Perfectionism Feeds on Fear and Fear Alone
snakes---more specifically snake FANGS and VENOM criticism---yes, even from you hairy spiders---oh lord scary movies---the Exorcist gave me nightmares for TWO DECADES isolation---being utterly, truly alone with no one who understands me. Terrifying. the dark---it’s true being judged---but, WHAT IF THEY DON’T LIKE ME??? A constant work in progress weird bugs with crazy looking pinchers---earwigs anyone?! abandonment---so so scary night terrors---my son has these and they scare ME not getting it right---hello, perfectionism
It’s that last one that I want to talk a little bit about today. Not getting it right. Also known as perfectionism.
As a fully struggling and recovering perfectionist, it’s sometimes hard for me to pinpoint exactly where I could ease up on myself.
Enter, my relationships.
Because our closest relationships are our most intimate mirrors to our “stuff,” it’s the people I love and cherish most who give me the gift of understanding where my perfectionism makes life a bit more challenging than need be.
Perfectionistic tendencies become sharp and blinding, especially when I’m under stress. The exact time when it would be really beneficial to soften into kindness, I’ve gotten into the habit of getting even more critical and to control the outcome.
For example, my son’s sleep (or lack there of) has brought up a LOT of these perfectionistic tendencies. Since he was tiny and dealing with reflux issues, we as a family have been struggling to figure out how best to get the rest we all need.
You know those people who can go for weeks on four hours a night? That is not us.
In my pre-motherhood life, rest was one of the main tools in my self-care toolbox. It helped me stay centered, grounded, thinking clearly and feeling whole. In grad school, I rarely stayed up past 11. I did my best work in the pre-dawn hours, usually awake to see the sun rise with my cup of tea and some creative endeavor in front of me.
As a mother, I’ve had a hard time adjusting to this no-sleep (or just less sleep than I’d like!) regimen. Going to bed later than I’d like because I stayed up to eek out a little creative project, talk with Andrew, read a book---simple pleasures that, when indulged in for too long (as in over an hour), would leave me reeling the next day. Even if we went to bed at a decent time, say 10pm, we would be woken up 1-3 times per night, up for the day by 5:30am.
As the sleep debt kept getting bigger, my patience wore thin, and the perfectionism ogre’s sharp jaws clamped down tight. And didn’t let go. In fact, I’m still prying those teeth out, but at least it’s not the death grip any more!
Getting enough rest for all of us is an issue. And the irony is not lost on me that my son is now having night terrors. In harder moments, I blame myself, feeling deep shame over “not getting his sleep right” or not doing SOMETHING, anything right. After all, being tired is one of the main reasons kids have night terrors. So isn’t it all my fault?
Last night, he had his worst night terror yet. We had just gone to bed about 45 minutes prior, each needing some deep rest because we are all getting over a virus. Being roused from that early, waking-dead-deep sleep, we decided he probably needed a diaper change (our sitter earlier that night couldn’t find the nighttime diapers so put two regular diapers on him). We assumed he was probably just uncomfortable.
Turns out, he was having a night terror. Andrew went in and tried picking him up. Screaming and thrashing, Little Mister was inconsolable and wild. I was called in to help. Trying to change his diaper was impossible, but somehow, we managed. He wouldn’t calm down, continuing to scream and thrash. Somewhere a voice reminded me “turn on the light.” So we did.
With the glow of the lamp in the corner brightening the previously shadowy room, we both sat next to Little Mister while he continued his inconsolable screaming. He wouldn’t let us touch him, much less get near him. This went on for about a half hour.
We spoke in low tones, telling him everything was going to be okay, he was okay, mama and dad were here, over and over. Finally, it was as if he woke up (because that’s what happened---night terrors are different from nightmares, and you are totally asleep through the whole thing. It’s way more traumatic for the parents!). He looked at me finally, started crying again. I was able to reach out and ask him if he wanted to cuddle. He scrambled up into my arms crying, but not thrashing or kicking. He was back.
It was so extremely difficult watching my son struggle like this---or what I perceived as a struggle. I couldn't do anything other than wait it out. No action, nothing. Just waiting for the storm to pass (one in which we had made worse by trying to change his diaper then physically comfort him in the beginning) while using a soothing tone of voice, comforting words.
I found myself having lots of conflicting emotion during this eternal half hour. Everything from: this needs to be over now! what else can I DO? oh my god, we didn’t DO THIS RIGHT from the beginning, so now it’s worse! And on and on. Blame started rising up, my chest tightening, my jaw setting. I could feel my own anxiety spilling forth…
But then, I stopped.
Be kind, I heard:
You are scared. This is scary. This is so hard. You and Andrew were in a deep sleep. Neither of you knew it was a night terror. You will know next time. This will end soon. Everything will be okay. It’s okay to be scared.
While my spoken words to Little Mister were soothing him, I was having this internal dialogue soothing myself. It was kind of strange, but so helpful.
And then, I felt...better. Not great, because the situation wasn’t ideal. But I was able to stay calm and out of the funnel of negativity and self-flagellation. While cuddling him, I was able to think clearly, focusing on getting my son comforted and back asleep. I also wasn’t worried that I wasn’t going to be able to get back sleep---an issue I’ve had for the past year. Because of “restless mind.” You know, when you can’t sleep because you’re woken up in the early morning hours and the thoughts. just. won’t. stop.
Kindness to yourself will help with that.
Self compassion didn’t make this situation less scary, or try to sugar coat it with positive thinking. It didn’t make things better on the outside like making my son feel better or stop the screaming.
What it did do was give me the comfort I needed in order to go forth and offer that comfort to my family. It took me out of myself---from feeling isolated in my own fear and like I was responsible to DO SOMETHING NOW, because otherwise the world was going to end (perfectionism)---to seeing how we were all experiencing this together. It wasn’t anyone’s fault. There was no blame. We were all scared and worried. We could and would figure this out. It was going to be okay. Kindness.
With yourself. With others.