Let Go of Perfectionism
by Alice Boyes
When you’re juggling work and parenting, it’s inevitable that you’ll drop a ball periodically. You’ll chase someone down for information they already gave you. You’ll lose your child’s sun hat at the playground (if you remember to bring it at all). Your child will ask you to make banana cupcakes for three months before you finally get around to it. Or you’ll read an email you need to reply to but promptly forget—and only remember when you’re awake at 3 a.m.
While these slipups happen for everyone, for perfectionists, these instances feel like an emotional bee sting. Mistakes provoke anxiety for perfectionists and shake their sense of identity. Memories of past mistakes can pop back into mind long after the fact, and this can leave the person feeling as if they’re doing a terrible job in all their roles—at home and work.
There are legitimate reasons working parents strive for perfection. When it comes to raising kids, the stakes feel very high, and perfection is culturally expected of parents. In the workplace, parents often feel pressure to demonstrate that they’re just as career driven as they were before they had kids. Those who’ve used perfectionism as a strategy for high performance and to feel in control can start to feel as if their standards are impossible to maintain once they become parents, and this can cause tremendous anxiety.
While it’s commendable to want to excel to the highest extent possible (and show your boss and coworkers that you can), obsessing over mistakes can do more harm than good.
Mistakes have two types of consequences. First, there are the actual consequences. In reality, many mistakes have no consequences at all. For instance, you put your child in their car seat and forget to buckle them in. When you arrive home, you’re horrified to find the buckle unfastened. While this is certainly not a mistake you should repeat, ultimately you got home safely, and there were no immediate repercussions. The same might go for missing a deadline by a day or calling a fellow parent by the wrong name. When a mistake does have an objective consequence, it’s more likely to be mild or moderate, as when you put off booking a flight and the price goes up. Major repercussions to common mistakes are few and far between.
The second type of consequences are the psychological consequences of mistakes. For perfectionists, nothing is a “small” mistake, because the objective consequences pale in comparison to the psychological fallout. When you’re a perfectionist, mistakes trigger harsh self-criticism and intrusive overthinking. Anxious perfectionists in particular are often prone to catastrophizing mistakes, like imagining “what if I’d had an accident on the way home” and envisioning their child dying after not being fastened in. Or, an anxious perfectionist who messes up one deadline might start to panic that it’s the start of a pattern, even if it only happens rarely. Or they begin to question their identity as a conscientious, well-regulated person. In other scenarios, mistakes can be irritating, like wearing a scratchy fabric. For instance, you intended to use some rewards before they expired, and you forgot, and you’re annoyed with yourself. This type of irritation sucks up mental bandwidth and drains you.
This difficulty in psychologically tolerating mistakes can get in the way of improvement. If you start loading up on self-criticism, you’re likely to turn your guilt (“I screwed up”) into shame (“I am a screw-up”). There’s an abundance of research showing that self-compassion—rather than self-criticism—after mistakes or poor performance makes it more likely people will take objective steps to improve.
Part of the issue is in rumination. Replaying your mistake and the decisions leading up to it often feels like problem solving. But this rehashing actually makes it less likely you will take objective steps to do better. Rumination can also be distracting, leading you to engage in more behaviors you regret, like ignoring your child’s attempts to get your attention because you’re thinking about what went wrong at work.
Fortunately, there are ways that working parents can overcome their perfectionist tendencies, learn more self-compassion, and snap themselves out of rumination. Here are some specific strategies for how to tolerate imperfections.
Disrupt rumination with absorbing distractions
I experienced a failed IVF cycle recently. After getting the news I wasn’t pregnant, I spent five hours building a robot kit with my 4-year-old. It was the perfect fiddly, novel activity to take my mind off of replaying everything I might’ve done differently. Doing projects (crafts, baking, STEM experiments) or playing games with your children is an excellent strategy for disrupting rumination. People think cognitive-absorbing distraction is too simple a strategy to work when they’re very distressed, but it does. If you prefer to take time for yourself, try puzzles, challenging games, or any type of hands-on tinkering.
Externalize the perfectionist voice in your head
Give your perfectionist self-talk a quirky character and exaggerate the way it speaks to you. For instance, you might imagine a grubby, little potato-chip-eating gremlin who bosses you around and points out everything in your house that hasn’t been picked up. This technique works by helping you get psychological distance from your perfectionist thoughts. Humor can also help you treat the thoughts more lightly. By exaggerating, you make the thoughts more absurd, which can help you recognize your absurd standards.
