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The Perfect Child: Cases of Perfectionism and Performance

Written by: Lane Gormley, EdS, LPC, NCC
(* Clients are never identified by their real names.)

Simona S. was the middle child and only daughter of a mother, Laura, who needed to prove something to herself. Laura had a difficult time in her teenage years and early adulthood, resulting in a lack of confidence and self-esteem. If tiny Simona were a “star”, Laura came to believe, then she would be a success at motherhood if nothing else.

Simona was, in fact, a gifted child whose astounding report cards went into the loose-leaf notebook her mother kept to document her progress. She was also an early writer and poetess whose works became part of that same record of excellence. Most importantly, at least as far as Laura was concerned, Simona”s unusual talent for dance often placed her at center stage. The aura of the young Prima Ballerina in her tutu and sparkling tiara made Laura feel as though she, too, were in the spotlight.

As Simona finished high school, it was important to Laura that her daughter succeed in the rigorous application process required to enter a top university – which Simona dutifully did. Everything seemed to be going well until a variety of family stressors – the loss of a business, an older son wounded in active combat, and the disintegration of the marriage – shattered the family”s stability. Not even Simona”s perfection could save their home and unity. Simona was fragile as she entered the university and promptly dropped out. It was at this time that she became my Client.

In therapy, Simona was sad. She had worked so long and so hard, and for what? She had been the Perfect Child… Or had she? If she had really been perfect, Simona unconsciously believed, she could have saved her family, her parents” marriage, and her mother”s happiness. Couldn”t she??

Lisa J., a Client in marriage counseling, echoed Simona”s need to succeed for reasons other than interest in her studies and joy in her abilities: I knew my father loved me; but I also knew that if I made perfect grades, he would love me just a little bit more.

Jacquelyn S. came to marriage counseling with her husband when she found that she was simply unable to get over his one-night stand with a woman he met after getting drunk on a business trip. Her husband was stricken by what he had done, and he had immediately told her about his error. But… Jacquelyn could not move on. In therapy, she remembered a childhood spent trying to be the Perfect Child in order to avoid her father”s criticism. She had succeeded. She had, in fact, been his favorite child. In session, I asked her, “Does part of you blame yourself for Dave”s mistake? Does part of you think that if only you had been perfect, the perfect wife creating the perfect marriage, this would not have happened?”. Jacquelyn burst into tears.

These Clients and many like them believe, at some level, that they have to be perfect. They often assume responsibility for everything that goes on around them, and they attribute any mishap, snafu, contretemps, flub-up, error, or accident to some failure on their part.

Perfectionism is often rooted in a child”s quest for love. If making an A, playing the piano in a recital, or dancing brings a smile to Mommy”s face, then the child begins to perform in order to win that smile. Personal achievement for the joy of learning and doing is subverted. It ceases to be an aspect of growth and development and becomes an exercise in trying to earn what should be the child”s birthright – her parent”s love. That child might spend years in joyless achievement and come to wonder, as an adult, how she could have achieved so much and still feel so empty. That adult may come to therapy to answer that question.

There are other reasons for perfectionism. Steven F., one of my Clients in an inpatient crisis unit, said in group, “My stepfather hated me. He always told me what a loser I was and how I would never amount to anything. Just to see the look on his face when I got into Harvard was worth all the effort I put into high school. The whole time I was in college, I knew that every A I made was a nail in his coffin.”. It was sheer hatred that made Steven so perfect at his studies, sheer rage that made him succeed, and the sheer emptiness of all his achievements that made him, at the age of 24, attempt suicide.

There are two types of perfectionism. One type is called maladaptive perfectionism. It is the type of perfectionism that sends my Clients to the hospital. “If I can”t be perfect, then I do not deserve to live. If I am not perfect, then I am not worthy of love. I am a loss to myself and to others.”

Adaptive perfectionism is somewhat happier. An adaptive perfectionist tries to be perfect with the clear understanding that perfection is not, or not often, possible. I am going to do this as perfectly as I can, but the outcome is not in my hands. Many world class athletes and musicians are adaptive perfectionists. As long as the adaptive perfectionist has an arena in which to try to excel, he or she can be happy. When they have climbed all the mountains, however, they can become restless and frustrated.

When people come to therapy with perfectionist issues or symptoms, it is helpful to look into the past. It is important for such Clients to understand why they have such a strong need to be perfect. I will discuss with them the risks we run when we try to be something we cannot be; and they can learn how to temper, or mitigate, perfectionism so that it can become more of an asset and less of a danger to mental and physical health.

To end on a happy note, Simona S. worked hard in therapy to understand and to accept that she does not have to be perfect for her mother or anyone else. She has a high grade point average at the university to which she returned when she – not her mother – decided it was what she wanted. Jacquelyn S.”s marriage healed when she came to see that she is only responsible for her half of the marriage, including her ability to love and forgive David.

