic treatments that people often don’t hear about, and don’t know about. It’s absolutely there. But that’s kind of what we do with the treatment.
Dr. Hewitt 37:10
With kids we’re just starting that. So, I just have a really large project we’re doing, trying to figure out one, the best way to try to assess and get a sense of what the perfectionism is for each child. And then how to deal with how the child has learned this sense of themselves being flawed, defective, how they learned that that perfect, it has the promise of fixing everything, and then how do we help them kind of realign it so that they’re doing other things to try to meet those needs? It’s a vague description, unfortunately.
So, it seems as though a lot of it’s focused on gaining insight into the causes of the things that you’re experiencing. And where did I first learn that this was something that I needed to do? Do you ever use more experiential kinds of learning, or.?
Dr. Hewitt 38:09
All the time. That’s exactly what it is.
Oh, it is?
Dr. Hewitt 38:12
It’s experiential, I liken this kind of psychotherapy to learning to ride a bike. If you’ve never ridden a bicycle, you can get Lance Armstrong to come and do a workshop and give you an eight-hour lecture. And you can take notes, you can learn everything about which muscle, how to do by and z, right, a multiple-choice exam to get 100% on it and think, great, I’m ready to go. Get on the bike, and crash. So, psychotherapy is not about learning information, or learning about thinking differently. It’s not as simple as that. It’s about, we can extend the metaphor if you think how you learned how to ride a bike, you had somebody who cared about you, stick you on the two wheeler, hold on to it. And then kind of keep your bat while you tried it. And then wobbled maybe you fell. Got back up. Tried it, you were afraid, you went through, and then the person helping you slowly kind of extracted themselves from it, while you learned experientially, how to ride a bike. And then it just got really complicated, because now you can balance all I got to watch for traffic stops and blah blah blah. And then when you do all that eventually get to a place experienced the joy of riding a bike that you don’t even think about it. That’s what psychotherapy is about.
Okay. Well, one thing I was thinking about as I was thinking that about this and then tying it back to what kind of what we talked about earlier how this is really stable, and it’s been a part of the person’s life for a long time. It always seems as though we’re trying to change, something that’s really a core component of an individual’s personality. Is it exceptionally difficult? Or is it I mean, even something we should be doing?
Dr. Hewitt 40:12
Well, we don’t make do people. The way I describe it is, we would never take away who the person is. We would never take away the importance of doing things. What we’re trying to do is just give people the means to be able to go through life and not have that sharp edge. Cutting edge. When I do things, I’m not good enough, I’m never good enough, I’m not going to, you know, take that piece away. So, in some ways, yeah, it’s getting into fundamental things that are change. And indeed, we do see quite significant change in the traits and the self-presentational facets. But most especially what I’m excited about is that change in that relationship with the self, where people become more accepting of themselves, and more trusting of themselves, because they’re often not guided by anything intrinsic, that look to the external world for how to be and they’re never good enough.
Dr. Hewitt 41:17
So yeah, making fundamentally deep changes, you have to know what you’re doing. I’ll say that I mean, that’s what that’s one of the things that’s important about psychotherapy is it’s not an easy thing to do. It’s not a trivial thing to do. Sometimes people trivialize it and say, Oh, you’re just saying words, you’re just talking to people. So, you can’t do any harm. Oh, yeah. You can do harm. And so that’s why there’s a lot of training. So that goes into both the degrees and the professions before you start taking on treatment this time. And this treatment is difficult. For everybody both the therapist and the patient. It’s just painful.
I can imagine. Yeah. And so, we’ve focused then on treating people who have received a clinical diagnosis. But I think a lot of parents who are looking at this in their children are wondering, Well, firstly, how do I even know that I need a clinical diagnosis?
Dr. Hewitt 42:15
Of perfectionism you mean.
Dr. Hewitt 42:18
First off it’s not a diagnosis.
Okay. Thank you for that correction.
Don’t. Really what it is, is it’s a fundamental core personality, vulnerability factor. It’s just, it’s a personality characteristic. I’ve been asked many times, hey, you should put that in the DSM, you should make those. And I’ll say no. And it’s, the last thing I want to do is start thinking about or how people think about it as diagnosis. It’s this way of being it’s this multi layered, multi-level kind of thing. So you don’t, you know, I mean, it’s like anything for psychotherapy, you don’t need a diagnosis in order to enter a process whereby you’re going to be relieved of pain, you’re going to grow personally, you’re going to enhance relationships. And, by the way, symptoms might go away, usually do go away. But it’s always about growth. And it’s about it’s almost like a gift to yourself. I mean, that’s the way I see psychotherapy. So, for parents, when I would say when do you want to get a professional involved? When you see your child consistently experiencing pain, and torment. And the best way to measure that is how much pain and torment do you have watching your child engage in that? And then I would find somebody who can be helping. I just recommend help for people, you know, if you’re in the States, so if you can afford it, or if you have insurance that covers it, or if there’s ways that’s part of the problem part of the issue.
