Striving for excellence is a part of being human. Here are our top tips if you’re a parent who struggles with perfectionism.
by Libby Nelson, Professional Certified Coach
Early on in my parenting journey, perfectionism was my default setting. If we were having friends over for dinner, I would spend all day Saturday cleaning the house, shopping for the perfect meal, buying flowers, setting a beautiful table. I sat my sons in front of the TV, snapped at my husband for taking time to go to the gym and flew around my house in a state of stress and anxiety. By the time I opened the door for our friends, I felt exhausted, resentful, and full of guilt for the way I had treated my family in order to have everything “just right”.
That drive to be the “perfect host” wasn’t sustainable for me. As my life got busier (more babies, more work, no longer the luxury of an entire free Saturday to prepare) I stopped having people over. If I couldn’t measure up to my own personal standards, I didn’t want to host at all. I couldn’t bear to think that people were judging my messy toy room, or my paper plates, the dog hair in the corner or the fact that I hadn’t taken the trouble to cook something special. Meanwhile, invitations to my friends’ homes started drying up and I wondered why. Ultimately, an honest friend confided that she felt she couldn’t compete with the way I entertained. My perfectionism was an attempt to avoid judgment and criticism but instead it left me isolated. Researcher Brené Brown says, “I call perfectionism ‘the 20-ton shield.’ We carry it around thinking it’s going to protect us from being hurt. But it actually protects us from being seen.”
Striving for excellence is a part of being human. The difference between perfectionism and healthy striving is in our point of reference. Perfectionism is “other” focused – the standard of success is often imaginary and set by someone else. Perfectionism says, “what will they think?” and healthy striving asks, “what do I think?”.
It didn’t take too long for me to embrace ease and imperfection and start extending invitations again. Guess what? Takeout pizza and paper plates were just as much fun (maybe more) than a homemade spread. Better still, I was relaxed, my husband and I still liked each other at the end of the night, and I didn’t spend the whole next day making it up to my kids.
A few tips if you struggle with perfectionism:
- Before you begin a task, define what “success” looks like. In the example above, actual success would have looked like everyone feeling relaxed, happy and having a great time, not “everyone thinks I’m the next Martha Stewart.”
- Consider the cost. Everything we say YES to means that we say NO to something else. Hosting the perfect evening meant that I said no to rest, to quality time with my kids on the weekend, to positive feelings in my relationship and my own peace. It’s helpful to decide ahead of time whether those trade-offs are worth it.
- Embrace imperfection. It’s our humanity – our messy, imperfect vulnerability - that connects us to other people. When I see you embracing good enough, it lets me know that good enough is okay for me, too. That kind of grace does more for friendship than perfectionism ever could.
Have you found ways to ditch perfectionism? We’d love to hear your strategies!