I was playing Crazy 8’s with my almost-10-year-old daughter yesterday morning and she asked me to teach her how to shuffle. I grew up playing cards, so I can do several tricks that, while fully unnecessary for achieving the result of mixed-up cards, look very cool. I showed her how to do the basic shuffle, which she accomplished–albeit inelegantly—and then watched as her mood changed from joyful and engaged to sullen and sour. I asked what had her goat and she responded that she was upset that she couldn’t shuffle like me. When I reminded her that I have practiced shuffling for 30 years and that new skills take practice, she said “I don’t like doing things I’m not good at.” Incredulous, I asked her if she thinks that she ought to be “good at” everything she tries immediately and she sulked, “yeah, kinda.” I have hard conversations with my kids on the regular, this one was one of the milder ones. It was, however, was an especially hard one for me because my first thought following the exchange was “oh my God, I’ve infected her.”

I, dear reader, am a recovering Perfectionist. I’m recovering from lots of things, but perfectionism has been the hardest one to kick. Why? Because the wreckage it creates is far more subtle than other behaviors. I’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback and affirmation over the course of my life because of my “above-and-beyond” way of moving through the world. It’s earned me accolades, awards, and heaps of praise, which is way better than what being drunk got me. I know I’m not alone in this. I see it in my office all the time. Some of us come from families in which Perfect was the daily expectation. Some of us come from families so chaotic that control and hypervigilance was the way we survived. Some of us feel like our worth is related to our performance or popularity or achievement. Some of us have made Never Screwing Up the touchstone of our identity.

Here’s what makes Perfectionism so dangerous, y’all: if “doing the best we can” means doing it perfectly, then we’ve set an impossible precedent that sets us up for continual failure. In other words, if our standards are unreachable, then we literally cannot reach them. We are, as my therapist says, “searching for a cure for Being Human,” which leaves us in a constant state of vague dissatisfaction at best, and acute self-loathing at worst. Plus, honestly, y’all, it’s really f*$king boring. Think of your favorite people in the world. Do you love them because they never make mistakes or say anything out of turn or show up 5-minutes early to everything or had a 4.0 GPA throughout school? I bet not. I know that’s not why I love my people. Why, then, is it so difficult to unclench?! We have plenty of capable therapists here at Works who can help unpack our need to hustle for our worth. Meanwhile, let’s go back to Crazy 8’s and Sadie’s burgeoning need to be flawless.

Maybe some of it is nature and some is nurture, but because I’m seeing more of these types of characteristics blooming in my kiddo, we’ve implemented a few Good-Enough-Is-Good-Enough guidelines in our home. I want my children to embrace the full scope of their humanity, reader, and wanting that for them helps me to want it for myself. Here are a few:

  1. We praise effort and curiosity, not achievement and accomplishment. Rather than “that painting is so good!” or “you’re so smart!” we commend hard work and ask what felt fun or hard about a given task or assignment.
  2. Every night at dinner we ask one another 2 questions: “what mistake did you make today,” and “did you ask any good questions today?” Assuming that messing up is a daily part of being human helps soften perfectionistic edges, reminds loved ones that we delight in their humanity, and opens the doorway to productive conversations about opportunities for learning and growth.
  3. If I catch myself saying something out loud about not being good enough, “this dinner is barely edible,” “my hair looks weird,” “your bed isn’t made—the pillows need to be placed like this…” I have a conversation with that inner critic out loud so the people in my house can hear it: “huh! I’m not being super kind to (myself/you) right now. I think I need things to be just-so but what I’m actually needing is a deep breath/a hug/some reassurance. Can you help me remember what’s really important?” The cool thing about saying this aloud is that not only does it model self-acceptance and love for the people around me, it also helps me to be kinder to myself in the conversations I have silently in my head. And because those are way meaner than the ones I have out loud, this is especially helpful.
  4. When I feel compelled to do something a loved one can do for themselves because I think I’ll do it better or because it won’t meet my standards-of-execution, I remind myself that “Control is the evil twin of Help.” Being messy or inexact or slow is a part of learning and there are lots of ways to be in the world. If my “helping” is actually “my way or the highway,” it’s time for me to sit down and shut up.
  5. As a family, we collaborate on the minimum standards of care or execution for all tasks in our home. For example, “lunch packed” means that there are several food groups that each child will consume in containers on school mornings. It does not mean that there are sandwiches cut into shapes next to fruit sculptures and warm cookies with a handwritten note. If there’s a day when I’m feeling whimsical or creative, great. But with the minimum standard of execution in place, good enough is good enough, and any fears or concerns I have about not parenting the way my children need to be parented are between me, my irrational brain, and my therapist.

We’re already at 1000 words, reader, and I imagine few of you have made it this far. So, I’m going to walk the anti-perfectionism talk and, rather than craft an eloquently worded conclusion, simply thank you for reading and wish you (and me!) best of luck on the rocky, painful journey that is claiming and accepting our imperfect selves. And then submit it without editing. And THEN breathe through the ick I’ll feel knowing that this essay isn’t perfect. Because that’s how we get better. High-five, Self. Humaning, y’all. We’re doing it.