The Perils of Perfectionism
When we can let go of what other people think and own our story, we gain access to our worthiness — the feeling that we are enough just as we are and that we are worthy of love and belonging.
The Gifts of Imperfection
Several months ago I was having coffee with a friend, chatting about our lives and what was going on in our families. She asked me what I thought about a stressful behavioral situation with her son. I shared that I have a similar situation in my family, and she responded—quite surprised—“I didn’t think you had these kinds of problems.”
I laughed and told her, “Oh my gosh! I make mistakes all the time in how I respond to my kids!” What makes it worse, I explained, is that because I have so much head knowledge about how I’m supposed to react, when I mess up, I immediately condemn myself as a horrible mother. I told her how much easier it is to read, research, and write about parenting, where I can neatly list everything in a perfectly organized info-graphic, than actually living it out in the moment with my kids. Real life is just so much messier. “That’s why I enjoy writing so much!” I said.
We had a great bonding moment and felt a closer connection over our kids’ annoying tendencies and our parenting foibles. My friend had asked me to coffee to get my advice, and we ended up sharing our stories, encouraging each other, and laughing together. We both felt better after our talk, mostly because we didn’t feel alone in our parenting struggles.
Last week, I again had the opportunity to share stories of some of my parenting mishaps while doing my “10 Friendship Skills” workshop with parents at Pegasus School. The best moments of the presentation came from stories about techniques I’ve tried with my kids that didn’t work (see “The Power of Compliments” for just one example). I heard from several parents after the meeting that they enjoyed my talk, and what they appreciated most was that I shared real stories and didn’t present myself as a “perfect” parent.
I need to give a shout-out to Brene Brown and thank her for my new enthusiasm for sharing my mistakes right alongside my knowledge and ideas. “The culture that we live in is so edited and photo-shopped and presented as perfect,” says Brown in her audio book, The Gifts of Imperfect Parenting, and that can make us all feel terrible. Especially in the parenting sphere, Brown describes a community focused on judging and condemning rather than one of sharing and supporting.
I’m certain that the rise in anxiety and depression, in both adults and children, is directly related to many of us, in our own bubbles of perfectionism, trying to make ourselves look “perfect” to the outside world. Our families need to be what Brown describes as a “safe container for people to live, to express their emotions, to be who they are, to share their struggles.” And that doesn’t happen when we’re all trying to be perfect all the time.
It’s only taken me half a century, and two Brene Brown books, to realize this, but at least I’m here now. I am joining Brown as a “recovering perfectionist” and will henceforth be more aware of my perfectionism when I feel it cropping up, and swat it right back down. Think whack-a-mole.
If you need some help in this area, I invite you to join me in my recovery process.
Here are some thoughts that need to be whack-a-moled right back down:
“What am I going to pack for this trip so that I have the perfect outfit for each day?”
“What tutoring do I need to get for my kid so that he gets an ‘A’ in biology?”
“What facial treatment do I need so that I can erase all of my wrinkles?”
“What diet/exercise regimen do I need to follow to be at my ideal weight?”
“How many extra hours do I need to work to get the promotion/salary/recognition at work?”
“How much time and money should I spend on extra SAT/ACT tutoring?”
“What picture and message should I put on this year’s holiday card so that everyone sees us as a perfect family?”
“My living room looks so dated. I need to get some new furniture and art so that it will look like that Pottery Barn catalogue.”
“I need to prepare 40 days of healthy, frozen crockpot dinners so that I can be a good parent.”
“How do I make sure my kid has a 4.8 GPA (now we need to achieve above perfection, apparently)?”
“I’m so behind on photo albums. I want perfectly assembled, labeled albums for each kid, complete with coordinated scrap booking accessories.”
“My child got a ‘B’ on the spelling test. Horrors!”
“What do you mean my kid isn’t on the best travel softball team?”
If you think you’ve kept your perfectionism from your children and not demanded the same perfection from them that you demand of yourself, Brown has some choice words: “We cannot raise children who are more resilient to perfectionism than we are.”
She also offers encouragement that we can share our struggles with perfectionism with our kids and that we don’t have to have our issue “nailed down and solved.” Instead, Brown recommends that we need to learn and grow with our kids.
When Brown shared the difference between “healthy striving” and “perfectionism,” I experienced an “aha” moment. My husband and I are extremely hard workers, and always have been. This work ethic is important to us and something we’ve always wanted to pass down to our children. But thanks to Brown, I now know how to distinguish between “striving for excellence” and “perfectionism.” One is something to nurture in our children. The other is something to avoid.
To Brown, striving for excellence means that we are setting a goal for ourselves and giving something “our best shot.” It is an internally driven, motivating force. Healthy striving, to Brown, is a good thing and something we should value in ourselves and our kids. It’s what many would call a good, old-fashioned “work ethic.”
The difference between healthy striving and perfectionism is that perfectionism is “100% externally driven” and is, according to Brown, “all about ‘what will people think?’” This gave me some really good food for thought. The problem with perfectionism is that it actually does the opposite of helping us do things well. Instead, it holds us back, because if we think what we do must be perfect before we present it to the world, we can become paralyzed and never accomplish anything.
We all know that most super-successful people went through a lot of trial and error and hard work. It was, in fact, often through hard work and healthy striving that they reached their pinnacles of success. But if Abraham Lincoln had been embarrassed at all his failed attempts to get elected and concerned about people thinking he was a “loser,” our country wouldn’t have had one of our greatest presidents.
It’s time for us to take a step back, get more vulnerable with each other, especially in our own families, and let the world know that we (and our kids) are not perfect.
If you’re intrigued by this topic and want to build the courage, compassion, connection in your family, I encourage you to read Brene Brown’s The Gifts of Imperfection and listen to her audio book, The Gifts of Imperfect Parenting.
I love Brown’s idea of embracing our imperfections and sharing them with others.
Thank you for reading my post! If you like Sunshine Parenting, please subscribe to get an email update each time I post (use box in right column of my blog). Follow me on Facebook, Pinterest, or Twitter for links to articles and ideas about camp and parenting. Have a happy day!
Brene Brown’s Website
The Gifts of Imperfect Parenting (2 hour audio book on Audible)
The Gifts of Imperfection
My 2016 Reading List
10 Life-Changing Books
Super Mom or Super Bomb? Modeling a Balanced Life for our Kids