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There are certain days when we feel our lives change profoundly, days we remember for a lifetime.

Listening to my daughter practice in the other room, I could tell something wasn’t right.

It wasn’t just the scratch and whine of the notes. Something wasn’t right emotionally. I felt an uncomfortable tickle in my stomach. My muscles tightened.

“It’s just violin practice!” I chided myself. “What could possibly be wrong?”

As a scientist, I don’t really believe in a sixth sense or the ability to read minds–unless you’re talking about mothers.

Maybe fathers have it too, but mothers definitely have a special connection to their children. We cut one cord at birth, but maybe there is another cord that remains. I don’t know. But this was one of those moments.

I walked in, trying to appear casual. I’m pretty sure I was shaking. “What’s going on?”

“My nose hurts.”

Her nose? How do you hurt your nose playing a violin? “Do you have a cold?” I asked.

“No. I hit myself in the nose because I was angry I couldn’t get the notes right.”

My heart dropped and only a great deal of will kept me standing. This was serious. Left unchecked, this could increase her risk of cutting or anorexia later in life. I remember how surprised I was to learn most anorexics are straight-A students. Anorexia is less about body image than it is control.

I felt a mixture of sadness and anger—anger at myself for causing this, sadness for failing to protect her … from herself. I thought we’d made so much progress on dealing with her perfectionism.

And there it was: expecting perfection in the fight against perfectionism. What I was trying to cure in my daughter was still alive and well in me. She worries about monsters under the bed, I worry about the monster inside.

So we talked about kindness, how she would never hit a friend simply because they couldn’t play a song on the violin. Why do to herself what would be unacceptable to someone else?

This seemed to make an impact. She got that surprised look on her face, perhaps realizing the world doesn’t have to be as complicated as we make it.

Of course I’ve been at this long enough to know there is no cure, only a consciousness that allows us to catch ourselves in the act and minimize the damage. While I hope she won’t hit her herself again, chances are we’ll both be needing this discussion again.

But when have words ended any feud?

I hugged her. I tried to infuse her with love through my embrace, as if it could permeate the skin and cross the blood-brain barrier.

And she, with the special wisdom all children seem to possess, tried to do the same for me.

Then she picked up her violin and started to play: still scratchy, but sweet.

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37 Responses to The Perfectionist and her Violin

    • On
    • December 3, 2013 at 1:29 pm
    • C.R.
    • Said...

    Ouch! I’d rather see children NOT to be perfectionists.

    I wonder if any specific hobby or some new lazy friends could help.

    • She is, in many other ways, very well adjusted. Loves playing for hours on her own, sings to herself in the bathroom, and has many friends (none of which are lazy as far as I know, but then we don’t talk about it in those terms). She has been a perfectionist from a very, very young age. Although I have beat myself up many times, feeling I somehow caused her to be this way, I’m coming to believe it is largely genetic. That being said, how I cope with it myself and how I interact with her during trigger moments, I think can make a world of difference.

        • On
        • December 3, 2013 at 11:47 pm
        • C.R.
        • Said...

        Then also, I think this needs to be said, perfectionism isn’t all bad, but has its blessings. It means people take responsibility and propel things forward.

        I think there is also wisdom in acceptance (I don’t know if this is something we can decide, or which just mercifully happens). Some realities in life are given and won’t change.

        I am still curious about what actions could be taken to help lessen perfectionism (for any age). Could view to world be somehow made larger? World of straight A students or perfect pitch is a minority world.

    • On
    • December 3, 2013 at 1:55 pm
    • ekbrown
    • Said...

    What a tender, insightful story. Thanks so much for sharing.

    • On
    • December 3, 2013 at 3:39 pm
    • Bernard Hall
    • Said...

    Jen, I love how you draw from the laboratory of your own life experience to courageously express your vulnerabilities and insight.
    It’s so real, practical and complete

    • Thank you, Bernard. That means a lot to me, and I’m glad these stories can be of service beyond my own walls.

    • On
    • December 3, 2013 at 3:59 pm
    • Kellee Webb
    • Said...

    very intuitive and insightful, thank you for sharing!

    • On
    • December 3, 2013 at 4:56 pm
    • Sabine
    • Said...

    Dear Jen,

    this time you got me. I can so much relate to perfectionism – it gets me more often than I like to admin. And I am also not astonished that cutting and/or anorexia is related. I can remember being told that I have to work harder to be okay. The weird thing is: today I know with my conscious mind that I am the only one who can decide to believing in myself, yet my unconscious still often questions everything. Cutting is the visible proof that physical pain is sometimes easier to bear than mental pain. Thank you for sharing this.

    • I mean, you really hope it doesn’t come to cutting or anorexia. I think (hope) that outcome is largely preventable if one catches it early and finds productive ways of dealing with the emotions. As I’ve mentioned in other posts, I’ve made enormous progress myself, in my efforts to provide an example for my daughter. Sometimes we need something bigger than ourselves to do the emotional work required. Did you see the video I made on perfectionism, Sabine? You might find it (and the comments on this post) helpful. Let’s do this together. It’s too big to fight alone. xoxo

    • On
    • December 3, 2013 at 7:14 pm
    • Clare
    • Said...

