Letting go of perfection

Welcoming a new year often feels like an opportunity to let go of what is not serving us so that we can step more fully into what does.

I have a feeling there are many things I will be letting go of this year. In fact, there is a lot that I feel deeply pulled to let go of, if I can just get out of my own way. Like a seductive lover coaxing me out onto the dance floor of life, my intuition lures me in a new direction. This is the internal struggle we feel sometimes between our intuition and our rational minds, isn’t it? More on that later…

There is a word I want to write about today. As a parent of three young children, something I have been observing recently is our tendency to use a particular word - one that can have a much stronger and long-lasting impact than many of the other words in our human vocabulary. And that word is…

PERFECT.

“Perfect” is something I would like to let go of in 2019.

Over the recent holidays, I noticed just how frequently grown-ups in a child’s life use this word. Do they mean any harm by it? No, of course not. It rolls off the tongue as easily as an encouraging, “Great job!” might come out.

“Look at Betty’s picture - it’s just perfect.”

“Wow, you did that perfectly.”

“Your socks match your dress perfectly!”

“Johnny, would you help me pour the batter into the bowl? Perfect!”

“Teagan, can you tie your shoe? Perfect!”

The word perfect is often used as a way of affirming a child about something they did, how they performed, or as an evaluation of their work. And that’s just it… “perfect” is an evaluative word. It implies the highest standard was achieved in comparison to others. What exactly is the highest standard? Sometimes it is very clear, like scoring 100 out of 100 on a test. Other times it is much more obscure and difficult to measure. Yet, we adults still feel inclined to use the word as though we know “perfect” when we see it.

My bigger concern though, is the impact our overuse of this word has on children developmentally. As a recovering perfectionist myself, I feel as though I have some perspective on the matter.

When a child hears an adult refer to something they’ve done as “perfect”, it sets a bar of expectation. Through the eyes of a child - as long as we keep performing “perfect”, we are meeting the expectations of important others around us. We are making others happy. We make others comment on how great we are. This reliance on external evaluation sets us up for a life-long dependence on others’ evaluation of us in order to feel worthy.

Want to help build a child’s self-esteem? Use caution with this dangerous word (perfect). What to do instead? Give a healthy dose of encouragement. Try reflecting your own curiosity and wonder about what a child is doing. Make a child feel seen for their efforts.

“Wow Betty, you are working so hard on that painting!”

“It must feel good to choose all the colors you like.”

“How did you choose those socks? You seem happy in those clothes you picked out.”

“Johnny, would you help me pour batter into the bowl? Thank you – you are a great helper.”

“Teagan, can you tie your shoe? Wow, how did you learn to do that!?”

As for me, in 2019 I vow to continue working toward un-doing my conditioning toward achieving “perfection”…whatever perfection means. I vow to encourage my children (and others) and see people for their efforts. I acknowledge that some days this will be easier than others. I know that practice makes….well, practice gives us an opportunity to rehearse the things we care most about. Practice reinforces what we value.