For too many years, I really believed I was actually practicing this mantra.
Looking back, we were significant contributors to my son's struggles. We had unrealistic expectations. Our friends, family, and society told us to push, push, and push some more. Push him to be his personal best in school. Push to give him more than we had. Push for college. Push for sports. He deserved it. He worked hard. My gosh, we all did.
My husband and I made hot, healthy breakfasts to set him up for a long day of school, sports practice, and tutoring. We made family dinners a priority, chauffeured him all over the place, showered him with love and affection, got the best tutors, the best schools and on and on. We were the quintessential "perfect parents." Holy cow, it makes me laugh just writing that.
If we were doing everything right, if we set him up to have the perfect life and made it easy at that, why was he struggling?
Why? Because underneath the good looks, the athleticism, the good-mannered boy was one who never felt like he belonged. One that didn't feel worthy. One who was so filled with shame because he wasn't perfect. He had learning differences and big ones at that that made everything challenging. He suffered from developmental trauma, a condition we couldn't love him out of. Mix that with the internet, video gaming, and social media it is a total recipe for self-esteem disaster. And a disaster it was.
The demands of high school life found him withdrawing, isolating himself, and running away. He claimed he needed to get away from a world that was moving at warp speed and the expectations that the world had on academics, performance, success, and social status. He was spiraling down quicker than we could find help. There was a wilderness program, a residential treatment stay for the developmental trauma, parent education on mental health, brain development for the traumatized child and therapy, therapy, and more therapy.
It wasn't until then that my husband and I realized the could've beens, the would've beens, the should've beens; well, maybe they were ours, not his. It was time to recognize that the fear of not belonging, the fear of not succeeding academically, and the unrealistic expectations around performance and success were three factors that exasperated a host of psychological issues for our beautiful boy.
A New Beginning
As our son returned home, it would've been easy to get right back on the traditional track, but none of us would survive another breakdown. My husband and I were emotionally, physically, and financially exhausted. We were scared. We were angry at the cards dealt to him. To us. We were sad. Our son was in tune with all of our emotions, and he told us he could feel what he thought was our disappointment. It was right then, in that moment, we made the decision to focus on progress over perfection. We weren't disappointed in him; we were disappointed in us. In our expectations of him.
Independence Over Control
We then encouraged independence over seeking to control our son's every move.
We let go of the three OVERS:
One: Over-preparation, which places academic achievement at the center of a child's self-esteem.
Two: Over-protection, which keeps children from making their own mistakes and learning from them.
Three: Over-investment, when parents try to meet their own needs by pushing a child forward in their image.
We let him make mistakes and learn from them. We celebrated the learnings and small wins, which were actually huge for him. We let him go at a pace that worked for him and his mental health. We celebrated the dedication to his healing. We let him rest and rejuvenate when he needed it, instead of running at the frantic pace the world expected him to keep. We celebrated his true understanding of self-care.
As a result, his success was internalized and is pouring out of him in the form of smiles, laughter, playfulness, connectedness, and a true sense of self-worth that he puts into everything he does. Life will still throw him some curveballs, but he's become resilient and man, oh man, it is beautiful to see. Knowing he will carry this throughout life- now that's progress! Progress over perfection- it's ingrained in my brain, and so is the wise Dr. Brené Brown saying, "Behind perfectionism, shame is always lurking."