December 11, 2014

Perfectionism, an ill of the 21st century

I was talking to a distraught mom the other day, about her daughter who never feels good enough about herself. Funny (or maybe not so funny) thing is that the mom doesn’t feel good enough either. And she uses her daughter’s insecurities as a weapon to beat herself up. As in: The mom blames herself for her daughter’s neurotic perfectionism. She accuses herself of not being a good enough mother in various ways. In essence, mom is saying to herself, in paroxysms of negative self-talk, that her being an imperfect mother is making her daughter be a perfectionist.

If this were not so sad, it would be funny.

Here’s the rub: We do contribute to our kids’ neurotic perfectionism. Too many of us have a child (usually it’s one) who can’t be happy with themselves, and we’re always trying to fix their self esteem. But the irony is that it isn’t their self esteem we need to fix.

Here’s my experience on this: When my daughter was very sick, I went to a therapist. After the first session (which was all about me) I said to the therapist: “This was all very interesting but how will talking about me help my sick child?” The therapist replied very kindly, as if speaking to a beloved fool: “Would your life have been different if your mother was different?”

Of course she was right. Between the lines was the message that only by healing my own wounds could I help my daughter. Because we’re all being the absolutely best mother we can be at any given moment, and our imperfection as mothers is a truth that we need to wear proudly. If we don’t – if we strive for perfection and punish ourselves when we – inevitably – fall short, we are communicating to our children that they too should be perfectionists who hate themselves when they fall short.

And that’s who they will become. Because monkey see, monkey do. Role modelling is by far the most powerful act of parenting.

I have tried – and watched other parents try – to bolster my child’s self esteem by trying to convince her of her strengths. It never worked even a little bit. Kids are too smart for us and they know what we’re trying to do, so they don’t buy in. They are also unconvinced because they are unconvincable. You can’t convince anyone to have self esteem. It comes from inside.

You can, however, model it. I am not a religious person, but when I began to have faith that the world is a safe place and I am a good person, I became a more helpful mother to my daughter. I created a larger space – almost literally – for her to inhabit. When I began to model self-acceptance, she saw something she could become.

Inherent in this challenge is to stop trying to sell our perfectionist children on their worth. Sure, a little bit once in a while. You can say: “It’s funny. You see yourself as not smart. But I see you as so smart. It’s interesting how sometimes we see ourselves differently from how others see us.” That helps kids clue into that they may have a distorted picture of themselves.

But say no more. Don’t pick up the rope, as we say at camp. When your smart little perfectionist starts to debate you in order to prove that she’s not smart, refuse to engage. Let it go. Say you’re done and leave the room

Because debating with perfectionism is like starting a Supreme Court case. It’ll go on for years and probably nobody gets anywhere. Plus which if you debate, you’re taking on responsibility for your child’s self esteem, and that puts the hamster on the wheel.

Don’t be the hamster. Get off the wheel. You’re already doing your best as a parent (If you’re not, fix it.) If you are, focus on believing in yourself and believing in your child. That will help both of you feel better in your skin.

How to support kids who struggle with perfectionism

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