I am a “detail-oriented” type of person. My CD collection is alphabetized by artist, which is further organized chronologically by album release date. I enjoy baking, knowing that the precise measurement and addition of ingredients will yield similar results every time. I take pride in my use of correct grammar and syntax when speaking and writing, along with my knowledge of vocabulary which enables me to use words which convey exactly what I mean.
So let’s cut through the euphemisms, shall we? I am a perfectionist!
While this does convey some benefits to me, it also leads to my downfall when things aren’t “just so” or I perceive some type of failure on my part. Rather than celebrating a good grade on a test in school, I used to beat myself up for the ones that I got wrong (even the extra-credit!) and resolved that next time, I would redouble my efforts and get everything right and be “perfect.” I inwardly cringe if the measuring cups and spoons are not neatly nesting in the drawer devoted to baking supplies in my kitchen. I confess that I have participated in silly fights with my mate, such as when I found the dishtowels and the hand towels mixed together in the same stack in the linen closet after he did the laundry.
Since becoming a parent, I have been forced into some serious self-reflection in almost every area of my life, and have also been thinking about the kind of role model I want to be. I know that my perfectionism is not a trait that I want to pass along to my child. I do not want him to struggle with self-acceptance, as I have, conditional on the idealized person he “should” be. I do not want my child to think he is stupid, a failure, or worst yet, unlovable because he missed a word on a spelling test. So, as a recovering perfectionist, I am sharing some of the things I am working on in hopes I can help other parents as well.
Let it go. Is this a safety issue for your child or someone else? Is there something illegal going on? Is this going to matter in one week, one month, or one year from now? If your answers are no, consider if this is something that you can let go. I have found it helpful to repeat to myself, “This is not a big deal. Let it go.” Sometimes it is also useful for me to actually write out my expectation on paper, and then rip it up and throw it away.
Revisit your expectations. If it isn’t something you can just let slide, ask yourself, “Is this a reasonable expectation, based on my child’s current age, developmental level or current capabilities? If someone else were faced with this situation, how would they respond? Would I be able to accept this as a best effort if it wasn’t me/my child?” If you have a toddler, your expectations of what a clean room looks like and the level of assistance needed is going to be different than what you expect from a teenager. If your child is having difficulty going to school everyday, expecting perfect attendance for the next semester is going to be disappointing for you. Sometimes it can be helpful to bring in an objective, nonjudgmental person into this conversation, whether that is your mate, a friend, or some other supportive person in your life, and ask for assistance in revising what you can anticipate.
Accept your own imperfections. Growing up with my siblings, I put incredible pressure on myself that I had to be as good, if not better, than they were at everything. I put myself through the wringer, telling myself that if only I tried harder, if only I put in a little more effort, then I could achieve similar results and only then could I be satisfied or happy. Only recently have I come to the conclusion that I will probably never achieve the hand-eye coordination to be successful in any sport involving a ball, and being able to draw anything recognizable beyond stick figures is outside of my current capabilities. Not only that, but that’s okay! By accepting my own imperfections, it led to greater acceptance of myself and my strengths, such as the ability to go into the kitchen and make something delicious most of the time, or my capability to retain bits of knowledge and win at trivia games. By accepting that everyone has limitations, your child included, it can lead to greater recognition of strengths as well.
I am trying very hard to overcome my perfectionist tendencies, and to accept that the “perfect” parent does not exist. I am working to recognize my strengths, and that being a “good-enough” parent is worth aspiring toward, and is actually something achievable. I want to role model to my child so he knows that the world isn’t going to come crashing down if he isn’t the best at everything. I’m going to make mistakes, and that is to be expected and accepted.
As Leonard Cohen sings in his song “Anthem”:
Ring the bells that can still ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in
Are there any expectations that you need to let go of as a parent, either for yourself or your child? Share them here.
Rebecca Wolfenden is a loving Momma to her son and a dedicated 1-on-1 Coach. She earned her degree in Social Work from West Virginia University and has been with Empowering Parents since 2011. Rebecca has experience working with children and families in home settings and schools, and has extensive practice working with people of all ages who have survived significant emotional and physical trauma.