Dr. Hewitt 44:04
But, you know, I do a lot of training of clinicians, I do a lot of supervision of clinicians in different parts of the world who are working with perfectionistic patients. And we’re doing more and more training in this model. I mean, people can email me, and I can try to connect them. There’s not a lot of people out there. I’m happy to, to I’ve been doing that for years, anyway. People send me emails and ask for help.
That’s very generous of you. I hope your inbox doesn’t get flooded. And yeah, of course, when you said no diagnosis, my brain immediately goes to well, how then how does insurance pay for it? You’re in Canada, you don’t have that problem.
Dr. Hewitt 44:42
Well there is no diagnosis of protectionism, though,
Yeah, so maybe it has to be big diagnosis.
Dr. Hewitt 44:49
You can focus on the symptoms and there will be a diagnosis from if it’s not depression could be adjustment disorder, or relational problems if there’s a way to do it. The clinician will, the clinician should know how to navigate that.
I wonder if we can talk through a couple of specific examples that parents had sent to me. Because the parent who got me started on this whole thing in the first place said she, she looks back, and she sees how things came really easily to her daughter when her daughter was in preschool. But now when her daughter’s in elementary school, she’ll do math problems as long as she’s sailing along, there’s no problem at all. If she doesn’t have to read the instructions, she just kind of does it. And you know, I know, I know how to do this, that’s fine. The moment that she doesn’t already know how to do something, then she just refuses to be shown how she’s, but she’s also really upset by not knowing the thing. So, if she’s doing her schoolwork on the computer, and she gets an answer wrong, if she’s not too far into the test, she’ll actually scrap the whole test and start over again, rather than having a wrong answer. And so, the parent has tried to talk with her daughter about what it would mean to get one answer wrong, and how many things children do get wrong? And how many wrong answers is okay, from the teacher’s perspective, but the child just doesn’t want to hear it. And the parents wanting to know, well, do I back off completely? What does this mean for schoolwork? And kind of more generally? What should we do when our children just give up when they aren’t successful with a task?
Dr. Hewitt 46:18
Well, one of the ways to think about it is what is driving the giving up? Like what’s driving the upset and that anger? When does it know the instructions? Because it’s there for a reason. And it’s upset for a reason. So, this is this Nozick trying to get underneath it, to try to find out what the child’s the little girl a little boy is actually struggling with in those. And that’s not necessarily they’re not going to answer you, because they may not be able to articulate it. So, I mean, from a parent perspective, again, I always come back to the loving support and the help. And you know, in one of those studies, we have an 11 year old girl, who just starts to talk a little bit about that it’s absolutely heart wrenching, because you see how much pain she was in when she wasn’t able to do very well. So, so you can really see the pain that they’re in. So, we want to try to find out what that is.
So how do you do that? If they can’t tell you
Dr. Hewitt 47:21
Oh, yeah, that’s where you work with a professional, I think that would be something that would be helpful. And it doesn’t mean years of therapy or anything like that. It can be trying to foster a relationship, such that this young person can feel safe enough to take the risk, to talk about whatever that might be. Because there’s something there’s a reason for it, there’s something there, and it doesn’t want to talk about it, there’s a reason that she doesn’t, or he doesn’t want to talk about it. And so, it’s to try to help them articulate because it’s you’re working really blindly if you don’t know what the issue is. Now for parents that can be loving support, and, you know, comfort and soothing, as much as you can. And in that case, I would try to get a consultation, to see if there’s somebody that can form a connection. And there are some incredibly gifted child therapists who just have this ability to then get right in there. And form a connection might take a little bit of digging, but to find to find a person like that.
That’s super helpful. And then another parent that I work with has what she describes as a perfectionist, anxious six year old who can’t stand to lose a game, if they’re playing a game and he loses there’s this massive meltdown, he’s he always sets up the rules so that they’re modified so that he either always wins or at least there’s a tie. So, the parent is wondering, Should I continue to allow these rule modifications to avoid the meltdown in the short term? Or does the child need to learn at some point that you can’t always win in life and macro to that is, is there a connection between perfectionism and competitiveness?
