The Perfectionist Mindset and Embracing Mediocrity

Just in time for Mother’s Day, some thoughts about how I’m not the best mom! 

I read this lovely article from MindBodyGreen the other day (thanks Hello Peaceful Mind for the link!). It was full of great advice, but one thing really stood out. It said when you’re depressed, you’re only functioning at 20%, not your usual 70-90%. My brain did a double take. It wasn’t so much the 20%. Anyone who has been through depression can relate to that number. I reread it several times, thinking:

Wait, we should only expect ourselves to function at 70-90%?

This wasn’t even an article aimed at sleep-deprived, frazzled parents. So on a day with adequate sleep, good nutrition, enough selfcare, freedom from illness, and a clear mind, we can expect 70-90%. It really opened up some fundamental problems with the perfectionist mindset.

Perfectionism is deeply coded into us by society. It is ingrained in us from an early age that if we don’t “try our best” or “give it our all” then we are to blame for the fallout. Anything less than our best is a knock on our pride. My favorite example of this is telling someone “Give it 110%”.

110% is NOT A THING. Not unless -10% happens shortly after.

It reminds me of high school, where people were able to get 5.0 GPA’s (which should also not be a thing), and were striving for 100% marks in everything. Anything less than a 95% in everything was damaging to your future. No wonder so many people hit university and suddenly plummet into depression and mental illness.

Perfectionism is an often overlooked vulnerability factor for mental illness. And our society doesn’t really leave room to be satisfied being “okay” at something. Someone is either a good worker or a liability. They are either fit or fat (I’m not even going to go into how you can actually be both or neither of those things!). But perfectionism also decreases the likelihood that we will succeed. If we are caught up in doing even the unimportant things without mistake (like vacuuming), then we will miss the more important things (like play time).

It’s not to say you can’t push it. There are a few things in life that necessitate that effort.  But if you give 100%, you have to expect the subsequent fall to 50%. Or lower. For those of us with mood issues, if we push it to 100%, we can probably expect a drop to be bigger. And that can be more devastating than the imperfection of the thing we pushed ourselves for.

This one little sentence has really helped me tackle the sources of guilt in my life. It explains and challenges my worries about being an inadequate mom, it tackles my paranoia about things like failing at my marriage, or my fear of being thought of as lazy or incompetant.

I am not firing on all cylinders most days. I’m distracted, not getting proper rest, trying to attend to many different things all at once. And don’t get me wrong, I love having those things to attend to. I love my marriage, my kids, my dog, my writing, my fitness, my hobbies, and my friends. But attending to those things with 100% of my mind, even for short bursts, is rare. Most days I feel at BEST I’m running at 50%.

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Those bursts of 100% need to be limited to things that can be seen as short term. Careers, friendships, hobbies, marriages, and most of all parenting are NOT things we can sustain perfection at. We have to be happy with 90% at best. Realistically, we should be happy with 60-70%. Which means we have to accept our mistakes, and, more importantly, we have to allow ourselves breaks and mediocrity.

But if we accept mediocrity, perfectionists will ask, is it a slippery slope to incompetence? The thing is, parenting is not the legal system – the slippery slope argument doesn’t apply. There is and always will be a difference between the occasional McDonald’s run and kid that doesn’t know what a vegetable looks like. There is a difference between the mom who forgot to pack snacks and the mom whose kid never gets food. There’s a difference between the house that is cluttered and untidy and the house that is infested with pests. That adage really does apply – if you are asking “am I a good parent?” and if you are trying to be one, chances are you’ve succeeded.

One of the things we learn in DBT is that if we feel unnecessary shame or guilt, we should act opposite to that emotion. We need to joyfully proclaim that we are doing the things we feel guilt about. We have to embrace sitting on the couch and letting the dishes pile up on occasion. We have to confidently plop those frozen peas, processed chicken nuggets, oven fries, and “camping clean” sippy of milk down and say “Yay, a technically balanced meal!” Because in the end, our kids are probably not going to notice the difference.