We need to be ‘perfect’, to do our ‘best’, to do everything ‘right’. These are the messages we constantly hear through family, friends, teachers, workplaces and social media. But what does being perfect mean and is it any good for our wellbeing as women?
Perfectionism, involves setting standards so high that they are either unobtainable, or can only be reached with great difficulty. This urge to be perfect involves a polarised view where we either do it the right way, the best way, or we feel we have failed. And even if we don’t strive for perfectionism, the need to be the ‘best’ we can, is everywhere. See social media, awash with motivational memes, and SMART targets within all aspects of our everyday lives.
Yet being a parent throws us a number of psychological curveballs. In fact we are suddenly presented with a loss of control, an intense responsibility for others. A loss of our ‘self’ as we knew it and faced with our own mortality. We need to learn to care for someone else, despite often not ‘knowing’ what to do, sleep deprived and thanks to internal and external expectations, often with a burden of shame or guilt.
Given this, there is no way of being a perfect parent and nor would we want to. Winnicott, the British psychoanalyst developed the idea of the ‘good enough’ mother (note, not perfect!).
Winnicott argues that we need to attend to small babies responsively and attentively, feeding, soothing and caring. Over time, the good enough mother continues to pay attention to the child and provides an environment where the child feels safe, however, the level of attentiveness will change, as the child adapts. He understood that children require their mother to fail them at times in manageable ways, teaching them about our imperfect world, and helping them build resilience and tolerance.
When he speaks about failing to adapt, he is not talking about unsafe or damaging situations, but he means all the everyday aspects that make us human, but that mothers often feel guilty about – such as making children wait, being emotional in front of children, forgetting things, not attending to children quickly enough. Through this failure to adapt, children learn about their needs and wants, as well as their mother’s needs and wants. They learn they have rights, but they do not always get their way. They learn mistakes are possible and that mistakes are OK. And they learn that their behaviour impacts other people. The good enough mother creates a rounded healthy adult that has felt disappointment, that has had to wait (and can tolerate this) and that feels empathy for others.
So for Winnicott, being a good mother was being a good enough mother. The good enough mother fails but tries again. The good enough mother is under pressure and feels emotional. And might be ambivalent about being a mother. The good enough mother has limits, and boundaries and can and will say no. She is imperfect and authentic. In fact we don’t want to be perfect for our children, as this only sets them up for the same expectations in life, and teaches them an inauthentic version of the world.
So how can we be ‘good enough’ and fight our need to be perfect?
We need to take ourselves by the hand, to be our own best friend; to know that we have got this, even if things feel out of control. Coping thoughts such as ‘I can do this’, ‘we will be OK’, ‘I don’t have to get this right’, can feel really supportive when we are struggling with high expectations.
We need to listen to what our inner critic is saying, so we can then gently respond rationally, or to find a way to silence the critic. It’s not our voice; it’s generally a voice we have absorbed from our childhood, and we need to gently free it. Imagine setting it free, or visualise your critic floating down a stream away from you.
Breathe and tolerate the not OK. So that when situations don’t go to plan and when the little things we were counting on don’t come off, or are changing, we allow our negative emotions and disappointment come up, but we don’t let these ruin us. The more we can tolerate the moment, the more we teach our children that no matter what, they are OK.
Children learn through us, and the more they watch unrelenting standards and expectations, the more they internalise these. We often say we just want our children to be ‘happy’, but in order for this to happen, we need to teach them they are OK just being them. So let down those expectations, and watch your child creatively explore what they do, as opposed to needing to get things right.
Asking for help, not only shows your inner strength, but also might be the best thing you do. We want to teach our children to be able to ask for what they need, and the best way is to model how to do this.