How to Let Go of Perfectionism in Motherhood
This post is all about perfectionism in motherhood — how it's trying to help us and how we can stop it from hurting us (and our kids)
Even if you don't identify as a perfectionist,
if you're struggling to find fulfillment in motherhood, keep reading
This post is for you if you struggle with feelings like:
- Pressure to get things right
- Anxiety that you won’t
- Frustration when you don’t
- Overwhelm that you never will
- Impatience with yourself that something is difficult
- Impatience with your family when they won’t get with the program (“Work with me, people!”)
- Low self-esteem because you aren’t living up to an ideal you’ve set
- Rage when you can’t control the situation
Perfectionism in motherhood is self-critical and cruel. Raise your hand if you’ve heard that voice in your head say:
- “I can’t relax and enjoy quality time with my kids because I’m too focused on getting everything done.”
- “How does she manage to take care of that many kids AND a career AND look put together?”
- “If I can’t do it right, I’m not going to do it at all.” (Example: decorating for the holidays)
- “I have to do it myself because no one else does it the right way.” (Example: loading the dishwasher)
- “I feel like such a mess.”
- “I worry about messing up my kids.”
- “I should be able to handle this.” (So no chance of asking for help.)
- “What will they think?” (They = family, friends, neighbors, other moms at school pickup)
- “I can’t say no because I should be able to handle it.”
Whether or not you know it, whether or not this is the word you’d use for it, you’re suffering from perfectionism in motherhood.
To paraphrase Brené Brown, perfectionism isn’t the love of things being perfect. It’s the fear of what will happen if things aren’t perfect.
How perfectionism in motherhood compares to perfectionism in other parts of life
Personally, perfectionism helped me achieve good grades in school and climb the corporate ladder. I knew what was expected of me, I had high standards, and I exceeded them. I understood the game, and I excelled at playing it.
So when I left those structures and found myself out on my own as an entrepreneur and mother, I brought with me those high standards and presumption there was a right way to do things. (Both mistakes.)
I strived, I researched, I grasped.
And I crashed.
Perfectionism in motherhood is so sneaky because we don’t realize that’s what’s going on here. We don’t believe there’s any other way.
So we continue to strive and research and grasp and struggle and think something’s wrong with us.
The kids were eating cookies, but the mom was not okay.
Recognize perfectionism for what it is
Perfectionism is your sweet brain’s way of trying to keep you safe. In certain settings, like school and work, it can help you get ahead.
In other settings, like family, neighborhoods, clubs, and religious communities, it can give you a (false) sense of belonging.
In motherhood, you think it’s going to help you raise your kids well, but it can break you.
Thank you, sweet brain, but we need to start doing things differently.
What perfectionism in motherhood looks like
Perfectionism doesn’t always look like makeup on and hair done and outfit polished and house tidy.
It can also look like:
- The need for approval
- The thought that there’s a right way to do something and you’d better learn it and figure it out and do it that way and keep doing it that way
- The belief that your worth depends on you doing all the things. (Never enough. Never enough.)
- Not doing a thing that part of you wants to do because another, louder part of you won’t let you do a thing if you aren't going to do it well the very first time
- The fear of being judged for pretty much anything, like:
- >>Your appearance
- >>Your home
- >>How much money you have
- >>How you spend it
- >>What you said
- >>How you said it
- >>What you didn't say
- >>Where you show up
- >>Why you didn’t show up
- >>Your children’s behavior
Perfectionism is sneaky that way. It doesn’t always say its name.
Perfectionism in motherhood looks like setting unrealistically high standards for ourselves then feeling like we’ve failed if we fall short.
Dinner doesn't have to be perfect. It's so much more important that we can be present, together.
Practical strategies to deal with perfectionism in motherhood
Perfectionism in one form or another is so common in the women who come to me for mom-life coaching. I have found that clients get much better results when they understand and work with their tendencies, including the tendency toward perfectionism, rather than fight them.
What if we could harness this tendency rather than try to resist it?
With time and practice, the perfectionism eases up. New patterns that are more helpful and supportive start to form.
