The costs of perfectionism and its surprising origins.
I didn't realize how much of a perfectionist I was until I became a parent. For the first several weeks of parenthood, I spent every evening recounting each mistake I'd made that day and berating myself that I must do better. I didn't give my daughter healthy enough foods, I should have insisted she take a nap, I wasn't strict enough with her. The list of my mistakes grew every night taking my sanity with it. I was never fully in the moment and enjoying my daughter because I was judging myself so harshly at every turn. I felt as if other parents had an instruction manual I didn't get. It seemed so easy for everyone else, why wasn't it easy for me? I know most of you are who are parents are probably laughing to yourselves that I could be so foolish as to believe that parenthood was easy for anyone, but that is the power of perfectionism. I could only seem my own faults, not anyone else's.
I read hundreds of parenting books, took classes, and learned as much as I could from different sources about parenting styles. All of these efforts left me exhausted and distraught. I was unaware of the energy I was giving to perfectionism at the expense of my health and the time I could have been spending with my daughter.
As a single parent, I also put a lot of pressure on myself to stay healthy. I couldn't risk having to ask someone else to raise my daughter, primarily because I believed I was the only person that could do it correctly, another pillar of perfectionism. In my mind, being the perfect parent meant ignoring my own needs and making myself fully available to my daughter. I only left her two times for a total of about 3 hours in the first year we were a family. Of course, I was so exhausted I couldn’t even enjoy the outings and I’d already forgotten what it was that I liked to do with my time before I became a parent. I’m not ashamed to admit now that in one of those outings I drove to the drug store in my neighborhood, bought a family size bag of chips and a liter of Coke and ate and drank to my heart’s content while sitting in the car in the parking lot. I should have seen this episode as a wake up call, but I couldn't. I had already bought into perfectionism and that if I just tried harder, I could be the perfect mother.
As my anxiety ratcheted up, so did my daughter's. It never occurred to me that I could control my own anxiety; it felt like my anxiety controlled me. I also didn't realize that perfectionism was at the core of my problem. I thought I was just a parent with high standards for myself. Then a friend pointed out that maybe my anxiety was making my daughter anxious. Hmmm, I thought. How did she know I had anxiety? Was it obvious? It was, to everyone but me.
Fast forward ten years and I'm still battling perfectionism and anxiety, but I've made a lot of progress. I'm learning to be easier on myself and practice self-care regularly. Meditation, yoga and practicing gratitude help to keep me present and focused on what's important, my relationship with my daughter. As my anxiety has dissipated, so has my daughter's and for that I am grateful. I believe modeling self-care for our children is one of the best gifts that we can give them. We can teach them that caring for themselves is an act of love and when they love and care for themselves, that grace is extended to others in their lives.
In my quest to become merely human, the first self-help book I bought was Brene Brown’s The Gifts of Imperfection. I love the title because it completely reframes perfectionism. It’s not something to strive for, in fact it’s harmful and dehumanizing. I’ve marked nearly every page of my copy of the book because so much of it resonates with me and the impossible life I tried to live for so long. Every page spoke to me about how I let my own past issues cloud my perceptions of how I needed to operate in the world. How our culture equates success with not needing help from anyone and giving us the perception that we are achieving things on our own, that we are completely self made. I now call Brene Brown the ‘shit-stirrer’ because with each new book she releases, I end up going deep into the weeds of my past to reclaim another part of myself. Damn you, Brene Brown!
I've also come to learn from the work of Kenneth Jones and Tema Okun that perfectionism is a key attribute of white supremacy. I was stunned when I first learned this because it made this characteristic endemic to our culture; none of us are immune. It wasn't just me, perfectionism is baked into our society and keeps us focused on what's wrong rather than what's right. Perfectionism keeps us chained to our inadequacies by equating our mistakes with our identity. I certainly felt like a failure when I was adding up my mistakes at the end of each day. Being a perfectionist took up so much time and energy that I barely had time to focus on other things or other people. I certainly didn’t have the time or energy to worry about people who were oppressed or marginalized. My perfectionism kept me disconnected from others and myself. My constant toiling to attain perfection kept my mind and eyes off of what was going on in the world and as such it never entered my mind to look to help others because I couldn’t even help myself. I was also completely oblivious to my privilege as a white woman. I was so, so far from perfect.
According to Jones and Okun, we’ve been taught to unconsciously use perfectionism, along with other traits of white supremacy, as our norm which makes it extremely difficult for other people to be accepted if they too do not embrace perfectionism. This is one way 'othering' begins. I like to consider myself a contrarian, so breaking the chains of perfectionism and working to dismantle white supremacy simultaneously give me all the inspiration I need to continue to allow myself to make mistakes. After all, allowing our kids to see us make mistakes and recover from them is powerful. It’s the gift of our imperfections and because we are human, it keeps on giving.