    Oh, bless her! Thank you for sharing. She’s a lucky little girl to have you to guide her in the right direction.

    Teachers have to be so careful too, especially if they’re perfectionists.

    I used to teach piano to some lovely kids (and a couple of demons) who cracked me up. One of them learnt a new piece which she really enjoyed playing, so I asked her if she’d like to play it in her school assembly. She was only six or seven at the time and she’d never played in front of an audience before. She looked a bit worried, and said she didn’t want to in case she made a mistake. I asked her what was the worst thing that could happen if she hit a bum note – was she worried in case people laughed? She thought about it, grinned, and said, “I suppose it’s better than making them cry!”

    We all need to remember that the sky isn’t going to fall in if we hit a bum note every now and then. :)

    • I love the metaphor of “we’re all going to hit a bum note every now and then”! That’s really brilliant, Clare. I think that’s another way of looking at perfectionism that she would understand. Thanks, Clare!

    • On
    • December 3, 2013 at 8:24 pm
    • Esther
    • Said...

    I love this story. I think most kids go through this self perfection even though they are not perfectionists. Thank you for sharing it.

    • It’s a good point, Esther, that all kids go through a version of this. Maybe so. Maybe I shouldn’t worry. This parenting job is so much harder than advertised! 😉

    • On
    • December 4, 2013 at 2:19 am
    • Michelle
    • Said...

    This is the first time I have read your blog and boy did it resonate with me. I am 45 and have only just realised that perfectionism has ruled my life and one of the reasons I am now learning to cope with ME. I was never extreme as anorexia BUT I do recognise that I used to control my food intake when everything went wrong (or appeared to to me). However recognising it and learning to be kind to yourself is a totally different matter and I know it will be a life time struggle for me but if I don’t learn I will never recover. I have spent my whole life believing I was never good enough to be loved or at anything I attempted to do, that I am just average.. And I have spent my whole life trying to be perfect. I will look further into your blog and read some more… This may help me understand myself a bit better and learn a different way. So thank you for a beautifully written piece, I now hope it helps me deal better with the recent passing of our puppy who was run over at only 5 months and although I know it was an accident my inside vioce keeps telling me that I didn’t care for him properly and I failed him.

    • Welcome, Michelle! I’m glad you found us. So sorry to hear of the passing of your puppy. As a huge animal lover (and I think many perfectionists are), I know that loss deeply hurts. They are the one source of unconditional love we can trust, aren’t they?

      Let me know if there are any questions in particular you don’t find answers to that you’d like me to discuss. I love getting topics to write on straight from readers! Again, welcome.

    • On
    • December 4, 2013 at 3:50 am
    • Balachandra
    • Said...

    Wow, that was so amazing. You show your vulnerable side still end up being the hero. Keep up the good work with parenting and your business.

    I faced a similar situation with a boy(I guess little boys are easy to deal with). He ended up helping a kid whom he disliked. He did this reluctantly but I guess he couldn’t say ‘NO’ to me.
    He asked that why did the other kid gets to be mean and all, while he had to behave well to all kids including that kid. In reply to that I took a leaf out of spider man movie saying that “Being good is a super power which only a few good people possess. Since you know with great power comes …”.
    Things got a little easier after that but as you said words alone don’t provide the solution.

    Thanks again Jen for this wonderful story bringing back some memories.

    • LOL–I don’t know about hero, but you’re kind to say so. I really love your story too. Giving kids something to relate to really helps to make these lessons real, but without being too hokey. Thanks for the note and sharing your heart’s wisdom with us as well.

    • On
    • December 4, 2013 at 10:36 am
    • Jamie
    • Said...

    Hi, Jen.
    This is such a touching story. As moms, we want so much for our children – mostly their happiness. We want them to feel confident and accomplished and … “perfect.” But there is no such thing. There is, as Jen Louden often says, only “enoughness.” It’s a good word and one I try to remember when I start succumbing to the evils of comparison and striving.

    Thanks for sharing this soft spot and offering the gentle reminder.

    • Yes, Jamie, isn’t that the rub? We want their life to be perfect, but we can’t make it so, and the more we try, the more we actually hurt, not help. I like Jen’s word, “enoughness,” very much. I’m thinking this would be a great course to offer–teaching your kids enoughness. Now I just have to figure out what to do myself. :)

        • On
        • December 6, 2013 at 11:00 am
        • Jamie
        • Said...

        I wish that there were more courses like that for kids. I have often thought that if kids had the opportunity to learn all “this stuff” when they are younger, it could save them a lot of heartbreak later. I’m all for a good education (literature, writing, mathematics, history, science, etc.), but I believe there’s something to be said for weaving in some emotional and psychological learning as well. Why wait ’til we’re having a quarter-life or mid-life identity crisis? 😉

    • On
    • December 5, 2013 at 9:19 pm
    • Lisa
    • Said...

