Learning From My Children – Perfectionism Is Not Perfect
Last week when we were on holidays we spent a lot of time on the beach. We squeezed every drop of sunlight out of every day – usually up just in time to see the sun rise, and often enjoying dinner or some nibblies on the sand as the sun went down.
One late afternoon we headed up the beach, and after a long walk we sat down and began to dig…. and dig…. and dig. We were suddenly all digging like puppy dogs, each of us trying to dig deeper, bigger, and wider holes. We had holes so big that Katie could sit in hers and be completely hidden from view.
Then Lucy and I started to build the biggest sandcastle we could possibly imagine. It was HUGE!
It was getting bigger and bigger and bigger.
And before we knew it, the sun had slipped down behind the mountains and we were rapidly running out of light. But we still had a long walk back up the beach to get to our apartment.
Daddy Smiles and I jumped up and said “Let’s fill in the holes and get going!!” We explained to the kids that we never leaves holes in the beach because it’s just an accident waiting to happen – especially at night when no-one can see properly. The girls started piling sand into their holes, squealing with glee as they demolished my beautiful castle to get more and more sand. They danced on the spot where the holes once were, compressing the sand, and pretending they were stuck in quick sand. There was a lot of giggling!
Then I looked over at Fred. He was furiously scrabbling in the sand, digging deeper and deeper. Sand was flying everywhere and he rushed to make his hole bigger and better than anyone else’s. We gently explained that it was time to fill it in as we had to go.
Then he had a meltdown. A big one.
He refused to stop. It was like he was a robot. Dig, dig, dig, dig. Don’t stop. Don’t ever stop.
He wouldn’t listen to reason. He refused to stop.
And after a while, I told Daddy Smiles to take the girls back to the apartment as it was now dark and getting colder. But I was happy to sit and wait for as long as it took for Fred to make the decision for himself to fill in the hole.
Fred screamed as he watched them walking away. He was so obviously torn about going with them, or finishing his hole. He would run a few metres towards them, and turn back and run towards his hole. With tears streaming down his face, the agony of his inability to choose was evident. He turned again towards the family and started running. Thinking his decision had been made, I quickly and surreptitiously started filling in his hole so I could catch up to them.
The next thing I knew, a piercing scream came through the quiet air. “Muuuummmm – NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO”. It was filled with pain, and anger, and heartache. I turned to see Fred running at me, and as he drew closer he threw himself to his knees, his eyes caught sight of the now half-filled hole. Utterly defeated he kept sobbing “No no no”, and watched as the sand moved in and destroyed his creation. Each sweep of the sand felt like I was delivering a blow to his heart. Just one more sweep of my hand, and it was filled. And still he cried.
With one final look at the small pile in front of us, Fred was on his feet again and like a ghost, he disappeared into the darkness – running off to catch up with the others, his sobs echoing behind him as he ran. And even with only a couple of seconds between us, I had no hope of catching him – his little legs pumping beneath him as he ran faster and faster. When he reached his Dad, he collapsed again – his tears, his screaming, his sobs, turned into coughing, and wheezing, as he struggled for every breath.
Seconds later, I sank down beside him and pulled him onto my lap. I rocked him, and kissed him, and stroked his damp hair, as his chest heaved up and down beneath my arms. I waved the others on, and we just sat in our own little cocoon of togetherness. My boy and I staring out at the dark sea, watching the waves rise and fall in front of us, and the moon and stars above us – not another person in sight.
When his breathing began to return to normal, with just the occasional little gulp or hiccup, I whispered “What happened mate – what are you feeling?”
In broken sentences, and with tears beginning to well up again in his eyes, he explained that he wanted to leave his hole there, so that everyone could see it and think what a magnificent hole it was. He wanted everyone to know that it was the biggest hole ever – bigger than Katie’s and bigger than anyone’s. He wanted it to be perfect. I said “That’s very important to you, isn’t it.” And he replied “Yes. I want everything I do to be perfect. I want it always to be perfect“.
And with that one word, my heart broke a little bit for my boy who aches for nothing less than perfection.
Because I’ve been there. I’ve been the perfectionist. And it’s only just recently that I have really learned to let it go.
Once upon a time, I thought it was something to aspire to – something that made people great. But that was once upon a time…
Right in that moment, I saw how the constant seeking of perfection is a lonely and painful pursuit. Like a dark angel, it whispers menacingly in your ear, “Never enough, Never enough. Never enough.”
I kissed his sweaty forehead, and wiped away his tears. I hugged him tight to my chest. And I told him that I loved him. No matter what. No matter how big that hole was. I loved him.
That was all I could come up with in that moment.
And for the little perfectionist who sat tearfully in my lap, I just hoped it was enough.