Try restorative yoga
I absolutely hit the wall recently, but I didn’t think I’d done enough work that I should be tapped out. In reality, I’m still dealing with grief about my failed IVF cycle; I’m doing another cycle, which means I’m on medications that are messing with my emotions; and I’m feeling anxious about how it will go and how much it’s costing. To help, I did a 20-minute restorative yoga routine, and the next day I bounced back and had better-than-average productivity. Restorative yoga is basically directed lying down with various supports that allow you to fully relax—it doesn’t remotely resemble exercise. Restorative and yin yoga tend to feel very self-compassionate. Open awareness meditation can also help with rumination. You can easily Google or search YouTube for do-it-yourself resources once you know the terms to search. If what you find is too New Agey for you, adapt it so you’re more comfortable. Using these types of practices, even just occasionally, can help on days you feel as if nothing you do is good enough.
Another strategy to prevent feeling pulled in two directions is to list the ways that being a parent makes you better at your core work role, and vice versa. Your responses will be specific to your life, but for me, I’ve been more focused on meaningful work since I’ve had a kid. Small blips at work feel less existentially threatening, since they pale in comparison to whether my kid is healthy and happy. And parenting has given me greater confidence in my capabilities, which has translated into greater confidence in my work. On the flip side, all the emotion regulation skills I’ve learned through my work have made me better able to manage my own and my child’s emotions. Looking at your time at work and home in this way can change your perspective and give you more freedom to make mistakes or let go.
Cultivate work relationships that support your self-acceptance
Over time (years not months), build up work relationships with people who help you feel more self-accepting. Develop relationships with people whom you trust and respect enough that you don’t mind getting corrective feedback from that person. Cultivate collegial relationships that feel more “iron sharpens iron” than directly competitive. These relationships will help you feel more emotionally stable. Plus, we know that teams and management relationships in which people can take creative risks without worrying about interpersonal rejection or diminished social standing perform better.
A Different View on “Doing It All”
Many working parents struggle with the guilt in doing things the “right” way or how they “should” be parenting. Every child is different, and so is every family. Looking at how you parent from a different perspective can alleviate the guilt when you feel you’re falling short.
Consider this story from Caitlyn Collins, author of Making Motherhood Work: How Women Manage Careers and Caregiving, that she shared in an interview on the HBR IdeaCast:
I had a single, working mom for much of my childhood who did it all—or at least she strived to do it all. She had a very successful career in corporate sales and marketing. And that often meant sacrificing time at home.
So, we had an absolute army of caregivers—babysitters, nannies, sports teams, clubs, neighbors—taking care of us until she could get home at the end of the day. She typically worked seven to seven in the office.
I remember really being in awe of my mom growing up. Seeing her leave in these impeccably tailored suits and high heels, commanding these rooms full of men in suits, but she was stressed and frantic. And she tells me today that she constantly felt guilty and inadequate.
We ate a lot of pizza and McDonald’s, and she’s told me that she felt acutely guilty for having served us those meals. I laughed when she admitted that to me as an adult because I remember thinking that I had the best mom ever because I got McDonald’s and pizza all the time. I thought she was just rewarding us. She told me, no, it’s because I didn’t have time to get to the grocery store.
And I said, well, I just thought that made you an extra cool mom.
Adapted from “Why U.S. Working Moms Are So Stressed—and What to Do About It,” on HBR IdeaCast (podcast), March 26, 2019.
Acknowledge the systemic issues at play
Especially for working moms, there are pitfalls to not being perfect. Women’s mistakes get judged more harshly and are remembered longer than men’s, productivity strategies like writing shorter emails can backfire for women, and people who choose flexible work options can be judged negatively. Choosing when and when not to be a perfectionist is a complex issue. If you acknowledge these factors and see these subtleties, you can make better case-by-case decisions about when to aim for perfection and when you can let some things slide. When you have strategies in your toolkit, like the ones I’ve outlined here, you can more adeptly turn your perfectionism on and off.
Working parents can feel many internal and external pressures to be perfect, but realistically it’s impossible, and having such a mindset can rob you of enjoyment both at home and at work. Letting go of perfectionism is part science and part art, requiring knowledge of scientifically supported strategies (like those for disrupting rumination and increasing self-compassion) and personal experimentation to see which strategies work best for you. By understanding why you fall prey to perfectionistic tendencies and discovering how you can benefit by letting them go, you can find a way to have less stress and feel more present and productive at home and work.
Adapted from “How Working Parents Can Let Go of Perfectionism,” on hbr.org, April 6, 2020 (product #H05HXF).