parenting and perfection

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This isn’t really about knitting at all, but it’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately and I need a place to “think out loud”, so to speak. Perfectionism is something I’ve struggled with my entire life. I think it sometimes gets framed in a positive way, like being a perfectionist means that you’re more attentive or careful and produce better things because of that – and maybe that’s so, but really, it’s toxic. It’s debilitating. I’m speaking from experience, here – it has literally been a debilitating force in my life. Perfectionism means living your life in constant fear of messing up, of being “found out” as imperfect, and that’s just not ever going to be a healthy way to live. Since nobody is perfect, you will *always* be a failure if perfection is your goal, and this will either lead you to stop trying (because why try, if you will only fail?) or to be miserable and self-loathing (because you’re trying, but aren’t perfect), the latter being where I’ve been most of my life. So…don’t make perfection the goal. This, I’d say, has been the big project of adulthood for me: letting go of the perfectionist mindset, and trying to adopt a new inner voice to talk to myself with, one that is not the cruel, judgmental perfectionist demon, but instead, is kind and patient with me (this is something I’ve worked on via DBT, as part of the therapy I’ve engaged in these past several years). And as a parent, one of my biggest goals is to raise M to be a lifelong learner, to have a “growth” mindset, which means she will need to be open to and unafraid of failure and mistakes – and this means I hope like crazy that I can help her not to develop the perfectionist demon, not to have that nasty inner voice, even though it’s something I struggle with myself.

Lately, I’ve been finding myself falling into the perfectionist traps my mind sets more frequently. M is 3.5 now. This means she is in a developmental stage where it is completely normal for her to be extremely fussy and particular about rules and routines, and to incessantly “correct” me for perceived violations of them. I can’t go a day without her telling me I “forgot” something (whether I actually did or not – she’ll often say I “forgot to get” her something that she only just then decided she wanted!), or that I said the wrong word, or did something the wrong way…it’s constant. And while I know it’s developmentally appropriate (it’s GOOD that she’s noticing rules and patterns!), and I shouldn’t take it personally, I’ve been struggling a lot with having what is essentially a personification of the nasty perfectionist voice inside my own head actually talking out loud to me. Because there’s a part of me that already IS kind of beating myself up when I say the wrong word, or mess up in any way, really – I haven’t vanquished the perfectionist demon, after all, I’ve just gotten better at ignoring it, pushing it way way down into the back of my mind. But when those “you’re wrong! you messed up! you failed!” thoughts are being voiced by an actual person…gosh, it’s a lot harder to ignore that. And then the perfectionist demon gets a toehold again. It’s wearing me down a bit. Especially since often, when I get something wrong, it isn’t just that M tells me about it – she often utterly loses it and unleashes an intense (and sometimes violent) tantrum. It makes me want to give up, sometimes – I end up being just constantly afraid that I will “screw up”, walking on eggshells constantly, just…afraid, and feeling like I am never good enough, those all too familiar feelings that the toxic perfectionist inner voice has pushed me towards my whole life. And that’s no way to enjoy life with your kid.

So that’s hard. But the other side of it is that as a parent, if you struggle, and you are open about struggling, you get a LOT of…well, we’ll call it feedback from other adults. Often it feels like (and let’s be honest, IS) judgement – the struggles you’re having are all your fault for not being a better parent, etc. But even the well-intentioned stuff can feel a bit triggering, if perfectionism is a problem area for you. Here’s what I mean. When I talk about M’s tantrums and how she struggles with things like transitions and change (these are perfectly normal characteristics for a child with M’s “high need” temperament, by the way), the advice I get is to “be consistent”. I want to be clear: this is NOT bad advice, at all. It’s very good advice. Consistency is very helpful for all kids, but especially for kids like M who have much higher needs in terms of structure and routine. But here’s where my inner perfectionist demon goes with that advice: if I ever fail to be perfectly consistent (e.g. those times when I mess up in the moment, because, well, nobody’s perfect, especially when as sleep deprived as I am due to M’s nighttime difficulties), then whatever problems ensue are entirely my fault, due to that failure to be consistent. And I mean, there’s a sense of truth to that, because nobody is perfectly consistent, and if consistency is what’s important, then the problems that arise will arise when inconsistency creeps in. But I’m guessing that even with perfect consistency in their parents’ actions/responses/etc, kids will still lose it sometimes – they’ve got a lot of big feelings to figure out! And the perfectionist twist on it, to view the struggles as purely a matter of personal failing, to make it about self-blame instead of treating it as a thing that happens because hey, nobody is perfect, is a toxic soup that I’m currently trying very hard to spit out. The nasty thing my mind does to me in that situation is it says that the badness that is happening right now is because *I* am bad. I’ve always had this feeling that if I screw up, then I deserve to be punished in some way, I deserve bad things to happen to me – and this ends up making it feel as though M’s tantrums are my punishment for not being a perfect parent. That if I could just anticipate her needs better, that if I just didn’t say the wrong thing, that if I didn’t screw up, that if I were more perfectly consistent, then I wouldn’t be “punished” with a tantrum. I “deserve” those tantrums for my failure to be perfect. And that’s just a really, really unhealthy (and wrong, and bad for my relationship with M) way to think about it. I know this, intellectually, but it doesn’t keep my mind from going there sometimes.