Dr. Hewitt 49:10
Oh, yeah, absolutely. There’s like a casting perfectionism, competitive competitiveness. But again, with the little boy, I would be one I would be interested in trying to find out on a level what it means when he doesn’t win, doesn’t lose, but most particular what it means about him and who he is. So that’s the work that a therapist would do in there. I think, I mean, you said something really wise there about life is about failures. And when you when you talk to people, and most of us by far the majority of us have had some pretty horrific things happen in our lives, that we have somehow had to find a way to navigate through. And very, very often and especially when I work with people with PTSD, we get to a point and they They’ll say, I wouldn’t have wished that on my worst enemy, but am I ever glad it happened. Because there’s growth, there’s a sense of identity, there’s a sense of autonomy, there’s a sense of what I can do. It can be quite remarkable. When you are when parents are overprotective, I’m sure you’ve had a podcast on overprotective parenting, and the problems that come from that, if you think about what, what does the child learn about him or herself, Oh, I can’t do things. I can’t navigate the world myself; I need somebody else to do it for me. I’m not smart enough, smart enough, capable enough, I don’t know how to do this. I can’t trust myself to make judgments about anything. Because I will be hurt. I need somebody else there and absolutely want to keep our children safe. But we also want them to fall down. We want them to have to struggle through some things. We can support them and care for them. We don’t do their homework because it’s the struggle. That’s the important piece. It’s not getting the homework done. It’s figuring out a way to struggle through this really, really difficult task, and come out the other end and be able to say, wow, that was really hard, but I find it.
Yeah, it seems as though I mean, I think a lot of parents are concerned with this idea of you know, I want to set high standards, and I want my children to strive for excellence and to try and achieve things that they find difficult and balancing that with somebody who feels like well, if I can’t fail, seems as it should be, or could be difficult. But maybe the answer is that that it’s a struggle. And that that is that they’re figuring out the struggle is the work of our lives really
Dr. Hewitt 51:59
Yeah. And the struggle is also trying to figure out how each of us is going to do the task of living life, not trying to figure out what the formula is, or what everybody else needs me to do. It’s for me. And that’s, that’s a really difficult thing. And if you have a basis where you can’t trust yourself, you don’t you can’t trust that intrinsic drive. You’re, you’re at a loss. And probably the feeling that I hear most often initially, with people with perfectionism is that they feel lost. I’m just lost in the world.
Dr. Hewitt 52:39
I don’t know where to go. I don’t know who I am.
Dr. Hewitt 52:42
Those are the kinds of things and they did not wait for a long time, often.
And to conclude on a slightly more positive note, how did they then feel after support from appropriate?
Dr. Hewitt 52:57
Well, I mean, I continue to do this work because I love doing clinical work. Although I’m a researcher, and I probably know more from my research than anything else. It’s the clinical work, it’s working with people, I continue to do it, I get lots of people, the woman that I talk to you about at five years old, it’s been 25 years since I finished working with her. We work together for about three years, which is longer than often. I work with people with perfectionism. Every year Christmas, I get a card that talks because she was extremely suicidal and was ready to absolutely end her life. And she sends me a card every Christmas just to say, another Christmas with my family. And yes, you’re here. Now that’s anecdotal. I continue to do this work because I believe it’s helpful. people continue to come to see me, because it seems to be helpful people, students from all over the world come to be trained in this because it seems to be helpful.
Yeah, it doesn’t have to be a debilitating thing that controls the rest of your life.
Dr. Hewitt 54:04
No. And that’s such a painful prospect to think about people having to suffer with that. It’s daunting. I guess that’s not a positive note isn’t.
The last word was not positive. But I think the overall idea needed to go so thank you so much. That was amazingly helpful. And I think parents are going to come out of this with a lot of hope that this doesn’t have to be something that’s going to take over my child’s life and that there are places that I can go to get help. If it seems as though it is it is becoming detrimental.
Dr. Hewitt 54:37
I would also guess that many parents will say, Oh, that sounds familiar. And relay aspects of this too, because it’s not always happens and it’s just it’s sometimes helpful for people to hear, Okay, well, one, you’re not alone. And two, there’s often a lot of pain that’s kind of connected with these things so.
Yeah. And three if you wanted to explore it and potentially do something about it, there may be effective ways that you can do so.
Thanks for joining us for this episode of Your Parenting Mojo. Don’t forget to subscribe to the show at YourParentingMojo.com to receive new episode notifications, and the FREE Guide to 7 Parenting Myths That We Can Leave Behind and join the Your Parenting Mojo Facebook group for more respectful research based ideas to help kids thrive and make parenting easier for you. I’ll see you next time on Your Parenting Mojo.
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About the author, Jen
Jen Lumanlan (M.S., M.Ed.) hosts the Your Parenting Mojo podcast (www.YourParentingMojo.com), which examines scientific research related to child development through the lens of respectful parenting.
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