combating perfectionism in him / by Carey

"I’m so proud of you, Buddy." 

He gives his goofy grin that he does when he’s simultaneously embarrassed and happy and pleased with what we’ve said.

"Are you proud of yourself? Does it feel good?"

"I don’t know."

"What do you mean you don’t know? You played really well. Are you proud of that?"

"I don’t know.”

I realize he’s using ‘I don’t know’ to combat the contradictory feelings inside, hearing praise while feeling a failure. But I don’t know what he feels a failure about. I'm confused.

"Do you think you didn’t do well?"

"I don’t know."

"Buddy, what do you think you could have done better? What wasn’t good enough?"

"I didn’t catch those balls.”

It took me a minute.  Then, oh.  That.

lifestyle photography by carey pace

Sigh. I know this pain: the pain of the perfectionist. Because even excellence isn’t good enough.

He played shortstop last night. He made some awesome plays. The crowd cheered for him by name. He struck out once, but hit his other times at bat. He played great! There were a few hard hit balls right at him that he tried to stop, even came in contact with, but got past him. It happened to other kids on the field, too. It’s the end of the season, and just as my friend Dana predicted, the kids have figured it out and can really clobber the balls now when they bat.

I’m no athlete. We never played sports at all growing up. I don’t know the rules and I don’t know the skills. I also don't know the mentality. I’m learning alongside him. But what I do know is that this is part of sports. You try your best but sometimes the ball gets by. Sometimes you miss. Sometimes you strike out. Most times you don’t. But sometimes you do. And that’s okay.

But it’s not okay. To him. And I understand.

It doesn’t matter that he made some awesome hits at bat. It doesn’t matter that he got several people out by his moves on defense as short stop. It doesn’t matter that he made snap decisions and threw the ball to the right spot at the right time and it got there. It doesn’t even matter that he’s getting to play short stop, when this is his first time to play baseball ever. All that matters is that he let some balls get by. He messed up. And those few mess ups completely negate all the things he DID do right.

My mother heart aches at this. How can he not see what he did well? How can he be displeased at himself? Especially when we are so happy with him? How can I rejoice as he rejoices when he does play well, but not feed into the philosophy that he only counts when he achieves? How can I make our words that it doesn’t matter how well he does ring true, when we go bananas when things go right, and we emphasize that it takes a lot of practice to do things well? How can I make it make sense to a seven year old perfectionist that we really, truly ARE just as proud of him if he plays well as if he strikes out every time, doesn’t catch a ball, and make true errors of judgement? Because what counts to us is that he goes out and gives it his all every time, no matter what. But how do I make our words and actions align to prove that to him?

While my mother heart aches, my perfectionist heart resonates. I know just how he feels, for I feel the same thing every single day. It’s hard to enjoy a meal I prepared, knowing the mistakes I made or things I COULD have done better. It’s hard to walk through a house that isn’t perfect, knowing that if I tried a little harder, maybe just maybe, I could make it neater. It’s hard to photograph, feeling that even if I like an image there are twenty things I could do better. I often don’t see the joy or the beauty - I see the mistakes. I see the places where the composition is weak, or I chopped body parts, or I didn’t nail focus, or most often, just isn’t the vision I saw in my head when I set out to capture the image.

I’ve heard it said that expectations are premeditated disappointments. How TRUE.

Disappointment is a few fine grains of sand away from a loss of hope. And the loss of hope is a very, very dangerous place. Hope is essential. Vital. But the continuous build up of disappointments always sends me down this path of losing hope. I cling to the walls, hoping not to submerge and succumb to it.

I learned that it was easier, less potential for a feeling of hopelessness, to simply hedge off the disappointment by not allowing myself to have expectations. If I didn’t set an expectation, allow for the hope of success, then I wouldn’t feel the disappointment at the lack of success, and couldn’t lose hope. You can’t lose what you don’t have. So I felt that expectations were bad things. Evil things. To be avoided. Eliminated from my life. In all aspects and facets.

What I didn’t realize was that in taking away the potential for disappointment, I thus by default also took away the potential for pleasure. Brene Brown wisely says "“We cannot selectively numb emotions, when we numb the painful emotions, we also numb the positive emotions.” Removing the expectation of success meant I also never get to feel the joy of succeeding. I thought that if I just removed the expectations, I could feel surprised joy when I did well. But what I found was, the joy wasn’t the same joy that existed when I allowed myself to feel the full gamut of human emotion.

So, how do I apply this realization to my parenting, to guiding and raising my mini-mi perfectionist 7 year old son? Telling him not to focus on the faults is ridiculous. It’s as effective as telling a two year old who’s been stung not to be afraid of a bee. You can’t just TELL a child something and expect that to change the behavior or mentality. You can’t just tell them to get over it. This is temperament, personality, birth order. It is who they are. We cannot be slaves to it. We cannot use it as an excuse. But we need to face it head on with honesty.

We can accept the places we erred, we can use that to fuel our practice, motivate us to do better in the future. But we cannot let it paralyze it, and usurp the place of joy in our lives.

“Buddy, do you feel like you can tell me anything?”

He nods.

“Buddy, Momma is a safe place. You can always, always tell me anything. Any of your thoughts, your feelings, your frustrations. You always share those with me, okay, Buddy?”

That’s all I know to do for now. To tell him that I’m sorry he missed those balls. I know he’s disappointed in himself. That I know I would be disappointed, too. Affirm his feelings, so he’s not double dipping in that pool of self condemnation for being a failure and then for FEELING that way in the first place, that something is wrong with him for feeling what he does. Tell him that I know he was trying as hard as he could, and that’s all we ever ask of him. And that I’m so pleased with the things he did do well. So much so, I didn’t even remember those balls that got by.