The Imperfect Parent

Parenting is messy and it's not always about doing a good job.

Posted Oct 22, 2011

Recent research on perfectionism from the University of Kent tells us that some people are just more comfortable with messiness than others and how one copes with those rain clouds has an effect on overall life satisfaction.  People who strive for perfection have increased endurance, conscientiousness, positive affect and high levels of life satisfaction.  But it is one thing to set high standards for success and another to be highly critical when failures occur.  Therefore, perfectionists who engage in self-blame, self-doubt and obsess over mistakes report low levels of life satisfaction.  Obsessing over mistakes, other people's opinions and engaging in self-doubt results in negative outcomes such as low self-esteem, negative affect, anxiety and depression.  Furthermore, this study informs us that how a perfectionist parent handles adversity and failure is of great concern because the way in which people cope with daily events predicts how positive or negative they feel at the end of the day.  Avoidant, Problem-Focused and Emotional Coping are some examples of how parents may handle daily setbacks.  However, one coping strategy emerged as not only helpful for all parents, but particularly for Perfectionist Parents who tend to engage in self-blame and self-doubt: Positive Reframing. By reappraising the situation in a positive light with acceptance and humor, parents may increase overall life satisfaction and feel better at the end of the day. 

Positive reappraisal on a macro level means viewing parenting as an opportunity to grow and learn: feeling comfortable with being the Imperfect Parent.    Author and researcher Heidi Halvorson relates perfectionism to how people pursue goals.  People who pursue performance goals want to "do a good job", demonstrate their ability and prove to others that they are indeed, smart, capable and strong.  Those who pursue mastery goals want to "get better", learn through the process of goal pursuit, and improve their abilities and skills.  Though rain clouds and deep puddles are unavoidable, positive reframing of parenting as a whole, allows one to view the setbacks as an opportunity to improve and cope with the over saturation.   

In her book Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott writes about a nurse who once told her that when you have a wound in your body, the muscles around the wound cramp to protect it from any more violation or infection.  To heal the wound, one must begin to use the cramped muscles in order to relax again.  Lamont goes on to say that perfectionism is one way that our psychic muscles cramp. They cramp around the wounds from our childhood, the losses and disappointments of adulthood and they keep us from getting hurt in the same place over and over again, while also keeping us from experiencing life in a naked and immediate way.   The wounds never have a chance to heal.  Imperfection uncramps us, exposes us to the messy journey of parenthood and allows for the nourishing, life giving water to seep in and hydrate the mind, body and spirit with unconditional acceptance and love.   By accepting the process and reappraising the daily rain clouds, parents learn that nimbus clouds make way for sunny skies and that water will soon evaporate.