This weekend, I sat on the bench and watched my son compete in a gymnastics meet in Roswell, GA. He’s been in gymnastics for years, and he’s good. He’s generally a hard worker. But he missed about five months last year due to a dislocated shoulder, and he still holds himself to the standards of the boys who are in their second year as level 5s.
He did well at the meet. He messed up on the floor, and that was his first event, so I think that led him down a dark wormhole in his mind. But after rings, he started crying. He was so upset. He scored a 10.1 on rings (not bad by any means), but he felt like he should have been scored higher. And he hyper-focused on it, getting more and more upset. At one point, he even walked off the floor. I tried to calm him down, but he wanted to be by himself. By the time he made it to his last event, high bars, he’d calmed himself down and he managed to pull an 11.2, first place for the event.
Watching him struggle was hard for me, and I recognized myself in him. How many of us quit when it gets tough? How many of us quit when we feel like our best is not our best? I sat and watch my son beat himself up, because his rings weren’t perfect and that’s hard for a parent to see. Mainly, because he inherited this trait from me and probably from the way we parent.
I’ve done a lot of reading over the years on perfectionism, because having struggled with it I know it can be debilitating. The thing about perfectionism is that it doesn’t spur you on to bigger and better things, it actually holds you back from being all you can be. It takes all the positives of a motivated individual and turns them into negatives and all the what if’s pop up: what if I fail? what if I don’t win? what if? what if? until the what ifs make the person stop doing what they love. The “what ifs” seem to become the driving factor in making the perfectionist feel trapped by their own perceived lack of achievement.
I haven’t been writing lately, and I know this is from self-doubt and perfectionism cropping into my mind. I haven’t been putting the time in, because I still don’t know if I’m good enough. But doing what I love should be good enough for me. I tried to emphasize this to my oldest son over the weekend. “You love gymnastics, right? Then keep working hard, and don’t get so bent out of shape over one meet.” This is a hard lesson to learn, and it’s a hard lesson for me to teach. I’m sure he’s seen me give up when things get tough, or when I don’t think the writing is just right, or when life gets too overwhelming
So how do we overcome perfectionism?
We need to teach our children that good enough is good enough. Winning isn’t everything. Hard work matters, but it’s okay to fail. In fact, learning how to cope with failure leads us to success later on and gives us the tools to know how to succeed. We need to stop being afraid to let our children fail.
Celebrate victories. When my son didn’t do as well as he wanted in the meet, he said that the first place on high bar didn’t even matter. I told him he was nuts. He had scored 1st out of 61 kids. That was something! I told him not to focus on the negative, but to look at the overall picture, to learn what he could work on for the next week, and to look at the fact that he tried hard and did well. I pointed out that he came in 5th overall in his age group (top 20 out of the 6o kids), and that last time we’d done this meet he had come in 9th. I showed him his progress. We celebrated his victory with a trip to Starbucks, and as the day went on he became excited about winning his gold on high bar and the feelings about the rings began to dissipate.
Love and respect yourself. Perfectionist tend to be mean to themselves. Self-blame. Self-critical. They’re often meaner to themselves than anyone else in their life. This leads to depression. Love yourself and all your flaws, and learn how to let go of the need for perfection.
Don’t give up. Persistence pays off. As a writer, this is something I’ve had to learn. Giving up gets you nowhere. Learn how to roll with the punches without assigning blame to yourself or making yourself feel guilty for failures, work hard, and keep at it.
Perfectionism is something I’ll have to work on controlling for the rest of my life. I’ll fight the feelings that come with it, and it seems like my son will too. But I know with mindfulness, I can let go and learn how to be happy with my best.
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