We all want to be the best mum we can be…
.. .but trying too hard to get it right, or to do it all perfectly, is counter-productive. Below are three ways that our perfectionism can affect our children. Do you recognise any of them?
1. High expectations and pressure stifle our children’s creativity, squash their personality and cultivate a fixed mindset.
All parents want to instil their highest values and principles to their children, but expecting too much from children puts them under pressure. They learn to squash their personality, their self-expression and their unique talents and gifts.
Our deepest desire as parents is for our children to be happy, and by setting expectations that are too high and demanding, arbitrary or not suited to each child we are hindering their ability to find joy and happiness in being themselves.
One way my high expectations of myself and my family affected my eldest son was that he developed a fixed mindset (believing that our capabilities and talents are fixed, and therefore out of our control) because I always expected more from him. This made him stop trying new or hard things in case he failed.
Valuing the adventure and curiosity of the journey and the effort put into practice means that children develop a un-pressured love of learning for it’s own sake rather than as a means to achieve and please (or not) their parents.
Another strong message that comes across when you are expecting your children to be and behave like someone they are not (according to your fixed perfectionist rules) is that they feel conditionally loved. This causes them to develop unconscious strategies to meet those conditions in order to get your love.
Most of my time with my clients is spent exploring these long-established unconscious strategies that they picked up in childhood that now hold them back from a meaningful, happy and successful life. Imagine what a gift we would be giving our children if we could love them unconditionally (at least most of the time, because as we know doing this perfectly all the time is impossible) so they didn’t have to develop all these damaging emotional strategies.
Practice: Start noticing the expectations you have of your children and whether they might feel there are conditions they have to meet before they can be loved fully by you. Are you expecting too much of them? Can you let some of these expectations go and trust your children instead?
2. They often get the brunt of our anxiety, anger and emotions.
Being a perfectionist is an emotional rollercoaster because we are so judgemental.
Every moment of every day we judge ourselves, the people around us, our environment, the situation – it’s constant. This is not our fault, it’s because we are hyper-vigilant to the dangers around us. This is one of those pesky unconscious strategies that we picked up when we were younger, mixed in with our evolutionary predisposition to focus on possible threats.
When we unconsciously sense danger our amygdala gets triggered, we slip into fight or flight mode, switch off our ability to be rational, patient and loving and react in a way we often regret. This impacts our children: one minute mum is happy and light-hearted, the next minute she’s shouting at us because we’re messing about and having fun at the table.
This was me when my kids were younger…all because I had a fear that their messing around would turn into an argument. I must have learnt as a child that messing around and/or arguments were dangerous and so one of my unconscious strategies was to prevent this at all costs.
It’s stressful for children to be exposed to unexpected emotional outbursts and they learn to react in similar ways. This can lead to more family battles, arguments and behaviour problems. All because we can’t manage our own emotional wellbeing.
Practice: Notice when you get triggered emotionally and how it makes you react. How does this affect your children? What are the stories (often stemming from unconscious fears) that you are telling yourself in these situations? Could you choose to believe a different story instead?
3. They learn that life is hard and serious rather than an adventure to be enjoyed.
Perfectionists have so many unconscious survival strategies that they become control freaks. We mistakenly think that if we can micromanage the people and environment around us we’ll be safe. The perfection we are looking for isn’t always the media images of perfection. Sometimes the version of perfection that we are aiming for is simply the safe harbour of a smoothly running, easy to cope with, harmonious, negative-emotions-nowhere-to-be-seen, no-one’s going to judge me situation.
This kind of life strategy takes a huge amount of time and energy, which means we have less to give our children. They see us under pressure, feeling stressed or overwhelmed, over-thinking things, reacting emotionally to threats and may even hear it in our words. They learn that life is serious, hard, has many rules and there are very prescribed ways to behave. What if we could embrace the uncertainty of life with a sense of adventure and a deep trust that everything will turn out OK in the end. What a gift that would be for our children.
Practice: Notice how much you are judging, micromanaging and controlling your environment and children. What is it costing you in terms of spontaneity, fun, joy and opportunities? What are you teaching your children about life?
Until next time,
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