Instead of “Perfect” Children, Raise Resilient Ones


“Making mistakes is not okay! Not when you’re Black,” my mother yells to my sister heatedly. The room gets tense and quiet for a moment. My sister and mother awkwardly follow me with their eyes as I walk out. Here we go, I think to myself.

My mother is speaking to my sister, but I can tell part of her is thinking of me and my tattoo.

My mother, like most mothers, doesn’t like that I have tattoos. However, she particularly hates the one on my forearm which says “mistakes are okay.” I got it when I was 18 and it was a phrase from an experience which stuck with me. It felt like a reminder that my anxiety-stricken-teen-self needed to see on their arm the next time they were panicking, or couldn’t breathe or what have you. Funnily enough, the tattoo my mom hates most is the one I’m proudest of.

The struggles I had with perfectionism had faded to the background of my consciousness as I moved throughout college, art, and busy-busy life. However, these memories gently floated again to the top of my mind.


* * *

Later that day, at work, my very kind but diligent boss checks in to see how the work she’s assigned me is coming. It was a relatively simple task; just matching donations to certificates, to spreadsheets. To be honest, I kind of day-dreamed my way through it because I was so exhausted that morning. I showed her what I’d done so far, and she found a mistake. Not a major one, but still it was enough for her to suggest I “double check my work from the beginning, so we know that the rest of the list hasn’t been thrown off.” I reply; “okay, I can do that,” before she exits. As I begin to start on my next task, I tune into how I’m feeling. My face has grown hot, and my eyes aren’t wet, but there’s the tell-tale pressure in the back of them; I’m embarrassed that I made a mistake on something I thought I had handled. I can even feel myself getting a bit frustrated that she’s making me correct myself. Sarah, what’s going on with you? How come this has upset you so much? I think to myself. I realized, it’s what’s been going on with me; this wound about making mistakes.

This mistake at work is a minor example, but that’s the thing; raising your children to be perfect raises them to be fragile. One the best examples I can think of for this is Azula, from “Avatar: The Last Airbender.”


Throughout the series, we see Azula do some pretty malicious things for the sake of being a “perfect” Fire-Nation child, and “perfect” daughter in the eyes of her father. Azula is, admittedly, a badass fire-bender. In my opinion, the only reason Katara and Zuko bested her is because of the mental breakdown she had as a result of her perfectionism. Throughout the series we see hints of it; from the practice session with her mentors where she angrily says “almost isn’t good enough” (1), to the flashbacks of her mother’s disapproval which continue to haunt her, until her final collapse when she becomes firelord in her father’s place. She collapses from the pressure of perfection; how does one be “perfect” for all those people counting on you to lead? When there is a sea of responsibilities, how do you emit mistakes from all of them? You can’t, she couldn’t, and so she breaks down.

Honestly, if this were real life, Azula would not be someone I’d be friends with. Her politics and treatment of those around her is unacceptable. That being said, looking at her story from this angle fills my heart with grief and a lot of sadness because I get it. When you raise your kids to be “perfect,” you raise them to have their sense of achievement be dependent on how much or how little others can find fault with them. Their sense of achievement, and consequently fulfillment, becomes an external barometer, instead of an internal one. When Azula “loses it,” what she’s lost is herself. This is what happens when we’re raised to be “perfect” instead of resilient; the sense of self becomes so fragile.


My mother only expected great things from me. Like many Nigerian parents, there was no tolerance for bad grades (2), little tolerance for “bad emotions,” no tolerance for “bad expression,” etc. etc. You can see where I’m going with this right? There’s little tolerance for authenticity. Perfection demands we remove the parts of ourselves that are “undesirable,”which leaves us marginalizing the parts of ourselves which are actually longing to be integrated for use and for purpose (3). Considering this, it’s not surprising that I struggle to make mistakes, even minor ones like the one at work.

My mom made a point. In the experiences of racism and xenophobia she experienced as an immigrant in the U.S, not making mistakes was survival...for her. She also navigated being the first born daughter of her siblings, and in our culture, especially during her time, that put the wellness of all her sisters on her shoulders. To be clear; I am not in any way shape or form condoning the perfectionist-conditioning, trauma or dysfunction my child-self had to live through, but I am saying that from this specific context my mother attempted to pass on the same tools she used to survive xenophobia, racism, and patriarchal family-systems, to me. The choices my mother’s teen self had to make for her survival is her work, but these are not the tools I will use for my survival or to grow in the ways I desire in this lifetime.

Azula’s breakdown also highlighted what I’ve been dealing with as I work to carve out a vocation for myself; great leaders cannot let the fear of making mistakes stop them.

Okay, so maaaaybe Azula isn’t the leader I want to be (like even a little bit or at all lol), but the point remains; the moment she got into a role she wanted, she collapsed because she didn’t want to mess anything up. This reminds me of the struggles I’ve faced this year. Like in this secretary position, where I got upset because my boss needed me to fix a spreadsheet, or at my other job where I cried every day because I felt like such a shitty teacher. There’s been...a lot going on for me (chile) which explains some of these reactions; I finally got diagnosed with depression, which explains the difficulty in rousing my usual fighting energy to push through (4). However, this depression still exists in tandem with this inner-critic voice that tries to use my fear of making mistakes as an attempt to hold me back.

I’m still figuring out what I want, and that’s okay, but in some ways I think it was difficult to really be honest with myself about where my heart longs to invest its energy because there’s safety in complacency. There’s little room for error when doing work you’ve always done. But that’s the thing; anything worth working towards is new, and unknown, and therefore full of the potential to make mistakes….and then learn from them.

What makes someone resilient is their ability to adapt and grow from the information that “mistakes” present them with. Instead of crumbling under pressure, we grow. Instead of isolating in our need to be perfect for everyone, we self-integrate; accept that I am perfectly made in all my shortcomings, and build community connections which can support me where I need a little extra room to grow and learn.

I am determined to do great and exciting things in this life. I will do great and exciting things in life, and so, I release “perfection” as a hindrance. Ise.


As Davika, from @sacredblooming on IG once said “the only perfection is authenticity.” I believe it, I choose to live it.



Footnotes


1.) She said this to herself I think --> shows the relationship to perfectionism and a strong inner-critic voice.


2.) Context for my American readers: anything below A- was “bad.”


3.) My therapist says “everything in nature is for purpose and by design.”


4.) Contrary to capitalist beliefs, it’s okay to sometimes be too tired to keep fighting; it’s okay to rest. <3










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