Last night at dinner, my husband asked when I was going to share my first post. “When it reads like an essay from The New Yorker,” I said, half joking, half hoping he’d get distracted by more spicy green beans or chicken fried rice. He paused, sensing that I wasn’t eager for more input, and then added gently, “You know, Nancy… ‘The perfect is the enemy of the good.'”
I didn’t appreciate the reference (a loose translation of Voltaire) or his implication that perfectionism – a rigid attachment to an impossible standard – was getting in the way of my goal. He was right, of course, but I didn’t want to accept it, because it felt like a fatal flaw.
Eventually, I realized that getting stuck in perfectionism isn’t usually a big problem. It’s just one more unskillful behavior that tends to show up under stress. We’re all at risk for perfectionism when we care deeply about an outcome, are unsure of our abilities, and fear that someone would reject us, if we allowed them to see our flaws.
Take this blog post, for instance – Exhibit A. I’ve wanted to write about stepfamilies for ages, but I never got around to it, because my expectations were too high. I told myself that it had to be interesting, insightful, funny and real… but I couldn’t say anything that might embarrass anyone or ever cause me regret.
In short, it had to be authentic and perfect. No wonder I got stuck.
So why resort to perfectionism, if it gets in the way of our goals?
Because most of us have been taught to “just try harder” under stress. Striving feels effective, because it gives us something to do with our nervous energy. It shows everyone around us how much we care. And, most importantly, perfectionism provides a temporary respite from shame.
Biologically, shame is an important emotion that prevents us from revealing anything about ourselves that would cause us to get kicked out of our group. So, if fear of rejection is the problem, perfectionism can seem like the cure.
Given that perfectionism and fear of rejection feed off of each other, it makes sense that stepmoms are at risk. Most stepmoms feel acutely vulnerable, as we step into our new families without a safety net. We know that a lot of second marriages don’t last. And the fear of being rejected is hardly all in our heads. Often, we’ve been told explicitly that our contributions aren’t wanted and that someone would be happy if we failed.
When my husband and I got married, I fell into perfectionism, almost on cue. I reacted to a lot of unwanted scrutiny of my parenting by raising the bar impossibly high. In a misguided attempt to prove my value, I dedicated myself to doing all of the things the stepparenting “experts” said I should do. If my job was to “put the kids first,” then I was going to do that better than anyone had ever done it before.
And it worked in the short-run. During the first few months of my marriage, I was so busy taking care of everyone else’s needs that I didn’t have time to think about my very deep and real fear that no matter how hard I tried, my new family might not ever make room for me.
I could do all this and still get rejected. There are no guarantees.
The problem with perfectionism is that it’s not sustainable. It’s exhausting and overwhelming to keep up the charade. Striving leads to clenching, just when relaxed persistence is key.
There’s a concept in child development called “good-enough parenting,” which suggests that it’s not a good idea to try to be a perfect parent. To do so, would deny our kids the opportunity to practice frustration tolerance, a skill they need to grow.
In my opinion, we should extend this concept to include good-enough stepmoms too. Perfectionism has no place in any form of parenting, because it’s impossible to form an authentic connection, when we won’t let others see who we are.
And when I get right down to it, there’s an even more compelling reason to practice letting go of the impossible standard I set. I don’t want my stepkids to ever – even for a minute – think that they have to hide who they are to be loved.
Coming together as a stepfamily is one of the hardest transitions a family can face. And society places disproportionate pressure on stepmoms to make the whole thing work. So, if you’re a stepmom who has occasional perfectionistic leanings, know that you’re not alone. And your willingness to acknowledge those urges is not a cause for shame. It’s an indication that you’re human and a step on the path towards growth.
My feelings about starting this blog remind me vaguely of entering my stepfamily. I’m not quite sure how to do this or if it’ll all work out. Cultivating a more effective stance takes practice and a willingness to embrace the unknown.
I’m not a perfect stepmom and this isn’t a perfect post. For now, I’m going to allow imperfection, share what I’ve written, and notice that there’s value in being good enough.
And the next time my husband asks if I’ve shared my first post, I’ll be able to smile and eat in peace.