The problem with perfectionism is that there is no end to it. We may continue to strive to be better, but the goal posts keep moving, and perfection eludes us. Some people say that perfectionism has been a good trait in the workplace, something that has helped them to progress in their careers. Perfectionism shouldn't be mistaken for conscientiousness, drive, hard-work, commitment, care, or attention to detail. These qualities are certainly helpful in the workplace and in other settings. What this article is talking about is the extreme nature and bottomless pit of perfectionism. The kind of perfectionism that involves unrelenting expectations and standards for self and others, criticism of self and others, associated stress and anxiety, and commonly feeling dissatisfied or 'not good enough'.
Time and time again, we see new mums who with the best of intentions for their babies and families, are striving to be ‘perfect’ mothers – to parent in the ‘perfect’ way. The reason they are struggling, is often because this bottomless pit of striving sets them up to fail, and this perceived failure feels intolerable. There is typically a lifetime of layers beneath the surface of this striving, which is certainly worthy of exploration.
Striving for perfection can seriously limit our capacity to enjoy life. Perfection-striving is often associated with all-or-nothing or black-and- white thinking. For example, the mum who won’t go to mother’s group if she is going to be late, misses out on the building of relationships with other mums (who are often late themselves). The mum who won’t exercise if she can’t exercise three times per week, misses out on the benefits of some exercise and a little time-out. The mum who won’t invite people over unless she gets the time to make the house look immaculate, misses out on the fun and spontaneity of having other new mums and babies around for her own and her baby’s social well-being. The mum who won’t let her partner settle the baby because he/she won’t do it like she does, misses out on her partner’s support and her partner's growing bond with the baby.
The bottom line is that there is no one way, and there is no right way. When your hard and fast rules about how things should be, get in the way of the things that give your life meaning (i.e. the things that you really value) ask yourself if there is a middle ground?
The middle ground is a place where we strive for being ‘good-enough’ mothers. Perfectionists usually see this term “good enough” as meaning mediocre. However, ‘good-enough’ means good enough. For example, getting to mothers group late is better than not going at all. It can be a good laugh and a supportive environment. Exercising whenever possible (despite wishing to achieve three exercise sessions per week) is better than nothing, and is likely to become easier to achieve over time. Inviting friends over, even if the house is untidy, shows them that you are human after all (very comforting for most people), and demonstrates that you value friendships more than your domestic high standards. Letting your partner settle the baby even if he/she does it differently to you, knowing that this is their chance to discover what works, and to establish a good bond.
The middle ground is a much kinder place – a place of acceptance, and openness to experience. Try it. You’ll see. You might even find that not only can you be a 'good-enough' mum, you can be a great mum!
If these tips are not enough, and your striving for perfection is causing you distress, it may be worthwhile to seek help.
Written by Dr Renée Miller
Principal Perinatal Clinical Psychologist
Founder Antenatal & Postnatal Psychology Network
Co-founder The Perinatal Loss Centre