Letting Go of Perfectionism
There’s a lot of pressure on working moms to do it all and do it perfectly. Women who are high-achievers in their careers often achieve that success through meeting and exceeding their own high standards. For those who have children, there is often similar pressure to be an unfailingly supportive, patient, and attentive parent. Managing a thriving work life while coordinating your children’s schedules, showing up to school functions, and soothing bruised knees and feelings is always a juggling act, and it can seem especially overwhelming when we live in fear that dropping even one ball means we’re failing.
It’s common to hear the word “perfectionist” used to compliment those who strive for excellence through scrupulous attention to detail. From a psychological perspective, however, perfectionism can be cause for concern when we measure self-worth entirely in terms of achievement, and when we compulsively strive toward standards that are unobtainable and come at great cost to mental health.
Those who struggle with perfectionism are very critical of their own (and sometimes others’) mistakes and tend to regard any misstep as unacceptable. When a parent has perfectionistic standards, their children may also learn to see their own mistakes as similarly intolerable.Perfectionism is associated with a number of psychological problems, including anxiety and depression, and it is also characterized by specific cognitive habits, such as “all or nothing” thinking (“If I don’t make homemade cupcakes for Olivia’s class, I’m a terrible mother), a tendency to catastrophize (“If I can’t stop the baby from crying, he’ll have lifelong emotional problems”), and “should” statements (“I should be able to handle this”).
The irony is that perfectionism can ultimately hinder the ability to accomplish things at home and at work, and at its worst, it can be paralyzing. It also diminishes the joy, fun, wonder and surprises that make up a full, meaningful life.
There are a number of strategies that can help to mitigate perfectionism:
1. Clarify Your Priorities: Reflect on your values about what’s really important for you to prioritize at work and home, and then evaluate each new opportunity according to how closely they align with your values. Practice saying “no” to those activities that drain your time and energy without giving you any meaningful ROI in return.
2. Evaluate Your Standards: Ask yourself: Are my standards achievable for me? Do they get in the way of my ability to achieve my goals or to be the parent I want to be? Am I setting myself up to fail? When standards are too high, they actually impair performance as well as motivation, but when they are realistic and achievable, they set a clear pathway toward feelings of accomplishment and satisfaction.
3. Practicing Imperfect: Perfectionists usually believe that lowering their high standards will be intolerable. Experiment with testing whether slightly lower standards lead to the very negative outcome you may expect. Practice making compromises or taking small risks (i.e. being a couple minutes late to a meeting; sending your child to school with mismatched socks; leaving a dirty dish in the sink overnight). Then assess the outcomes against your original belief. You may find that the negative consequences are minimal or negligible and that the benefits of allowing some room for error are significant.
4. Ask for Help: Many people who struggle with perfectionism have difficulty asking for help, and often feel alone in their distress. Working with a qualified therapist to challenge the thoughts and beliefs that support perfectionism can have a major impact.
Dr. Zoë Laksman is a registered clinical psychologist who helps clients navigate setbacks, discover resilience, and emerge with lives full of passion and purpose. She provides treatment to individuals and couples with mood and anxiety disorders, stress management, adjustment issues, interpersonal and relationship difficulties, and grief counselling. Her background and training have shaped her interest in promoting improved psychological health, interpersonal functioning and wellness.