Don't Worry, Mom

Coping with anxiety in families

Imperfectly Happy

Embracing imperfection

White picket fence
As I child I often had dreams of the adult I would become--a pediatrician in a crisp white coat, an adored mom, the first female President of the United States, a tv journalist with perfectly coifed hair and impeccable makeup breaking tough stories.  I could imagine the perfect house that I would live in with a white picket fence and bright green grass in the yard.  I could even imagine the perfect marriage to the perfect husband and the perfectly behaved children I would have. 

My real life looks little like this.  My perfectly behaved toddler sometimes throws dinner on the floor.  My perfect husband and I sometimes argue and our backyard resembles a mud puddle when it rains significantly.   The terms "coifed" and "crisp" would never be applied to me (except in jest) and our perfect white picket fence just so happens to be made of old chain link.    

As I grew up, the content of the dreams changed, but what took a very long time to change was the desire to be perfect.  I have often wondered where that came from.   When did I start coloring within the lines and worrying about my mistakes?  When did my goal in life become to be infallible?  I still don't know the answers to these questions and probably will never know.  But what I do know is that in having the goal of perfection, I lost the goal of happiness.

These days I embrace my imperfect life and the many imperfections in it.  What I learned over time is that the imperfections in others were the very things that I loved the most.  They were the things that made the person intriguing and made me want to know more--the essential humanity in others that drew me close.  It was through realizing that that I began to embrace my own imperfections and accept them as part of me, rather than something that I needed to fix.  I embrace the imperfections in my child as well--pointing them out as unique and wonderful qualities of her that make her so loveable.

So how do we become so perfectionistic?  And how do we combat those perfectionistic tendencies so we can embrace the imperfectly perfect people who we are? 

The first step in combating perfectionism is to deliberately be imperfect.  Make small mistakes and do not fix them.  This exposure to being imperfect is anxiety-provoking and uncomfortable for those of us who are perfectionistic; and that is how you know that real work is being done.

The second step is to figure out why you want to be perfect.  Perfectionism can be social in nature or about your own standards.  For example, if I want to do a perfect job on a blog post, it might be because I have high standards for myself or it could be because I think that someone else would be disappointed if they saw me make an error.  The motivation behind my perfectionism  can help me to realize where I need to deliberately make mistakes--whether in something that only I will see or something that someone else will see. 

Kids covered in paint
The third type of perfectionism is the perfectionistic standards a person holds for others, for example one's child or significant other.  Our children, and even our significant others, are a reflection of us, and, as such, if we are perfectionistic, we want them to be perfect too.  But since it is impossible to be perfect, this can lead to a child or significant other feeling like a disappointment or a failure--the last thing that we want someone we care about to feel. 

So if you are a perfectionist, think about whether you hold high standards for others.  If so, try to embrace the imperfections in others.  For example, if a child draws a picture for you and in it, the sun is green, you can either correct the child "That's great honey, but the sun is green in this picture and it should be yellow," or you can embrace the imperfection "I love how you made the sun green!  What a creative choice!  What made you decide to make it green?"  You can view this imperfection as an error or as something unique and exciting about your child--something that you love. 

The same applies to your own imperfections.  The more that you find ways to love these imperfections and see them as your own special qualities, the less perfectionism will maintain its hold over you.  Instead, you may just find yourself being imperfectly happy.

Amy Przeworski, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of psychology at Case Western Reserve University and specializes in anxiety disorders in children, adolescents, and adults.

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