My work with couples who are balancing careers and at the same time trying to be great parents has revealed a pattern for some that is important to consider as Father’s Day comes around. Women openly talk about the pressure they feel with trying to be all things to all people but men are not quite as open about the stress they experience while trying to be the best in their work and an exceptional Dad at home.
Andy and Carol were both in second marriages, each having two children by a previous marriage. Carol’s daughters were 15 and 11. Andy’s sons were 6 and 12. When they met, Andy and Carol were madly in love but also mature enough to be prepared for the challenges of a blended family. They both had strained relationships with their exes and were determined to be a better family than each had been in their prior relationships.
This time around, they vowed to have more fun, provide more structure for their children and be more organized in their new home. They also made a commitment to stick to a routine of carving out private time to enjoy their friendship and intimacy as they grew old together.
Many couples want to erase their past failures and mistakes by doing it right in the next lifetime. Carol was not as structured or organized as Andy but she always hoped to be that way and found Andy’s drive for perfection to be a new motivator for her. She went along with his plans and dreams but over time found it challenging and sometimes impossible to maintain.
Andy had a very demanding job with an excellent salary. He worked his way up the ladder by being the first there in the morning, and the last to leave at night. He faced constant rushed deadlines, unpredictable projects that required last minute travel and lived with the threat of being replaced at least once each year. His approach to this pressure was to run faster, do more, and live for the day when the pressure would be relieved by a project being completed or another position approved that would lighten his load. Until then, he had to push through the obstacles and try harder.
Problems began to develop for Andy and Carol at the most critical time of the day for many couples –after work and after school. When they came to counseling at Carol’s insistence, they both reported disappointment in the other and fear that their marriage was in trouble.
Appointments were scheduled at a time convenient for both but Andy either came late or didn’t show up at all, always because of a challenge or demand at work. Long hours meant he didn’t get home from work until 8:00 PM many evenings and when he did he walked in irritable and critical. He loved his family but his temper erupted over any mess left or chore not completed. His role as a Dad was falling by the wayside and Carol took on more and more responsibility for discipline and for fun.
On rare occasions when Andy kept a counseling appointment he would say that everything was fine and that he would soon be more available for his family. He admitted that his stress was spilling over into his family life but he felt that he made up for it on weekends. He would vow to be a better husband and then return to old habits. Andy felt criticized in his marriage and inadequate in his job. His perfectionism and workaholism combined were pushing him to an inevitable brink.
He began to lose the one thing he valued most – the love and respect of his children and step children. Carol became resentful of his anger and irritability and stopped making excuses to their children for his bad moods and absence from family activities. The children began talking to her about how they felt and she suggested they share it with him.
Carol’s daughters were withdrawing from Andy but his sons told their father that they were afraid of his anger and avoided being around him whenever they could. They reminded him that he didn’t play with them anymore and never smiled or laughed. Andy was devastated and shocked that his behavior had affected them in this way. He cried, apologized and asked for help to change.
Andy immediately recalled that his father was an angry man, overworked, irritable and rarely there. He too was a perfectionist and extremely critical of his children. This memory was a great motivator for Andy. He and Carol began to re-evaluate what mattered in their life together.
Carol needed to become more assertive and more relaxed in their home. She too was afraid of his anger and tried to make sure everything at home was in order so he wouldn’t have anything to rage about. That meant being someone she didn’t recognize and not the woman she was when they first met.
When Andy faced his perfectionism at work he realized that he was stuck in a pattern of living for the day when the work would go away or get easier. His drive to be a good provider became a race to a finish line that kept moving farther away. He was ready to start making choices that were in line with his values and face the fact that he was striving for approval and applause at work at the expense of his personal life. The price for his perfection at work was to neglect and frighten his children and miss out on the time he had left to enjoy them. He wanted to be the Dad he had always wished he had.
If you recognize yourself in this story and experience any of these issues there are simple steps you can start today to find better balance in your life.
Tips for Overcoming Perfectionism and Finding Balance:
1. People First. Instead of focusing on making yourself, your children and your world perfect, put your energy into connecting with those you love – eye contact, touch, smiles and appreciation.
2. Come Out as a human being. Authenticity is requirement for the pleasure of love, joy, fun and overall happiness. Yes it is messy but being real will be worth it. Let your loved ones know your flaws, fears and dreams.
3. Challenge your internal pressure to be the best. Instead, try focusing on gratitude and what is in front of you this moment. Be present in your own life. Try to avoid comparing your efforts to those of others. Be you.
4. Let your children learn to be who they are rather than pressuring them to be what you want them to be. Remember that they need to experiment and make mistakes to figure it out. They are different than you.
5. Have fun and/or be around others who do. Smile authentically; go outside and play with your family. Turn off the laptop and put your cell phone away. Reward yourself for the effort of having fun.
6. Let go of expectations and try to accept people as they are. We are all unique and flawed as human beings. Don’t judge your flaws or those of others. Embrace your essence and see it as all part of being you. Amazing things will happen if you let go.
7. If this list seems daunting, seek professional help. Change will come faster when you have a guide who can help you be yourself with a little less discomfort.
8. Remember it is never too late. Even adult children will benefit from you becoming real and relaxed.
Ann Smith is the Executive Director of Breakthrough at Caron. Her updated book, Overcoming Perfectionism: Finding Balance and Self-Acceptance, was released on March 5, 2013. Leave a comment here or connect with her on Twitter, @CaronBT or Facebook