“It’s like you’re trying to walk this tightrope at all times,” says East Dallas mom of two Lindsay Nordyke, who first realized her perfectionistic tendencies in junior high school. In adulthood—and especially motherhood—she says those unrealistic expectations have become even more apparent.
These days, Nordyke’s biggest struggle with perfectionism as a parent is the sheer number of voices out there telling moms and dads what they should be doing. “It can feel really overwhelming to try to do it all right, all the time,” she says.
Perfectionists do tend to be “overly concerned about doing everything ‘right’,” says Annie Tam, a Mom-Approved licensed professional counselor and owner of Mend Counseling in Dallas. They see things as black and white. When things fall into the gray area, perfectionists think they’re failing.
A specific time Nordyke says she fell short of her perfectionistic ideal was breastfeeding. “When my 10-year-old was born, that was at the height of ‘breast is best’ instead of ‘fed is best’,” she says. After struggling, Nordyke saw a lactation consultant, who told her to either nurse or pump and then supplement, but not all three for every feeding. “I remember that being so huge,” Nordyke recalls, adding that it released her from the pressure, allowing her to relax and bond with her infant.
What causes perfectionism?
A lot of the time it’s learned behavior, modeled by your own parents. It’s not that your parents expected you to be perfect, it’s that your mom expected herself to be perfect, says Tam.
It can also be an innate part of your personality, which can be determined with the Enneagram personality assessment. “I’m a number one on the Enneagram and know very well just what it’s like—to be a perfectionist, to be a mom, to be an entrepreneur—and how that influences how I see things,” Tam says. “I’ve had to work really hard to see the gray, and to not look at things as just black and white.”
“Anytime you’re trying to walk that tightrope, and you feel like you’re falling to one side or the other, just realize that the rope is wider than you think.”
Outside influences, like social media or the community around us, can also feed into the need for perfection, says Erin Booher, Ph.D., a counselor with a private practice in Fort Worth. For example, a mom in your parent group announces her child was named Class Leader for the week, and you think, well, now my child needs to be Class Leader.
Effects of Perfectionism
Striving to do everything “right” negatively affects the perfectionist, their partner, and their children. For one, “whenever you’re so worried about doing it all perfectly, it’s hard to be present with your child and to enjoy all of the different stages that your child is going through,” says Tam, who also co-founded A+K Collective, which offers retreats, coaching, and workshops for moms.
Perfectionists also tend to be critical, focus on what’s wrong, and place extra anxiety and pressure on themselves, Tam and Booher say. But the biggest thing to keep in mind? Children of perfectionists feel like they can never live up to their parents’ expectations, Tam says—even if their parents don’t overtly place expectations of perfectionism on them.
Here are a few things you can do to help shift your perfection-focused mindset:
Become aware of your tendencies. As with anything you may struggle with, recognizing perfectionism is the first step in overcoming it. Figure out how these tendencies look and the role they play in your life, Tam suggests. And acknowledge these feelings as you have them, Booher adds.
Talk about it. Whether you’re a new mom or the parent of a high schooler, Tam suggests talking to friends, family, a therapist, or a support group. After all, not talking about something you struggle with causes feelings of guilt or shame, she adds.
If you have elementary-age kids and older, be open with them about your struggle with perfectionism in an age-appropriate manner. “When they see you struggle, they see that getting to the end is more about the process than the final product,” Booher says, adding that you’re modeling resiliency for your kids.
Work on reframing your way of thinking. Rather than think you failed because you ordered take out instead of cooking, for example, focus on the fact that you are providing sustenance for your family. Your best, on any given day, is not the same as someone else’s best, Booher says.
Take a look at the language you use. How prevalent is all-or-nothing language in your vocabulary? How often do you think in black and white? “Start replacing that or reframe that in a way that is more accepting or more in the gray,” Tam says.
Find ways to manage your anxiety. Parents may feel guilty or anxious for not doing something the “right” way, Tam says. Figure out what works for you to reduce anxiety, whether it’s yoga, meditating, breathing exercises, or going for a walk.
Avoid comparing yourself to others. Easier said than done, right? But as Theodore Roosevelt said, “comparison is the thief of joy.” Use the skill of reframing to become confident in your abilities rather than thinking about how you’re “failing” compared to other moms, Booher suggests.
Give yourself some grace. At the end of the day, it’s impossible to get it all right all of the time. So, “anytime you’re trying to walk that tightrope, and you feel like you’re falling to one side or the other,” Nordyke says, “just realize that the rope is wider than you think it is.”
Resources for Embracing Imperfect Parenting
Challenge your perfectionism with these books, podcasts and programs.
The Gifts of Imperfection, by Brené Brown
This best-selling book offers practical advice for ditching your unattainable expectations. “I would highly recommend for any perfectionist to work through, and it’s what I based my mom retreats on,” says Annie Tam, a licensed professional counselor and owner of Mend Counseling in Dallas.
Present, Not Perfect for Moms, by Aimee Chase
“This is more of a journal, but it helps with that self-reflection piece of how you are a good parent rather than comparing yourself to other parents,” says Erin Booher, Ph.D., a counselor with a private practice in Fort Worth.
Mindset, by Carol Dweck
Dweck writes amazing things about the growth mindset, which is the antithesis of perfectionism, Booher says. It “helps reframe that image of it’s a win or lose kind of situation.”
Good Inside, by Dr. Becky Kennedy
This parenting platform by clinical psychologist and mom-of-three Dr. Becky Kennedy encompasses a podcast, book, workshops, and an Instagram account. “One of the things she says is, ‘we’re doing the best we can with the tools we have at the time,’ which I think is really helpful,” says Lindsay Nordyke, an East Dallas mom of two.
Breaking Down Parenting: A ParentNormal Podcast
While this is an older podcast, it’s worth a listen if you aren’t familiar with it. The show, hosted by humorist and imperfect parent Chris Cate, aims to get parents to laugh when they want to cry and help them realize they aren’t alone in their struggles.
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