How do you feel about making mistakes? The fear of making mistakes can hold people back in all sorts of ways. It can cause people to never get started on a project. It can cause loneliness because people find it difficult to let others see who they really are. It can slow people down because they have to spend a lot of time on each individual task to "get it right".

For busy parents, this fear affects both themselves and their children.  They may hold themselves back from trying something new with their children.  They may find it difficult to connect with people and share how they're really feeling.  They can be exhausted because they have set very high standards for themselves and have to work hard to maintain them.

This in turn can lead to a difficult relationship with both themselves and the children.

Parents who want to avoid making mistakes can measure themselves in what they get done in the home (e.g., a clean, organised house and clean, organised children); and in the way they parent (e.g., spending time playing with the children, educating them, and always being loving and patient).

As it is very difficult to navigate life without making mistakes, self-criticism may result.  Parents may think they are lacking because they cannot achieve their own high standards. They tell themselves they are "bad" parents.

This is a very painful story to be telling themselves.  The anxiety it causes can make parents be quite critical of their children.  They want to be better parents and this makes them set high standards for their children and for themselves. They start to measure their worth as parents by how the children perform. Frustration and blame may result when the children do not behave as the parents need them to do.

The parents may also find themselves so invested in the way the child presents themselves to the outside world that they do the tasks that the child should be learning.  For example, they may hover over their child at homework time and tell them what to do.  The parent will check that the child has everything they need for school, rather than the child.  The parent makes themselves responsible for the child's behaviour and this means the child does not learn to be responsible for themselves.

Parents may find themselves hiding their perceived mistakes and lack of character from other people.  They fear that other people will judge them for not being a "good parent".  This means they will cut themselves off from supportive relationships where difficulties can be shared, put into perspective and even laughed over. Life can feel very lonely as a result.

Another word for the fear of making mistakes is perfectionism.  It's about the need to appear, or to be, perfect.  It's about the belief that it is possible to achieve perfection.  It can often be about shielding ourselves from other people rejecting us because we do not feel we are good enough.

What Causes Perfectionism?

It is thought that the need to be perfect is rooted in childhood.  It can be about:

  • Trying to gain attention from a parent who is absent in some way, e.g., pre-occupied, depressed, neglectful
  • Trying to avoid getting into trouble with a critical parent
  • Trying to please parents who have high standards

In each of these examples, the child seeks to control their environment through their behaviour.  Thus perfectionism is often about results.  It means that we begin to measure our worth not by who we are, but by what we do.

This is why perfectionism can be so damaging to us.  How do we ever know that our results are good enough?  We are on a hamster wheel of constantly running after an elusive "perfect" outcome. We are unable to stop and just be ourselves because we fear that is not enough.  Rather than knowing that we are enough just in who we are, we seek to validate ourselves in what we do.

How Can We Address Perfectionism in Ourselves and in Our Parenting?

  1. The first step is to recognise that perfectionism is not the same as striving to be the best we can be.  There is nothing wrong with wanting to develop, achieve and grow as a person.  Perfectionism tends to be about the finished product, about what is presented to the world.  It is not necessarily about the process.  If we can focus on the process we may be less critical of ourselves and our children. We can encourage both ourselves and our children to try hard without making our value about the result, about the outcome.
  2. Acknowledge where perfectionism is showing up in our lives.  It can be different for different people.  It may be about our work or our activities. It may be about our appearance both in grooming terms and how we present our car, house or garden. We may set high expectations for other people and have difficult, critical relationships when they fail to live up to our expectations. We may set high standards for our health which affects our diet and exercise.  We can set high standards for our parenting.
  3. Think about what is really important to us.  It may be that we have never questioned what we think we are expected to be and do.  What do we really want from life?  Are the standards we are setting our own standards, or are they standards that we have inherited from our parents or our peers?
  4. Question our "all or nothing" thinking.  This is all about equating mistakes with "failure". It is about expecting ourselves to constantly succeed.  It means we give up when we don't get it right first time.  It means we think we've failed when we've come second.  It's what makes us use words such as "always", or "never" about ourselves, our partners and our children.  It makes our view of ourselves and others two dimensional. Is it really true that we "always" do something? That our partner/children "never" do something? That we are all bad when everyone else is good?
  5.  Admit that where unhealthy perfectionism exists, it does not serve us.  It is healthy to reflect on our performance and seek to improve it. It is unhealthy for that reflection to turn into criticism of ourselves and others.  We can use perfectionism to punish ourselves, to tell ourselves that we are the bad people we always believed ourselves to be.  Or we can choose to be kind to ourselves.  We can tell ourselves that we are human and that we make mistakes.  We can tell ourselves that we are allowed to set our own standards and decide on our own priorities. We can choose to live more gently.

If you would like help to address your perfectionism, identify what really matters to you in life, and to live more gently, please contact me for help.


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