The pressure that we place on ourselves to appear perfect…holds us back from truly living.
My six-year-old daughter, Lucy, is into anything pink and sparkly, most notably unicorns and lip gloss. Due to her girlie-girl, tutu-obsessed leanings, she has always balked at the idea of playing sports, claiming they were “boyish.” We managed to talk her into playing “Little Kickers” soccer only by putting her BFF on the same team, as well as offering up her dad as the assistant coach. What came next left our jaws on the ground.
At her first game, we expected to see a shy and dainty girl prancing around the field; instead, we saw a dominant, aggressive force to be reckoned with. She zoomed up and down the field, her long legs carrying her at record speeds. She dribbled the ball with ease and scored as if it were second nature. My husband and I exchanged a wide-eyed look on the sidelines that said, “WHAT? Who is this child?”
Logically, I began to plan for her Olympic career, thinking of all the sacrifices we would have to make to carry our child to world soccer domination. It would all be worth it, of course, I would say to Bob Costas when he interviewed me after she won the Gold.
(Ahem…back to reality). As the season progressed, she continued to dominate, stealing the ball from her opponents (and her teammates, for that matter) and scoring goal after goal. I have to say, I was swelling up with pride, as was her dad. It felt good to have a kid who was competent at sports. I liked it when other parents came up to me to compliment her skills. We told everyone who would listen about our Lucy and her soccer prowess, as well as praising our girl constantly for her success.
However, a strange feeling began to fall over me at these Saturday morning games. My stomach twisted and turned in nervous anticipation. I felt competitive and grumpy. I wanted my Little Kicker to kick ass.
Then, Game 5 happened.
As the game got started, I could tell she was tired and frankly getting a little bored with the idea of soccer. After all, in her mind, she had already conquered the sport. What else was left to do? She and her BFF were hugging and giggling on the field while the ball was in play. Then, a swift, tow-headed little boy on the opposing team pushed her down when she tried to take the ball from him.
When she fell down, her face crumbled in devastation, and I could see her soccer prowess dissipating into the air like steam. She ran to me, and I hugged her tears away. But after that, her confidence was gone, her aggressiveness replaced by uncertainty and a desire to distance herself from the crazy-kids-mash-up around the ball.
As she hung back, my husband and I exchanged frustrated looks and began yelling to Lucy to “get in there, take a shot, fight for the ball!” We felt our soccer star and my interview with Bob Costas slipping through our fingers.
Despite her lackadaisical performance on the field, Lucy appeared mostly unfazed. She kept shooting looks at me on the sidelines, for encouragement and guidance. I gave her my best, big-eyed, “get it together, sister” looks (with head cocked to the side for extra emphasis). All to no avail, because her mojo was clearly gone.
After the game, my husband and I lambasted her for her slapdash efforts, criticizing her for only playing at 60% effort. Predictably, she burst into tears, proclaiming us the meanest parents in the world.
Ouch. The truth hurts.
Later that day, I was reading the book, “Hands Free Life” by Rachel Macy Stafford (http://www.handsfreemama.com) which lays out nine habits for overcoming distractions, living better, and loving more. Habit 4 is “Take the Pressure Off,” and Stafford starts the chapter with this quote by Lisa Kleypas, “You are your own worst enemy. If you can learn to stop expecting impossible perfection, in yourself and others, you may find the happiness that has always eluded you.”
She goes on to say that the pressure that we place on ourselves to appear perfect, as well as our tendency to compare ourselves to others and be critical of ourselves holds us back from truly living. If we never feel that we can measure up, we either doom ourselves to a life of self-doubt or worse yet, we just stop trying because our dreams seem unattainable.
The idea is to praise ourselves (and our children!) for ordinary achievement rather than holding ourselves to society’s unrealistic (and often unachievable) standards of success. Even if you fail or lose your mojo or fall off the ledge, Stafford calls trying new things “brave attempts at living rather than failures to succeed.”
Before the last game of the season, we consciously took the pressure off. We told our girl to just have fun, to enjoy the sun on her face and the breeze in her hair. And a funny thing happened. That twisty, yucky feeling in my stomach went away, and I just enjoyed watching her give this soccer thing a go. As always, she kept looking at me–her lighthouse, her teacher (oh, the pressure!)–for affirmation and validation, and I gave her looks full of love and pride. Looks that said, “I love you. You’re enough. You’re so brave for trying this new thing!”
And she relaxed too. I could almost see her just sigh with relief, her smile lighting up the field.
After the last game, everyone on the team got a medal, which Lucy skillfully incorporated into her outfits for the next week. She kept asking me, “Mom, are you still proud of me for getting this medal?” Yes, little kicker, I’m swelling with pride yet again. This time, it’s not because you’re #1, but just because you’re on the field, smiling and wide open to the life in front of you.