    What a touching story. I’m wondering how old is your daughter? You must have a very close bond with her for her to be able to confess that to you. Bless you.

    • She’s 6. And yes, we are very close. Thank goodness. I’d hate for her to feel like she has to figure this all out on her own!

  1. Pingback: Blog Roundup (12-6-13) | Blonde & Balanced

    • On
    • December 6, 2013 at 8:17 am
    • Hadeel
    • Said...

    I love your story and how you used kindness as an approach . My daughter is three but there is always something I can learn from reading your blog. She sometimes gets upset when she can’t do things on her own I say ” be gentle with juju” and it’s okay if you need to say ” mama I need help”
    Keep these stories coming :) xoxo

    • Ah, I remember when my daughter was 3. That’s a lovely age (as they all are, I’m finding). I love that you tell her to be gentle to herself. I still have to tell myself that, even at 41. LOL.

      I will definitely keep the stories coming. Thanks for the encouragement.

  2. this was a beautiful way to reason with your daughter. excellent parenting. i was also a perfectionist growing up and ended up with an eating disorder after i finished graduate school. took years of therapy to be able to eat normally.

    • I’m glad you escaped the clutches of perfectionism and the eating disorder. Thanks for being willing to share that. I’m hoping that by dealing with this early on, we can prevent my daughter from the worst of it and channel it for the best. All we can do it try (and love her!).

    • On
    • December 7, 2013 at 9:43 am
    • Steven Le
    • Said...

    That was a very meaningful short story you have just shared with us. It actually has a rather significant impact on myself! I’ve always had a perfectionist nature, trying to have everything perfect. But I learnt not to be hard on myself if I failed, as it was only temporary defeat and success was just around the corner!

    Also, raising kids is very hard in this society, the expectations are tough. Sometimes you feel you’re doing something great for your child but at the same time it could be having negative impacts on them.

    Yours was an example of excellent parenting, taking the time to speak with her and help her understand what she was doing!


    • I think it’s very hard for perfectionists to put into practice even what they know rationally. But it’s also true that practice, even practice that at first feels unnatural, over time will become habit. Congrats on learning how to deal with it effectively!

  3. Congratulations to Clare, who won the giveaway this week for a 12-month subscription to The Sun!

      • On
      • December 9, 2013 at 3:23 pm
      • Clare
      • Said...

      What a wonderful surprise! Thank you :)

    • On
    • December 9, 2013 at 10:37 am
    • Deanna
    • Said...

    I recognize the behavior well – it was a piano keyboard with my son. I love the way you describe the feeling when you “know” something is different and not right. I also appreciate the way you responded to your daughter to help her see outside herself. That’s not easy at 6 years old, but it’s a good time to begin learning.

    • On
    • December 11, 2013 at 7:09 am
    • Tom Southern
    • Said...

    This is such a great post because its message has several layers. I had to read it several times to realise that you’re not just talking about what damage perfectionism can do to us, I think you’re also encouraging us to let ourselves experience the process of learning; of becoming good, or better, at what we do. Allowing ourselves this process and time taken to learn to do something well is also part of the learning process: We learn the skill and we learn about ourselves too. We become part of what we’re learning as it becomes a part of us.

    I get frustrated when learning, or frustrated with my lack of knowledge or skill. I want to be able to do it now. But this post as shown me that without the process; journey if you like, of learning, we don’t actually learn as fully as we might if we let ourselves experience what change and process of what such learning does to us as well as for us.

    And sometimes we don’t fully take control until we’re
    able to let go and experience the process.

    Thanks Jennifer.

    • That’s a good way of thinking about it, Tom. Like you (and I suspect many overachievers), I find the process of learning can sometimes be very frustrating. When I was a teacher, I used to tell my students that the feeling of having learned something is awesome, but that is requires the less fun part of learning. You have to get through the latter to get to the former! But if you can learn to love the process, to enjoy it, well then, you get two positives for the price of one. That doesn’t come naturally to me, but I’m getting better. Glad you liked this!

    • On
    • January 2, 2014 at 11:11 am
    • Kabrena
    • Said...

    OOH, Jen. Ya really got me this time. Growing up, perfectionism on my violin laid the pattern for perfectionism everywhere else. I placed the template for intensity of practicing my violin onto every other challenge I took on — whether it was trying to be a better soccer player, studying for school, or anything else. Bless you for being there to help your daughter — and all of us — work through perfectionism…it is so insidious! Of course working hard to do well on something is great, but when I finally noticed I had long-since ceased paying attention to celebrating a success I had worked hard to achieve because I had already moved on to conquering the next challenge in the never-ending fight to achieve enough to be OK, it also suddenly occurred to me my priorities were totally mixed up and sorely in need of a re-shuffling.

    Thanks for sharing your wisdom. Happy New Year!