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Social Reviews

Ray of Hope Counseling Services IconRay of Hope Counseling Services

4255 Wade Green Road Northwest Suite 414, Kennesaw

3.4 51 reviews

  • Avatar Brandi McEachern ★★★★★ 8 months ago
    I highly recommend Lana Green! She was awesome at working with my child during a transitional time in my child's life. She was great at keeping us focused on age appropriateness in a wide array of topics. She determined my child's … More interests and developed bonds in this manner. Highly recommend her services!
  • Avatar Michael Porzio ★★★★★ 8 months ago
    I highly recommend Jaime Jenkins!! She was able to connect with my eldest son and get him to open up comfortably immediately! Typically it would take someone working with him quite some time for him to open up.
    Jaime is highly skilled
    … More and showed it by navigating my son's avoidance, his natural defense mechanisms.
    Jaime truly cares about the children!!! She watches them, listens to them, not just their words but their whole demeanor/body language. Sometimes their actions (what they do) and body language are screaming one thing while the therapist is being told/presented with something else.
    Jaime is an experienced therapist with the tools needed to connect and discover the core.
    Her methods at making children comfortable are unparalleled.
    Jaime was awesome at working with both of my children in this very traumatic time of their little lives. She will help. She will see what others are trying to hide. She will go to bat for your children. Jaime truly cares about those children! The children are what's most important, they are our future!
    Thank you for everything Jaime! I am so grateful you were chose by their mother/worked with their mother. God knew what he was doing putting you in our boys lives!!
    -MP
  • Avatar Nelli Vergilis ★★★★★ a year ago
    I loved my tele session. It was easy to connect and talking to my therapist felt even more productive, as I was not stressed by traffic. Ms.James made me feel supported and heard. And I learned how to handle my hurdles better at the … More very first session. I recommend this practice. You can live anywhere and have a wonderful therapist at your fingertips. THANK YOU.
  • Avatar Christy Berrio ★★★★★ 8 months ago
    Giana is truly amazing! She has helped our family in more ways than one and we’re truly grateful for her!
  • Avatar Vanessa Erario ★★★★★ a year ago
    Excellent experience at Ray of Hope @ Kennesaw, Ga. Ms. Jamie J. is so awesome and wonderful. My two young children see her and they and myself love her and enjoy the visit, atmosphere and professionalism. My children can be shy at times, … More but opened up right at the first hello. I would refer anyone to Ray of Hope and to Ms. Jamie J. She helps in so many ways with my children and myself. We have made so much progress and we could not be more happier. Thank you!
  • Avatar Michaela Estes ★★★★★ a year ago
    I see Mrs Gianna and she is Absolutely AMAZING!!
    By far the BEST counselor I ever had. She genuinely cares and she shows it every session... I had a rough past before I got to her, and she makes the progression to a better you, much more
    … More easy.. she walks you through how to better yourself and never fails to remind you she is there. I’d give her 10 stars if I could. DEFINITELY WOULD RECOMMEND
  • Avatar Danielle P ★★★★★ a year ago
    Jamie Jenkins is great! I feel like she is the perfect therapist for me. Validating and open-minded. She knows I like my conversations to be more casual and she is accommodating in that way because formality makes me shut down.
  • Avatar Erica ★★★★★ a year ago
    Ray of Hope has been really great for myself and my kids to have an outlet you talk about life and the challenges we face. I would recommend this to anyone who is looking for someone to talk too. It is well worth it.
  • Avatar Waeni Watuma ★★★★★ a year ago
    I have been going to Ray of Hope for a year now and it has changed my life honestly - everyone there is so nice and I love my therapist she is amazing ! Misty is honestly heaven sent.
  • Avatar Phoenix Bray ★★★★★ a year ago
    Love Ray of Hope Counseling. Meghan Michalewicz has helped me through some tough stuff and I am so appreciative of the advice.
  • A Google User ★★★★★ a year ago
    I loved my tele session. It was easy to connect and talking to my therapist felt even more productive, as I was not stressed by traffic. Ms.James made me feel supported and heard. And I learned how to handle my hurdles better at the … More very first session. I recommend this practice. You can live anywhere and have a wonderful therapist at your fingertips. THANK YOU.
  • Avatar Nina Cantrell ★★★★★ a year ago
    Giada Martini is a very genuine, kind person that makes you really feel she's there for you personally & not just professionally. Her office is very easy space to be in to boot!
  • Avatar Victoria Thomas ★★★★★ 2 years ago
    This place is such a tranquil respite if you need somewhere safe to unwind, process grief, heal, or feel strengthened on your journey. Gianna Martini has been an absolute godsend, and I don't think you'll find anyone more caring, … More empathetic, and compassionate. She's kindhearted, an intuitive listener, insightful, and wise. Gianna truly cares about her clients, and I've so appreciated her support and wisdom.
  • Avatar Anonymous Anonymous ★★★★★ a year ago
    Lane Gormely is the absolute best. Her experience is undeniable-hands down.
  • Avatar Casey Graebner ★★★★★ a year ago
    Great counseling service for my son who is dealing with some hard problems. Very helpful.

Ray of Hope Counseling Services
2.0
Based on 19 Reviews
Princess O.
Princess O.
2021-03-23 07:44:54
Called hoping to make a new patient appt. was told no nights/weekends available in my area unless I'm a self pay. Are u serious! So let's avoid using the...
K T.
K T.
2021-01-26 15:09:10
I scheduled with Lana Greene for my 11yr old daughter but got put with Amy Rozett. Worst counselor appointment I've ever been to and I've been to many...
Nadine M.
Nadine M.
2020-12-16 09:44:07
I called on behalf of my son to book an appointment. He has a generalized anxiety disorder and we are looking for a new psychiatrist for him. Many offices...
Ashley T.
Ashley T.
2020-01-14 12:03:44
I can't attest to the qualifications of the therapists, but the office staff isn't the best. I left two messages (because no one ever answered the phone) to...
Vicki T.
Vicki T.
2019-07-26 22:36:28
I love this place and feel especially grateful for Gianna Martini who has been a godsend to me. A very intuitive listener, she's kind, caring, and...
Shelly K.
Shelly K.
2019-03-22 11:46:51
Receptionist extremely rude and unhelpful, needs some training on customer service.
Lisa S.
Lisa S.
2018-05-01 09:56:20
I am going here for a multitude of reasons. Mainly for my almost 9 year old to have someone to talk to. Lauren Sanders is AMAZING. We both love her and...
Brad C.
Brad C.
2017-02-08 11:26:06
Despite all the bad reviews all over the internet of this place, I decided to give them them a go anyway. MISTAKE. The billing system and the way they...