“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life.”Anne Lamott
Chances are, we all know a few perfectionists in our lives or perhaps we’re perfectionists ourselves and never seem to let it go until we’re satisfied – but the trouble is, perfectionists are never satisfied. And when it comes to parenthood, especially for mothers, we want to exceed and go beyond what our own parents may have done for us. Or perhaps succumb to what the world is telling us to do - but only better.
When asking many mothers of adult children what they would have done differently, the recurring theme of the discussions was that they’d wished we had been less uptight and more spontaneous - another way of saying they were scared stiff, perfectionists and worried too much about the wrong things.
Motherhood is full of vulnerabilities
From the minute a woman is pregnant, she is feeling vulnerable. It’s not that we don’t know what we’re doing much of the time, it’s the thought of our children being hurt or harmed – or worse, that we may lose them. These thoughts and emotions cause us to feel anxious and guilty. And as Dr Brene Brown says, guilt leads to shame.
Perfectionists who are mothers have this invisible internal pressure to accomplish raising a popular, accomplished, happy and successful person. They strive for flawlessness in all parts of their life and create unattainably high standards for themselves and their children. They’re overly concerned about what others think of them and their parenting style.
Mistakes are never seen as a normal part of learning and growing but instead viewed as personal failures. As a result, they often beat themselves up with an abusive internal dialogue. They tell themselves they’re bad mothers, stupid, inadequate, lazy and may believe something is fundamentally wrong with them.
Not all perfectionists are concerned with only accomplishments. There are some perfectionists who are focused on achieving a perfect physical appearance. Today’s society undeniably overvalues the importance of people’s physical appearance.
There’s a societal expectation that, after you have a baby, you must erase every trace of it on your body. We’re taught to hate our ‘saggy breasts’, stretch marks, and protruding belly buttons. Why should women eradicate motherhood from our bodies like it’s dirty or shameful or as if it never happened?
Perfectionists compete with other mums
Competition amongst mums is a big trigger for perfectionists. They need constant validation on whether they are a ‘good mother’ or a ‘bad mother’. Social media makes it easy to compare with other mums, especially celebrities who seem to have it all.
A perfectionist may be too focused on her child’s academic achievements and as a result, she may put unnecessary pressure on her child and may not emphasise other values, such as empathy and creativity – which is just as important for leading a fulfilling life.
How to curb the perfectionist dialogue
The good news is that with a few simple strategies and often with the help of a mental health professional, you can ‘tackle’ perfectionism and find a better balance in your life. Below are 6 ways to help you cope and overcome perfectionism:
- Be aware of your negative self-dialogue. When you are harsh and critical with yourself, it can reinforce perfectionism. Tackle any negative self-talk by turning the volume down rather than trying to shut out all critical thoughts completely (which is almost impossible). Try to avoid comparing your efforts to those of others. Just try to be you.
- Practice self-compassion and authenticity. Instead of focusing on making yourself and your children perfect, put your heart and mind into connecting with the people you love and care for. Authenticity is a requirement for the pleasure of love, joy, fun and overall happiness. Smile authentically. Reward yourself for the effort of having fun. Have fun and be fun to be around.
- Take the time to examine whether your goals and expectations are attainable and realistic. If they are not, give yourself permission to change them, otherwise, you may be setting yourself up for failure.
- Examine your irrational fears of failure with a professional. A professional can help with putting your irrational fears into perspective and help you to reach your full potential.
- Let go of expectations and try to accept people as they are. We are all unique and flawed as human beings. Don’t judge your flaws or those of others. Embrace your essence and see it as all part of being you. Amazing things will happen if you let go.
- If this list seems overwhelming, seek professional help. The change will come faster when you have a guide who can help you be yourself with a little less discomfort.
We hope these strategies can help you. Remember help is out there. Asking for help means you're strong enough to admit you don't have all the answers. And that's a real sign of strength.
Written by Cathy Ngo