There is a wonderful children’s picture book about a little girl who prides herself on being perfect.
Every day when she awakes, she puts on matching socks, performs her chores without error and makes a sandwich with an exact 1:1 ratio of peanut butter to jelly.
When she steps out the door on her way to a perfect day at school, her adoring crowd waits to greet her and celebrate her perfect ways. They call her, “The Girl Who Never Made Mistakes.”
But then a funny thing happens. The girl’s normally flawless day starts to go awry. While in cooking class, she slips and almost drops her eggs. The disaster is averted, but a mistake almost was made. Worry begins to creep into her mind.
As she progresses throughout her day, this worry of making a mistake prevents her from trying anything new or engaging in other similar risky behaviors. At dinner that night, she mentally frets about the upcoming talent show in which she is scheduled to appear because what if — gasp! — she makes a mistake?
When she confesses her fears to her father, he scoffs and says, “Worry? Why, you don’t make mistakes.”
This does nothing to alleviate the girl’s anxieties.
When it is finally time for the infamous “Girl Who Never Makes Mistakes” to perform on stage, do you know what happens? You guessed it — she makes a mistake. And not just a little mistake either — a great big one.
Standing up on stage, the girl ponders crying or simply running away. But then she decides to do something else.
She laughs harder and harder, until the audience is laughing with her. Together, they roar with laughter.
That night, the little girl sleeps better than she ever had before. And when she wakes up, she puts on mismatched socks and enjoys a messy sandwich.
Her adoring fans are no longer waiting to greet her, but that doesn’t bother her in the least. At school that day, she tries new things, and when she messes up, she and her friends laugh before picking up and moving on.
The little girl finally can breathe.
Brene Brown, who has spent her life studying people and the fears that rule their lives, describes perfectionism as, “the 20-ton coat of armor we lug around in an effort to protect ourselves from shame.”
When we strive to excel in life to work towards fulfilling academic, personal and professional goals, we feel motivated and empowered.
When we push ourselves to achieve in order to prove our worth to others, however, we risk falling into the dangerous trap of perfectionism.
When we seek to be perfect, we effectively are slipping a straight-jacket over our heads.
Perfectionism makes us feel we must do everything exactly right or not do it at all. To fail at something means to take a serious hit to our self-esteem. When we feel this way, we tend not to attempt anything that doesn’t come with a guarantee of instant success.
Consequently, perfectionism also is a clear pathway to anxiety, depression and a diminished sense of self because our identity becomes dependent on what others think of us rather than a deeper exploration of who we really are inside.
When children struggle with perfectionism, it often comes across as being unwilling to try new things or shutting down and getting mad at themselves when they make mistakes.
While they are young and impressionable, we can help our children avoid this trap by verbally celebrating effort over achievement. We also can change the way our families’ look at mistakes. Rather than viewing mistakes as something to be avoided, we can celebrate them as opportunities for learning and growth.
As parents, we often fall into many of the same perfectionist traps as our children. The area where we often are the most susceptible to developing perfectionist tendencies, though, is in the field of parenting.
Parenting has become a minefield in today’s society, with everyone seemingly having an opinion on “the right way” to parent.
Because there is so much pressure to be the perfect parent, we have become very opinionated and rigid in our thinking of what the best way to parent is. We have become perfectionist parents and slipped that suffocating straight-jacket right over our heads.
When we look at parenting through a perfectionist lens, raising our children becomes less a source of joy and more of a burden of proving our worth to others. We begin to view the behaviors and choices of our children as a direct reflection of who we are — and then when our young ones struggle, it threatens our foundational belief that we are a good and worthwhile person.
It’s easy to see how anxiety, depression and insecurity can begin to creep in.
Not only does perfectionist parenting threaten our well-being and happiness, but it also leads to a judgmental attitude towards others. If we feel that our way of raising children is the right way, then anyone who differs in their approach must be doing it the wrong way. This judgmental attitude helps us to protect our fragile egos in the highly sensitive field of parenting, but it throws up barriers and creates resentments in an area where we really need encouragement and support the most.
As if parenting wasn’t hard enough already.
So, rather than parenting with a perfectionist mentality, what if we parent from the belief that everyone is doing the best they can? What if we embrace the idea that there is no right or wrong way to raise our children so long as they are receiving unconditional love?
Brown refers to this as whole-hearted parenting and stresses that the best way to parent is to stay true to our fundamental beliefs of what it means to be a good person and consistently model these behaviors for our children to see. This doesn’t mean that we don’t make mistakes but that we show our children how to gracefully right our wrongs and use our errors as opportunities for learning and growth.
It also means that we avoid judging other parenting styles because, as Brown states, “there are a million ways out in the world to be a wonderful, engaged parent, and some of them are going to bump up against what (we) personally think about parenting.” This doesn’t mean that they are wrong, just different.
And when we learn to be perfectly imperfect parents, we might find that, just like the little girl in the story, it’s a lot easier to breathe.
Melissa Hyde has a masters in education from Pepperdine University in Los Angeles and more than 10 years experience teaching elementary education. She works for Challenge to Change in Dubuque, teaching children social emotional regulation skills through the practices of yoga and mindfulness.