Yesterday I held a talk in my community for adults who were preoccupied with how their (and other people’s) children could best manage stress. Prevention is the best way to solve problems, and I hoped to give the audience insight into, and tools for, preventing further anxiety, depression, addiction, etc in their and other people’s kids. I was pleased with the turnout and I received some great feedback, and overall, I am really happy I put myself out there this way. I plan to hold more similar workshops, but in the meantime, I wanted to write about something that I think contributes a lot to the issues I listed above, both in kids and in adults.
A few years ago, I went to a friend’s house. She had just moved into this gorgeous mansion and had invited me to lunch. It was a beautiful spread of super healthy food of various shades of green (my fave!) and we ate at her dining room table, with heavy silverware, all posh and civilized. After lunch, she asked if I wanted a tour of the house. Of course I did! So she led me through room after gorgeous room, everything super tidy. Then we went upstairs and she showed me all of the bedrooms. They were a mess. Her kids were teens, so it was that kind of mess that teens innately know how to create, and somehow seem to survive in without coming unhinged. Oh wait… Anyway, I was shocked. Not because of the mess (my kids weren’t teens yet so I didn’t know this was super normal), but because my friend never apologized for the mess. She never did that thing we all tend to do: “I am so sorry it’s a mess - I’ve asked him to blah blah blah…” Nope, she took me through each inhabited room on the 2nd and 3rd floors and never said anything about how, well, lived-in they were.
That day, my friend gave me one of the best gifts another woman has ever given me. She gave me permission to not be (as) worried about what others think about my domestic diva-ness. Or lack thereof. (Note: I am a never-ending work in progress). By not killing herself over picking up everything, or fighting with her kids to do so the night before, or denying me the opportunity to see the “real” parts of her new home, or apologizing for the lack of perfection - she allowed me to own my imperfection. I became more aware of when I would do all of the above. I began to reflect on WHY I did all of the above. Did I think someone would feel uncomfortable with my lack of domestic perfection? Did I think they would scorn me? Dislike me? And then I thought about the fact she didn’t apologize, which was actually the most amazing part to me. Because I would certainly have good friends over even if the house was a mess, but I would always barricade the doorway until I had blurted out an apologetic warning. What is that about?! My friend, that day, showed me what acceptance is about. Acceptance of herself, of her kids, of imperfection.
At yesterday’s event I did not tell this story, but I told other stories because I know that I connect best when someone shares a story, and if it’s a personal one, all the better. All I really know in life is my own life experience thus far, so when people ask me things like, “How do I handle it when my daughter is so anxious she doesn’t want to go to school?” or “I am really worried my son is falling behind at school and I am overwhelmed, what do I do?” or “I am terrified that life is so crazy and chaotic that I am never going to feel in control again, what do I do?” - I may not have experienced their exact situation. But I do know that our children are feeling lots of pressure from all kinds of places, and the best we can do for them is to be a non-anxious presence, and guide them from a place of love and acceptance (which, by the way, is the intention I set before each meeting with a coaching client). This is where our own self-care comes in. When we prioritize our self-care, and do the things we need to do in order to feel somewhat rested, fit, purposeful, creative, and connected, we are more likely to like ourselves, which then translates into a person who can show up for someone else with love, acceptance, and the patience to not react to every button-pushing moment.
A few of the young adults I have worked with who are in recovery from addiction (and if you don’t know this, alcohol and other drugs are usually if not always a way to avoid uncomfortable feelings and thoughts, which often include anxiety, grief, anger, loneliness, boredom, frustration, fear, etc), have told me, “Something I love about being in recovery is that I get to talk with people who are being real. We talk about the hard stuff. I finally feel like someone hears me and gets me.” I have often told my kids, “I wish there was AA for you guys and your friends and peers, without you needing to be afflicted with anything, just a place where you know you can show up, share your problems and fears, and know you are heard and accepted and no one is trying to fix you. Because the thing is, this stuff you are going through, I guarantee most of your classmates are going through, and you all think you are the only ones who feel this way. Trust me, Little Miss Popular has a lot of stuff going on and you have no idea. If you all had a space like this, AA and NA would be far less needed, sigh.”
