In September of my senior year in high school, I was hanging around outside the locker rooms before field hockey practice when a friend and fellow athlete felt compelled to make a confession.
“I was going to vote for you for homecoming queen,” he said, “but, you know, you win everything. I thought I should give someone else a chance.”
He didn’t intend to be mean. I didn’t actually take it as mean. Maybe it was even true.
The apple never falls far from the tree. Twenty-five years later, I asked my third daughter why she wanted to quit ballet for swimming. With the matter-of-factness of a 6-year-old, she replied, “Because you can’t win at ballet.”
Doing well and pursuing excellence is a good thing. But the myth that everything — including oneself — has to be perfect is not only exhausting, but unattainable, suffocating and potentially debilitating.
For me, perfectionism was ultimately a distraction.
On the surface, my childhood was idyllic. My father was a brilliant trial lawyer. My mother was beautiful, hard-working, and kind. We lived in a big house on a hill, rode our own horses and played tennis at the club.
Oh, and my father was also: an alcoholic, paranoid, and bipolar. My mother was overwhelmed and scared. Our home life was one where chaos was the norm.
Throughout my childhood, I learned that expressing my emotions and needs didn’t elicit much of a response, so I shut them down. Instead, doing everything right and winning became my way to worthiness: getting a string of As, becoming captain of this or that, being elected as president of the class. Being a “good girl” was paramount.
And each moment of satisfaction served to crystallize the all-or-nothing association between being perfect and being happy. Anything else, I believed, was disappointment, pain, and shame.
While striving to be the best, I could ignore those uncomfortable emotions that I either didn’t want to or couldn’t acknowledge: the emptiness, the lack of self-compassion, the constant guilt and shame.
On the day I learned of my father’s death by suicide, I shrugged and went to pick out something yummy to eat from the food that people were dropping off at our house. I’d learned that my feelings didn’t matter.
When I was an adult, my husband and I had four girls in five years. I was surprised to discover that my own need for success posed unexpected challenges when it came to raising my children. It was hard for me to strike a balance between providing support and allowing my girls to develop their own self-worth and resilience.
I have fond memories of my girls’ confident marches to the auditorium stage, faces beaming with pride, to receive a medal alongside their equally diligent elementary school peers. It was easy to attach an inordinate amount of importance to their achievements. When we are overly occupied with success, uncomfortable with emotions, or terrified of failure, we convince ourselves that our kids’ accomplishments guarantee that self-esteem and confidence will follow.
Sure, my surges of pride were genuine, but I was also experiencing my girls’ successes as a reflection of my own self-worth. I felt fine while everything was going smoothly ― which, for me, meant my kids were achieving.
Then, suddenly, life wasn’t so smooth with one of my girls. Not only was I feeling my child’s pain, but there were no dollar-store medals hanging from brightly colored ribbons to feed my self-worth. With fewer As, medals and teachers’ accolades, I began to panic: What if she never succeeds? I am losing control ― isn’t making sure she does well my job as a parent?
I lectured her on the importance of school (as if she didn’t know), “helped” her with homework (by doing most of it) and enlisted a tutor (two, actually). I spoke with her teacher, her academic advisor, her principal — anyone who would listen! When things didn’t get better, my husband and I wrote letters and looked for another school.
Surely, I thought, “success” is what she needs to feel good about herself, to be confident and have self-esteem. I mean, if she wasn’t accomplishing, excelling or winning, how else would that happen? And it was my responsibility to reduce the anxiety that this situation was causing, right?
Wrong. Research indicates that high levels of parental control are the most consistent parenting predictor of anxiety in childhood. The message I was inadvertently sending was that I didn’t actually believe in her ability to handle the situation (having a tough time) or the emotions (frustration, sadness). That I didn’t believe in her. Period.
Sure, I loved the accolades and successes. But when I realized I might also be passing along my angst, my inner critic and my unrelenting feeling of not being quite good enough, I woke up. It does take some work to overcome perfectionism, but the first step for me was understanding how my actions were affecting my children.
Unfortunately, it appears that perfectionism is heritable. We are long on shame and short on self-compassion, and our children tend to absorb our actions more than our words. So, modeling acceptance and self-compassion as well as embracing ups and downs — theirs and ours — is one of the most straightforward ways to equip our children with the power to do the same.
Small steps ― like embracing challenges, venturing into situations that may feel uneasy, and admitting it aloud when you make a mistake ― can make a big difference. You’ll not only break free from the clutches of perfectionism but also empower your children to navigate life with the self-assurance to welcome the lessons that imperfection brings.
Slowly, I learned. Later, when another daughter came to me, distraught that her new coach didn’t seem to like her, my knee did jerk initially. I need to do something! It’s going to ruin her season! She won’t make varsity! She’s going to be miserable!
But instead of jumping in as my daughter was figuring it out for herself, I listened. I empathized. I got curious. I let her feel her feelings and assess her own problem, contributing only that I thought she had nailed it: Life is unfair, and it sometimes throws us teachers, coaches or bosses who don’t like us. When the time was right, I offered some ideas about being the bigger person for the sake of the team. My belief in her was like a light that helped illuminate her strength and resilience.
For all of us, particularly for children in those formative years, the questions are often the same: Am I important to you? Am I needed? Am I wanted? Am I safe?
I know from personal experience that the pursuit of perfection can be relentless and exhausting. By choosing to celebrate every step of the journey, we communicate to our children that they are profoundly valued for simply being who they are. This reassures them that they are safe with us not in spite of their imperfections, but because of them.
Mary Willcox Smith is the author of ”Small Moments, Big Impact: The MicroStep Method for the Overwhelmed Parent.”