The pressure crept in as a young mother; fortunately my independent nature cast it aside. But today as an empty-nester, I see it clearly in the next generation: Parents trying to be perfect. I especially notice it in younger mothers...The need for "perfect houses," "perfect décor," "perfect bodies," "perfect hair," "perfect attire," "perfect accessories," "perfect cars," "perfect car seats," "perfect strollers," "perfect diaper bags (designer)," "perfectly coiffed children," "perfectly dressed children," with "perfect accessories" and "perfect grades" and on and on and on it goes. It is overwhelming to appear and be the "Perfect Mother" not to mention wife, employee/employer, friend, sister, daughter, volunteer, etc. It is a paralyzing cycle of perceptions and pressures.
In our modern world, "keeping up with the Jones'" is obsolete; "keeping up with the rich and famous" is more like it, even if we are neither "rich nor famous." This technological society has given us views/goals of living lavish lifestyles, with lavish homes, cars, boats, vacations, décor, clothing, etc. The once "village perspective" of life has turned "global." We are not just interested in how our neighbors live; we want to live like the wealthiest in the world. We watch "Design on a Dime" and wonder why we can't decorate our rooms like that. Problem is a TV "dime" equals $1,000. Many do not have $1000 to decorate one room, nor have furniture builders at our disposal who work for nothing...everything has a price tag. Or take for example, "House Hunters," the TV show where people are searching for their next home. It has struck me odd that people with moderate budgets expect "high end" finishes. Heaven forbid a kitchen does not have granite countertops! Nope, that house is off the list. And, the expectations go on. When did granite countertops become a home standard? When did builders in modest houses put that expense into kitchens? Objectively, it is absurd to expect such standards, but obviously many do not live realistically. They live with ideals and expectations which are unrealistic and flawed.
The Struggle with Perfectionism is All Around
I have seen it in frustrated mothers' eyes. I have heard it in sighs of parents straining for perfection. I have noted it in children living under the pressure. Perfectionism is the quest of many: things have to be a certain way, done by certain people, with specific details to be acceptable or good or adequate. Mothers/Parents/Children are all reaching for an unattainable goal. Perfection is a useless pursuit! It cannot be achieved! We are all human and "to err is human." We are imperfect beings in an imperfect world. Only the appearance of perfection can be reached...and that is only from a distance. Every person, when viewed close enough, contains errors, mistakes, and imperfections. There is no escaping this trait of man; even the best among us cannot measure up. Yet, so many people pursue it daily. It is exhausting and futile and it will rob people, homes, and families of happiness and joy.
Dr. Adrian Rogers, a well noted 20-21st century pastor, writing on the "Prison of Perfectionism" wrote; "What is perfectionism? I give it to you in a sentence. It is judging yourself by your achievements. You measure your worth in terms of productivity and accomplishment, and you're always striving for unattainable goals, never reaching them, and, therefore, never, ever being fulfilled. The key words of a perfectionist are I must, I should, and I ought. Perfectionists are not led; they are driven." (http://www.crosswalk.com/family/parenting/freedom-from-the-prison-of-perfectionism-1149538.html, accessed Feb. 2012)
Hara Estroff Marano, Editor at Large of Psychology Today, writes, "Perfectionism is an endless report card; it keeps people completely self-absorbed, engaged in perpetual self-evaluation—reaping relentless frustration and doomed to anxiety and depression."
Psychologist Randy O. Frost, a professor at Smith College, whose research over the past two decades has helped define the dimensions of perfectionism says, "The worst thing about it is that self-worth is contingent on performance—that if you don't do well, you're worthless. Perfectionism may be the ultimate self-defeating behavior. It turns people into slaves of success—but keeps them focused on failure." "If I don't," is a mantra of the perfectionist. "If I don't do this right..." or "If I don't have that..." or "If I don't throw the perfect birthday bash." Achieving based on a perfect standard always points the finger back on the one trying. "If I don't have it all together, what will others think of me?" The goals are always tied up in self...self-worth and fulfillment is measured by the degree of "perfectness," which is again, unattainable and resulting in Mom/parent/child/coworker always feeling defeated.
What an utterly exhausting and futile way to live! It can be subtle and habitually masked by a plethora of good intentions; i.e. wanting the best for children, wanting the best for ourselves, wanting to make a difference. Yet many find themselves caught in the cycle, never completely satisfied with life, people, family, home, work, or children.
How to Get Off the Perfectionism Platform
So, what is the solution to perfectionism? First, admit to perfectionist tendencies. Call it what it is... you aren't alone. Second, ban the word "perfect" from your tongue, thoughts, and home. It is an irrelevant word for humans. Third, resolve to let go of being perfect and give yourself permission to be human. Accept that mistakes are lessons to learn from; admit them and move forward. Quit trying to be someone else or to live up to someone else's standards. Be you...flaws and all! Fourth, make "excellence" your standard. Dr. Jim Taylor PhD, clinical associate professor at the University of Denver, who specializes in the psychology of parenting suggests, "Excellence takes all of the good aspects of perfection (e.g. achievement, high standards, disappointment with failure) and leaves out its unhealthy parts (e.g. connecting achievement with self-esteem, unrealistic expectations, fear of failure). Excellence still sets the bar high, but it never connects failure to self-worth or love." (http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-power-prime/200911/parenting-raise-excellent-not-perfect-children?page=2, accessed Feb. 2012) Fifth, give yourself permission to be "average." No one excels at everything. If events are not your "thing," don't make the "best birthday party ever" your goal ... strive for everyone to have fun. If decorating is not your forte, accept a home that is comfortable for you and your family. Sixth, don't demand "perfection" of others; your spouse, children, friends, family, co-workers, etc. Free them from YOUR perfect ideals. They could never measure up in the first place but accepting them for who they are will endear them to you. You will have released the pressure valve of trying to please a set of nonviable expectations!
No two of us are alike. We all have different strengths and weaknesses. I implore, especially the mothers of today...don't try to be like everyone else. Be yourself! Strive to be the most excellent person you can but don't allow yourself to be defined by a "perfectionist society." You bring to this world a unique set of gifts and talents and so do your husband and children. Strive to love them with excellence and to make your home a place of joy with realistic expectations and pursuits. Give your children the freedom to try and fail and try again. Free them to explore the world, sometimes being average and sometimes succeeding. Gift them with the philosophy of "excellence" without the pressures of perfection. And please....do the same for yourself.
How to Give Praise...To Self and Others
By Hara Estroff Maran
Praise given the wrong way can reinforce the need to be perfect.
1. Reward the process and the effort, not the talent or the product. Shifting focus to effort illuminates the key to mastery.
2. When a child gets a great grade on a paper, resist the urge to say, "You're brilliant." Instead say, "You're a really good thinker." Be specific: "It's great that you connected X to Y" or ask a question that focuses attention on the thinking, "What got you interested in this?" If you praise a child's intelligence and then they fail at something, they think they are no longer smart and may lose interest in work. Children praised for effort get energized in the face of difficulty.
3. Praising effort also gives kids (and adults) the keys to their own mental health. The brain is built so that it generates positive mood states—and subdues negative ones—as it works hard toward a meaningful goal.
4. Do not supply material rewards for achievement. Instead, congratulate your kid/friend/coworker. Ask why things worked out so well and ask to what your child/friend/coworker attributes her success. You want kids to understand exactly which efforts pay off in which situations. Supplying external rewards kills internal motivation and turns an activity into inspiration-crushing work.