The Ready Set Moms 3-step process for working with your perfectionism:
- Recognize how perfectionism feels in your body. It could be a twisting in your gut, a rapid beating in your chest, holding your breath, a physical shrinking so you won’t be seen, many thoughts speeding through your head as you try to attend to every detail.
- Pause. Notice that feeling. Let out a long slow exhale. Slow down.
- Remind yourself what’s important to you. Commit to that higher purpose and let the rest go.
How about an example?
Let’s say you’re throwing a birthday party for your child. But the house isn’t tidy, you aren’t sure how many people are going to show up, the cake didn’t turn out the way you wanted it to, the gift you ordered is delayed, it’s raining, your child tracks muddy bootprints into the kitchen, and you snap at her.
- Feel the rapid beating in your chest. Notice those racing thoughts.
- Pause. Notice that feeling. Let out a long slow exhale. Slow down.
- Look at your child. Remind yourself that what’s important to you on this day is that your child feel celebrated, important, and loved. Commit to that higher purpose by letting go of the tidiness. At this point it is what it is. And you don’t live in a show room, you live in a home. Whoever does or doesn’t show up, it will be perfect. Your child doesn’t require a Pinterest perfect cake. The fact that it’s slumpy is actually kind of cute. The gift, the rain. Sure, it’s a little disappointing, but it’s not the world. It’s not even the day. You can be present. You can let go. You can laugh. You can make sure your kid feels loved.
Can you redefine "perfect"? Can you let it be simple?
I work on perfectionism a lot, in my own personal development and with clients, so I have a LOT of tools to help. Look over this list and first, identify the ones that interest you and, second, pick just one to try on this week. You can always come back and try the others.
Give your perfectionism a name. This can help you distance those thoughts from your self. I call mine Brenda lol.
Look out for all-or-nothing thinking. This can be a sign of perfectionism meddling in what you're trying to do. Replace that thought with one that sounds more like “good enough.”
Seek out low-stakes opportunities to be legitimately bad at things. Like Pictionary if you “can’t draw” or karaoke if you “can’t sing.” For me, I’m really bad at the game cornhole, aka bags. Use this activity as a reminder that it doesn’t actually matter if you’re good at the thing. It doesn’t matter if the drawing is realistic, you sang on key, or the beanbag went in the hole. The point is to be with these people and have fun with them.
Allow yourself to be a beginner at something. A key to this working is to pick something that you don’t identify with. For example, I’ve recently picked up mountain biking. When I first started I threw a grownup tantrum, tears and everything, because I was SO BAD at it. I couldn’t do it. Then I realized I wasn’t allowing myself to be a beginner. Of course I couldn’t do it! Yet. And since I don’t identify as a mountain biker, or any biker for that matter, I could allow myself to be a beginner at it. Now I can go out and have fun, and build my skills.
Allow yourself to be a beginner at something
Anti-perfectionism journal prompts for moms
Look for a place in your life, let’s say outside of motherhood, where perfectionism has helped you.
- Thank your perfectionism for what she did for you then.
- How did that feel, during the work? For example, were you in flow, or was it stressful?
- How did it feel after you achieved the success? Did you feel a sense of satisfaction? Or did you only see what could have been better or what you needed to tackle next?
- Looking back, do you wish you had done anything differently?
- What would you say to yourself back then?
Now look for a place in your current mom-life where perfectionism does NOT help you. Think of a specific situation or task.
- How is this situation different from the example above?
- If perfectionism doesn’t serve you in this situation, what might instead?
- >>Accepting what you can’t control
- >>Giving appropriate control to the other people in the situation (this could take practice for everyone!)
- >>Admitting that there’s more than one right way to do it
- >>Simplifying it
- >>Appreciating what does go “right”
Look for places in your life where perfectionism is NOT at play. Get curious:
- Why can you be loose about this?
- How does it feel?
- What can you bring from this example to apply to a situation where perfectionism is a problem?
Try this on: You are perfect, for who you are and how you love, not for what you do.
This post was all about perfectionism in motherhood. If this resonated with you you might also like:
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Try these tips and let me know how it goes! You can comment on this post or DM me on Instagram.