I can’t remember when it first started, but it has followed me like my own shadow throughout most of my life. And all too often, it steps forward into the light, smacking me in the face to remind me it’s there.
Am I doing enough for my kids?
Am I dropping the ball at work?
How do I date my husband and spend time with myself and keep the house afloat?
Will my friends forgive me? I haven’t responded to their texts in three days, or maybe longer.
The questions all lead to one response. I am falling short of perfect, messing up, not enough.
Nothing will cause us to look in the mirror at all parts of ourselves more than becoming a parent. And that’s exactly what my two sons have done - reflected back to me this limiting belief that says I have to be exemplary or I am failing.
The trickle-down effect was palpable as I watched my three-year-old son throw his red crayon across the room after coloring out of the lines in his Paw Patrol coloring book. Tears brimming, he wailed, “It is ruined. It’s not the way I wanted to do it. I never want to color again.”
After comforting my son and stumbling across my words, because clearly, I was lacking the skills I wanted to teach, I settled in to relate to his pain. I got it. I really did. Because I have spent most of my life there.
I realized that if I didn’t learn tools to help my son embrace his mistakes, then tears over a scribbled picture would turn into tears about striking out at baseball, getting a B on a paper … and an overwhelming urgency to have all things go his way.
I began reading all the tips and tricks that experts suggested in helping my child overcome his fixed mindset, and with all of my short-hand sticky notes framing my computer, it felt more like putting a band-aid over a deeper wound. The pulse was coming from me. Because while my son was early in his brain development, I was also emotionally immature.
It was time to stop shaming myself for my mistakes and learn to befriend them … to acknowledge them as the teachers they are.
Here are five things I did to help blast through my perfectionism.
1. Get to the root
Carol Dweck, psychologist and the author of Mindset who coined the term growth mindset, says, “Parents think they can hand children permanent confidence—like a gift—by praising their brains and talent. It doesn’t work, and in fact, has the opposite effect. It makes children doubt themselves as soon as anything is hard or anything goes wrong.”
I felt like she wrote this specifically for my child-self. Reflecting back to my youth, my parents, with the best of intentions and full of heart, assured me that I was the best - When I colored a picture, I was the best artist … When I won the track race, I was the best athlete that day … When I got an A on my test, I was the best student. In being told I was “perfect”, I began to fear being “not perfect”. Would they still love me if I fell short of the best? This single question followed me through all future relationships, including motherhood.
And there it was, the root of my perfectionism stemmed from fear of losing my attachments. At least now I knew what I was really dealing with.
2. Learn to release
“True self-confidence is the courage to be open - to welcome change and new ideas regardless of their source. It is not reflected in a title, an expensive suit, a fancy car, or a series of acquisitions. It is reflected in your mindset: your readiness to grow,” says Dweck.
So the new question became, how do I become courageously me?
I wrote down everything that I felt like I was failing. And then I tore the page in half. And then, tore it again. I threw the shredded papers in the recycle bin where they could be transmuted to something useful because my guilt sure wasn’t helping anyone.
3. Adopt a new perspective
Brené Brown, professor, lecturer, and author says that healthy striving is self-focused, asking ourselves, “How can I improve?” whereas perfectionism is other-focused, causing us to ask, “What will they think?”
I realized that being the best was a narrow concept. Instead, I could focus on being my best, and that was fluid minute to minute. Sometimes my best is locking myself in the bathroom for five deep breaths before re-entering the chaos of raising small children, and sometimes the bar is much higher. When I put the power back into myself, to ask what I want and need, I can overcome life’s disruptions with much more resilience.
4. Create a mantra
I knew I needed some sort of mantra to repeat to myself as I was likely to fall back into old habits, at least initially. So I created this practice: Place one hand on your heart, and one hand on your belly. Breathe in: I am love. Breathe out: I am enough. Rinse and repeat all day long.
5. Practiced acceptance
For my children to embrace their mistakes, they had to become safe for me, too. When I did mess up, I noticed my self-talk and focused on shifting from I can’t believe I did this to My mistakes help me learn and grow. With practice, mistakes became allowed, and even welcomed, in our household.
I also circled back to the beginning, my child-self who was a slave to praise. I gave her permission to be loved, flaws and all. Shifting into motherhood, I began to notice and celebrate my boys’ efforts over their outcomes so that they have the freedom to meet challenges head-on without the trepidation of a what if I fail mentality?
My boys and I are learning to do the lionhearted work of being ourselves together. So, you ask, how did I help my sons develop a growth mindset? I started with me.