“When did we see each other face-to-face? Not until you saw into my cracks and I saw into yours. Before that, we were just looking at ideas of each other, like looking at your window shade but never seeing inside. But once the vessel cracks, the light can get in. The light can get out.”
This type of connection is powerful and it is a gift. And for people in recovery, it is an enormous source of gratitude. It is such a relief to be able to invite someone in without having to make all of the beds and fold all of the clothes and apologize for anything that would be a “Before” segment of the Mari Kondo show, or to have to relate to someone on that surface level that is so exhausting.
The thing is, one of the reasons that perfection and its pursuit is so pervasive, is that it is yet another socially-acceptable and even revered addiction. (Other socially acceptable addictions are workaholism, workout & diet addiction, and to a large extent alcoholism - as long as you don’t go “too far” with it). What is the definition of addiction? To me, it’s when you do something that you know is stunting your growth, your wellness, your relationships, and yet you keep doing it. You experience detrimental consequences yet you do it again. And again.
So what does this have to do with our kids? Well, as I pointed out yesterday, we, the parents/primary caregivers, are our kids’ first and most profound influencers. Studies have proven that when our kids are in certain situations with substances, and there is a choice to be made, their parents’ attitude toward substances will be the strongest filter for the decision. This is the same filter through which many of their attitudes and choices go through, even though they may not realize it and even though it seems like they are not listening to us or all they do is fight us. So, as their primary influencers, if in our actions, we are showing them that we are only satisfied with perfection - with our house, our car, our clothes, our skin, our hair, our weight, our work performance, our friends, our Instagram posts, etc. - it must be terrifying to them when they know (or believe) they are incapable of perfection in our eyes.
We do not do this on purpose. As I pointed out at the talk yesterday, I don’t think any of us gets up and says, “I am going to be Little Miss Perfect today!” I think what we do is we get up, and we do what needs to be done, throughout the day, to keep things going, to put out fires, to avoid the fires, and to (on the good days) look presentable and do a pretty good job. And what we may not even realize is that we are not creating moments to connect with friends and peers, or with our family, in ways that are a tad more vulnerable. Unless we are on a retreat with our friends, or in a self-help meeting, we are probably not often sharing some of our deepest fears and daily frustrations. Not because we don’t want to show that side of ourselves as much as, we don’t want to be debbie-downers or the annoying complainer. And that is probably a good thing, by the way (constantly complaining without trying to change anything is a total turnoff for most healthy people). But it can get to the point where we have erected barriers to real connection, because we may not even realize that we have now created this appearance that we are doing super awesome all of the time, that we never make mistakes, that we can single-handedly take care of what needs to be done. We know that nobody is perfect, that the perfect mom down the street probably has unresolved daddy issues or hates her cellulite, but maybe we are not even aware that others, especially our kids, fear that if they are real with us, we will not like them any more because we obviously worship perfection, and their imperfection is something we would reject and want to fix.
So, you know how on that job application, when you were asked what your greatest weakness was, and you wrote, “Perfectionism” because you believed it was a weakness that your prospective employer would love? Perhaps it is time to update that part of you (your inner critic?) that misguidedly hides behind perfectionism to avoid vulnerability. Notice when, in your day, you are doing what needs to be done, and in that moment, hit the pause button. Does it really need to be done? Does it need to be one exactly like that? Will life unravel if some things are done half-assed or not at all? And when you do this, share it with your family over dinner. Revel in the shocked looks on the kids’ faces when you admit you told your boss you refuse to answer emails after 6pm, and you are no longer going to police their rooms each week. Drop an authenticity bomb next time you go out to lunch with friends who normally stay on the surface. It’s amazing what happens when you share, “I am really scared my sophomore is not making any friends.”
Welcome to the Real World :)
Wellness coach, athlete, mom, entrepreneur. I love helping people mindfully reboot their health & joy.