Confessions — and Course Corrections — of a Former Perfectionist
I looked up just in time to see a large tear splash onto my daughter’s drawing. “Are you okay?” I asked.
Her big blue eyes swam as she quietly said, “I messed it all up.”
In an instant, her hands swept the drawing into a crumpled ball. Through sobs, she explained that something went wrong and the drawing was ruined. It didn’t look exactly how she had imagined and she didn’t want to draw anymore.
At that moment, I saw myself reflected in my little girl’s tears and disappointment.
A Living Definition of a Perfectionist
I could feel my own history of ripped papers. All of the times I cried and threw out my creations. How I gave up if something wasn’t exactly how I imagined. Or the times I couldn’t start because the fear of failure crept into my bones and whispered that my best wasn’t good enough.
As I held my daughter and let her cry, I thought back to the week before. I had used an entire pad of Post-it notes. All I had wanted was a cute, little reminder to drink more water. But each time I wrote it, something looked wrong. A letter was too small. A letter was too big. It looked crooked.
I wrote it and re-wrote it until my garbage was filled with sticky balls of unnaturally yellow paper. By the time it was just right, I was tired and still a little dehydrated.
I knew my daughter’s hurt deep inside because it also lived in me.
Acknowledging Mistakes Add Something Unexpected and Fun
The next time my daughter and I sat down to make art together, I was much more intentional with my words and actions. I made mistakes and let her know that they didn’t ruin my picture. Instead, they added something unexpected and fun.
I let her know that my mistakes helped me learn.
When we finished, I didn’t declare “perfect!” Rather, I looked at her picture and pointed out the small details that might otherwise be missed. I told her about the way her art made me feel. I asked her if she was proud of herself.
Changing the Narrative
Since then, we’ve been working on incorporating new phrases. A few of our favorites include:
Practice makes progress
You’re doing your best and your best is good enough
You are trying your best and you can be proud of that
I can tell you tried hard and it shows
Mistakes will help your brain grow and help you the next time you try
I’ve also modeled making mistakes more often. This can be something as small as not cutting her toast exactly in half to making a mistake on a work project. I want my daughter to see that no one is perfect and life is about resiliency.
There’s no quick fix to a lifetime of perfectionism. But we’re slowly navigating and learning the best way to feel more at home with the imperfections.
New Book Helps Readers See Mistakes Lead to Wonderful Creations
Beautiful Oops by Barney Saltzberg has quickly become a favorite in our house. The book centers on how what we think of as mistakes can become something new and beautiful. For example, a rip in your paper can become the chomping mouth of an alligator, or a smear of paint can transform into a waddling penguin. Saltzberg encourages readers to see mistakes as an opportunity to create something wonderful. And it’s a lesson that extends to all aspects of life.