Toxic Beliefs Series
Our three-year-old, Kate, loves to do jigsaw puzzles. Long after her older brother has given up and wandered off to pretend to be a Jedi or a ninja, she will remain standing over the coffee table, moving the pieces around with her tiny toddler fingers in the empty spaces until they click into place.
As proud as this makes me, to tell you the truth it’s hard for me to watch sometimes. I can see looking over her shoulder where the pieces fit and where they don’t. It’s hard for me to restrain myself from giving her help by turning and shifting the piece in her hand – which as a very independent preschooler she rebukes every time. “I do it myself!”
A few months ago I was watching her in the ultimate moment of final satisfaction as she finally finished a puzzle: that act of discovering and putting in the last piece, the satisfying noise it made as it snapped into place. Her eyes lit up as her hands went up above her head and she yelled out:
That’s odd, I thought. I’ve never noticed her use that word before.
Then, later that day, she was “helping me” unload the dishwasher (read: putting the silverware in the wrong spaces in the drawer) when she dropped the last piece in and said it again: “Perfect!”
Not thirty minutes later I overheard the Spanish version come out of her little mouth while she was coloring a picture in her Disney coloring book: “Perfecto!” (Thanks, Dora the Explorer.)
That’s when I started paying attention.
To hear her say perfect once was cute. But three times in one day? And bilingually!? I started to worry a little.
I know from experience that the word perfect is a double-edged sword. It can feel so fulfilling to get things to line up perfectly, and yet most of the time chasing perfection is a burden. The reality of my life is that it is far from perfect, but the burden of chasing perfection has often filled me with shame, guilt, inadequacy, and stress. Over the years it’s caused me to procrastinate, judge, and despair.
I thought about where Kate might have learned that word, a word that would drive her to do her best and haunt her if she held it as her standard. Surely she had gotten this from school, from TV, from Daddy. But if I thought hard enough I realized it was me. I had taught my daughter a bad word.
In my effort to encourage my kids as they made crafts, practiced new skills, walked and skipped and danced, the words “That’s Perfect!” often popped out of my mouth in praise. At the same time, I often went along behind them correcting their “perfect” work: remaking the bed they had just made, switching the silverware to the right space in the drawer, finishing up the craft, manipulating the puzzle pieces to snap into place when she couldn’t find the right one. I’m pretty sure this is a toxic combination: Speaking out perfection as the goal while non-verbally showing that they’re never quite there.
My kids will have the burden of two parents who are recovering perfectionists. We are trying to do our best at not being the best, at not requiring absolutes of ourselves or those we love. I’ve seen perfectionism’s harmful effects too many times in my own life and others.
Brene Brown calls perfectionism “The 20-ton shield” and says “When perfectionism is driving, shame is always riding shotgun – and fear is the annoying back-seat driver.”
There are times when my children have meltdowns because they can’t do things perfectly. Their craft doesn’t look like the one the teacher showed them, they can’t get their clothes on right-side-out and with arms, legs, and head in the designated holes. I help them calm down and get over the need to do it perfectly, but I need to remind myself I melt down just as often.
I’ve cleaned up my language at home lately. I want my children to see themselves, their work, their play as beautiful signs of who they are: joyful, messy reflections God crafted from dirt and breath. I’m working on that myself – trying to do my best at not being the best, just being me.
Kate loves to watch me get ready for work in the morning. She stands on the scale in my bathroom and reads “her numbers.” Realizing this could be the start of a life-long pursuit of positive self esteem, I used to tell her: “Perfect.”
Now I say: “That’s just right.”
She is: Just right. Perfect or not. And so am I.
Have you struggled with perfectionism? What has helped?
This is the first in a series on Toxic Beliefs. Besides perfectionism what inner impulse has proved toxic in your life?