One thing worth noting is that I’ve seen plenty of toddler/preschooler tantrums in my time, and M’s are…on the extreme end, which I’m sure has something to do with why I find them so punishing. We’re looking into whether she should be getting some help for sensory processing and other issues – she does a lot of self-injurious things (finger-biting, hair-pulling) when she’s upset, and it seems to me more like she’s doing them because she’s struggling to manage her big emotions, and less like she’s doing them to manipulate me (though it does pretty effectively shred my heart). You hear a lot about ignoring tantrums, about not “giving in” to tantrums (it’s that consistency thing, again), but when your kid is hurting herself, you also can’t (or at least, shouldn’t!) just ignore it. (I also tend to think “just ignoring” is a bad thing to do to anyone who you love and want to build/maintain a relationship with, but that’s another topic). I try to comfort her, and I’m getting good at a sort of “straightjacket” hold that keeps her from biting her fingers, but it’s not an easy thing to do, physically (she’s 40 pounds!) or emotionally (again, especially when sleep-deprived). She needs better coping skills, and we’re trying to help her develop them – but of course, as is probably obvious from the way I talk, I’m not exactly a master of coping skills, myself (it’s work-in-progress, here…but I *am* working on it). It’s hard to be the parent of a “high need”/”spirited” kid, and harder still when you’ve got your own struggles in terms of sensitivity and sensory issues (M pushes me into sensory overload quite frequently – my world “goes purple” when she’s screaming full-volume, and I often want to crawl under heavy blankets or even a mattress, because being squished calms me – but of course, I’m the grown-up, so I can’t just go do that, usually). Add in a tendency towards perfectionism, and you’ve got a recipe for misery. Perfectionists crave positive feedback – it means you’re not screwing up! But you’re not going to get much positive feedback as the parent of a “difficult” child – people won’t see how hard you work, how much effort and energy you put into coaching your kid, anticipating their needs, helping them manage themselves in new situations, how much “better” your kid is being than if you *weren’t* doing those things – they’ll just see a kid who’s too intense, whose worn-down looking parent “can’t control” them (though I’d argue that any parent who truly could control their child must be an abusive one who has broken that child, because that is the only way you “control” other human beings). You just won’t get the gold stars, the “her parents do such a great job with her” comments that you’ll hear people make about other people’s kids. So you’ve got to let go and just accept things as they are, and believe that you are doing your best, and that it is enough, even if you never hear that from anyone else. That you are enough, and your kid is enough, whether you’re recognized by anyone else as “good” or not. But that’s hard. I don’t have good answers, here – I’m still working on finding my way – but I do think DBT has been helpful. And I thought it might also be helpful to think about this “out loud”, because I know that for me, one of the most helpful things when I am in self-loathing mode, thinking that I must be a horrible parent because I feel X or struggle with Y, is to see that no, I am not alone, this is a thing that others feel and I am not uniquely awful at parenting. So I hope this helps someone else who has similar struggles, and maybe also that it helps those who don’t struggle with perfectionism understand the ugly, painful side of it a little better.

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7 thoughts on “parenting and perfection

  1. Michele

    Whitney, Have you considered a structured activity program with on occupational therapist for M.? It could be a way to teach her to channel some of her energy. I don’t know anyplace in Rochester, but other places have creative play programs that seem to be helpful.

  2. Kim

    thank you for sharing. You’ve just articulated – beautifully – how I have felt and continue to feel about myself and parenting and my relationship to it.

    Not trying to co-opt your experience just so grateful to know there may be some reasons and relief for our experience

  3. sorcinem

    Just wrote a long comment that was lost by my forgotten password. Gr. I want you to know you are not alone. I have two kids, very different temperament. One is easy. One is high needs. It is getting better ash she gets older and able to communicate what her needs are but it is a daily challenge to stay calm and loving. Thanks for your blog. I always enjoy your thoughts on the parenting journey.

  4. Paulette

    As a Grandmother of four and a Mother of two you have to take child rearing one day at a time. Be patient with yourself and M. There are a lot of skilled people who would be able to guide you through the toddler years. Physical activities for both of you could help reduce the stress of being a perfectionist. Some toddlers focus on every detail because they want to be just like you. Maybe M needs more distractions.

  5. Christine

    Don’t believe anyone can be called a perfectionist, but maybe a preferentialist. What you think is perfection may not be what I call perfection. However we all prefer to do things a certain way, and that is great, nothing wrong with that. Other people cannot determine what is perfection for you.

  6. Libby Carswell

    Sending you good thoughts. I hope you are being a bit easier on yourself. Just a bit at a time.

    Sent from my iPad

    >

  7. This is a rough age (I don’t miss age 3-4 at all) and it sounds like you have special challenges. also I think the Internet makes it oh SO much easier for people to pass judgement on parents. Tune it out. It’s also far too easy to make parenting a toddler look like innocent bliss, all berry picking and early morning cuddles as if the sleep deprivation and tantrums and mind crushing boredom aren’t really a big deal. Tune that out too. I hope you’re not trying to deal with all of this alone and that you’re getting proper support at home and professionally as needed. Sending you good vibes here!

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