Motherhood has been the biggest kick in the teeth to my overachieving, perfectionist self. It has been a challenge to balance my desire to control everything with the chaotic and unexpected nature of parenting. And it has forced me to reconcile my own ideals of perfectionism with the reality that we are all good enough just the way we are.
But it is still a daily struggle.
I’m really good at playing it cool. Many people who don’t know me well actually think I am very laid back and relaxed. It helps that I have a sense of humor about things. However, my sarcasm is often a way of deflecting the anxiety I feel when things are not perfect or the way I expect them to be.
Things naturally came very easily for me when I was younger. I was an excellent student, graduated 3rd in my class, was good at sports, was involved in activities and had a lot of friends.
I was a big fish in a little pond, as they say. In other words, I had a very positive and successful experience in my relatively small high school.
When I went away to college, I did not know how to do too much for myself. I especially did not know how to solve problems or work through challenges.
I went to a very competitive, highly ranked academic university. And I found myself home by Thanksgiving of my first semester clinically depressed and unable to function.
You see, when I received my first grade that was not an A, I fell apart. My entire self worth had been wrapped up in my performance. I had no grit, no stamina, and was not able to appreciate the challenge of the learning process.
I wanted my good grade, my gold star, and my recognition for being the best because that meant I was worthy. I was a victim of all or nothing thinking.
Since then, I have spent a lot of time in therapy, on medication, and/or working to let go of the need to be perfect. I know that the first step to change is awareness.
My head and my heart are not always on the same page. I still have that tendency to want to control things and to prove to the world that I am worthy through my accomplishments.
Becoming a mother changed everything. I do not want my kids to struggle the same way I do. I want better for them. I want them to be happy, content, joyful, grateful and to live deeply and with a sense of fulfillment that they are perfect just the way they are.
I want them to challenge themselves and enjoy the process of learning new things. I don’t want them to obsess about the end result and whether or not it was done perfectly.
So I tell them these things. Often. Even though I feel like an impostor sometimes, I still send them positive messages about authenticity and being their true selves.
I know that my quest for perfection is unrealistic and exhausting. My rational, logical side knows. But my insecurities still sometimes get the best of me.
When that happens, I have found strategies that have worked for me to let go of the need for perfection.
Discover your passion
As moms, we get caught up in the details of providing for everyone else in the family. If you are a perfectionist, this alone is a full-time job.
Your kids need to be fed nutritious meals, well educated in the best schools, supplemented with educational extracurricular activities, athletically trained, and, let’s not forget, driven to and from all of these things. I’m tired just writing that.
Moms, you need to figure out what recharges you not as a parent, but as a person. What makes you feel alive? Think about what you would do with your time if you had zero other responsibilities. Then make time to do that.
Being a perfectionist mom leads to burnout. Not only do we tend to lose our identity when we become moms, but our perfectionism hinders our ability to enjoy any part of our kids doing what kids do.
We get stuck thinking about the bad grade they got on the test or why they are not good enough to start on the team. Or why they are filthy dirty and their hair a mess. What will people think?
If we shift our thinking and channel our energy into our passions, then we are less likely to be affected by this never-ending cycle of feeling like we are not enough.
It might seem counterintuitive to set MORE expectations for ourselves. The key is to be realistic and focus on the things you can easily control.
For instance, it feels good to establish certain routines and to maintain certain standards. Getting the family involved makes this step even easier (and benefits them as well)!
When the routines are completed, I feel a sense of satisfaction and calm. And you know what? So do my kids. This is not to make them rigid or too reliant on a routine. This helps us all feel productive and keeps things from becoming too overwhelming.
I also maintain a to-do list and include a FEW things that I can easily check off. Not only does this keep me organized and free up mental space, it allows me to feel like I have accomplished something at the end of the day. It satisfies my perfectionist tendencies without fully activating the incessant need to do more and feeling like it’s never enough.
Learn to say no
I had such guilt as a working parent that I volunteered to be the homeroom mom in BOTH of my kids’ classes one year. I would literally take off from my job to plan, organize and host classroom parties when there were plenty stay at home moms willing and able to do it.
For some reason, I feIt like I had something to prove and I needed to throw the best class party and give the best teacher gifts as the homeroom parent.
This became such a chore that when I think back, I don’t even recall if the kids enjoyed the parties. But I knew what mom forgot to send in lemonade or came late once all of the set up was finished. I ended up feeling overwhelmed, dissatisfied, bitter and resentful.
Since that year, I have learned to say no. My husband is my accountability partner and whenever we attend a back to school night or other group meeting, he reminds me that I do not have to “take over and try to do it better”.
As mothers, we experience the longest days and the shortest years. We feel bogged down by the less than glamorous tasks of parenting yet sense that time is slipping away much too fast to get everything done.
Just like learning to say no is important, learning to prioritize can help you reclaim the most precious resource – time.
It is worthwhile to figure out what tasks might be worth the money to outsource in order to reclaim some time. For instance, look into hiring a cleaning service if it’s in your budget.
You could also join a carpool, meal plan and cook for the week on Sunday, or find a food delivery service. Five Star Home Foods has been a lifesaver for our family.
Whatever it is, learn to prioritize and then let some of the other, less important things go.
I know, this one is easier said than done. We live in a world where social media presents us (and our kids) with a photoshopped image of perfection. However, it’s not reality. It’s a polished resume of people’s best moments. I tell myself this a lot to keep it in perspective.
Another way to stop comparing is to practice gratitude, not just once or twice, but make it a habit. The gratitude habit helps you retrain your brain to stop comparing your life to everyone else’s. You can learn to acknowledge (and be thankful for) what you have rather than focus on what you are lacking.
We are all imperfect – that’s what makes us human. This might be a difficult pill to swallow as a perfectionist. Our greatest accomplishments, best performances, or perfect scores will not change the fact that we are flawed human beings.
Motherhood, especially, is messy, chaotic, and uncontrollable. But it is also wonderful, rewarding and full of joyful moments. There is a difference between trying to BE perfect and being the perfect mom for YOUR kids. We just need to let go and enjoy the journey.