When Alex was a kid, he recalls his father chastising him for not washing the car properly. Alex volunteered his services as a five-year-old child, but his dad showed little appreciation. On the contrary, when he "missed a spot," his father would berate him by calling him stupid. He was a sensitive child who wanted to please his father, but ended up feeling devalued.
Over time, Alex associated his less than perfect performance with his personal identity. If what he did was less than acceptable, then by all means he must be defective. His father never encouraged or coached him on a better way to wash the car, so he was left to feel inadequate about any task he attempted.
Alex evolved into a self-critical, angry youngster. In Little League, he excelled as a player. He was known for his outstanding skills and performance. Nevertheless, he berated himself, other players and the umpires during his occasional unsuccessful at-bats during games. He recalls running feverishly towards first base, being called out, and throwing his helmet, stomping his feet and raging at the officials. Although he was conflicted and confused about his poor sportsmanship, he wasn't capable of stopping his inappropriate behavior. His parents never got involved, intervened and discussed the "why" of his self- defeating thinking and behavior nor tried to correct it.
In adulthood, Alex was able to trace his painful memories of personal performance-related criticism and anger through the filter of his son’s experience. His son, Damon, was a very talented basketball player. Alex was perplexed because he never recalled Damon losing his "court presence" during a game. His son was grounded, focused and in control. These qualities actually helped enhance the level of his game. Alex was thrilled that the legacy of persistent perfectionism never created a problem for his child.
As he sat in the stands and watched one of his son’s tournament games, Alex recalls reflecting on what parenting skills he had implemented with Damon that were different from the way in which he was raised:
- Like Alex, his son was very sensitive. Alex made sure that he never harshly scolded him.
- His form of discipline was facilitated through coaching, instruction and encouragement.
- He always let Damon know that he was proud of him.
- He believed that mistake-making was a necessary part of child-development.
- He challenged his son to excel without motivating through intimidation.
- He remained involved with Damon and attended his activities at school and in the community.
- Alex's limits were firm, but reasonable with logical consequences for positive and negative behaviors.
- He always differentiated Damon's behavior from his personal worth.
Alex gave his son what he found difficult to provide for himself - support, soothing, comfort and affirmation. Ironically, he learned through role-modeling his son’s behavior how to begin parenting himself. The process of learning to self-nurture involved facing his past, grieving and releasing its emotional impact while creating fresh interpretations of his thinking and behavior.
He cut into the "pedestal of perfectionism" and learned to allow himself the freedom to perform less than admirably at times. He practiced selective mistake-making as a way of giving up some control and allowing for a measure of vulnerability. Alex worked on being less self-critical and judgmental of others, and eventually learned to hold the identity of imperfection. He learned to push less, and relax more as his performance, like his son’s, actually improved.