Thursday, August 31, 2017

Price of Perfection

This summer I had an opportunity to put a small dent in my never-ending pile of books I want to read. One in particular that motivated me to write this blog is, “What Made Maddy Run, the Secret Struggles and TragicDeath of an All-American Teen” by Kate Fagan. This particular book popped up on my Facebook feed from a friend connected to the Author and I immediately was drawn to the story as both a parent and as a therapist. I wanted to better understand Madison Holleran's story, having remembered hearing about her suicide on the local NJ news a few years ago. At the time it was shocking and hard to image what could be going on with such a talented, beautiful and seemingly "perfect" young girl.

Thinking about what could have been going on in her life through my experiences as a therapist, I can see how warning signs can be missed and how depression can look different then we expect it to look. However, as a mom of two highly driven kids, her story triggered my fears about just how much I really know about the pressures my children are facing, as compared to pressures I may have faced a kid. Just as I started to read this book an acquaintance lost her 12-year-old daughter, Mallory, to suicide as a result of relentless middle school bullying. It is impossible for me to fully comprehend the pain Mallory, Maddy and their families have, and still are, experiencing. This book, “What Made Maddy Run” helped to remind me the importance of talking about this subject with my children and better understand life from their perspectives.

Maddy's situation wasn't about external bullying or social media however social media did play a part in her story. The author, Kate, talks about Maddy's carefully crafted social media profiles and the contrast between that image she put out into the world with the internal pain and conflict she experienced. Kate Fagan also bravely shares about her own experiences with the pressure to be "perfect" on the outside while having doubts on the inside. It reminds me of the term “imposter syndrome” which I see almost every day in my work as a therapist. Highly accomplished people report feel as if they have been fooling everyone and that someone will find out they don't really belong. Those feelings come from distorted thinking and self-doubt with very little truth behind them. I have struggled at varying times in my life with challenges related to self-esteem, self-doubt, and perfectionism and it is easy to understand how negative thoughts like “I am not good enough” and “someone will see I don’t really know what I am doing” can increase fear and anxiety and feed unrealistic expectations. Much of my personal struggles were before social media. I had no Instagram or Facebook to compare myself to others and I could shut off social comparisons when I needed to. That is not the case today.

In this book, Kate describes how social media leads people to believe they connected and that they know about other's lives when really they only know the very carefully constructed ideal image they want others to see. That magnifies the feeling of “I’m not good enough” for so many people. Although on some level people are aware that others' reality is far different from the Instagram or social media persona, it is still very difficult to not compare and ultimately feel less than.

For athletes, that contrast can be even more pronounced. The book describes the pedestal that athletes are placed on and expectations of success that are different from everyone else’s. Kate talked openly about her years as a college athlete and the pressure she felt. She writes

"Our culture celebrates harder, faster, stronger. Vulnerability, it would seem, undermines that pursuit. And within sports culture, continuing to practice of play, no matter what your mind and body says, is romanticized: T-shirts are emblazoned with quotes, inspirational sayings are stenciled on the locker room wall, epic speeches are given At Colorado, a saying above one doorway read "Pain is weakness leaving the body."

Defining athletes by sports performance is not new. My husband and I went to the same high school in the late 1980's, yet our experiences were vastly different.  I was more insecure and awkward and he was confident, popular and well-liked. I was on the swim team, however swimming was not looked at the same way as other sports. My swimming career was mediocre at best and ended with high school. My husband, on the other hand, was a football player and received a full scholarship to play football at Boston University. His experience and “social status” in high school was far different from mine and so much of what people knew about him was defined by his place on the football team. We never would have dated back in high school and only became a couple at our ten year reunion. We joked it was because ten years later, “I got more cool and he got less cool.”

The message that success is linear and defined by accomplishment is ingrained in our kids from a very young age. For athletes, like Maddy and Kate, it meant winning, being strong, and working through any pain or doubt without letting anyone see imperfections. For academics it means getting the best grades and achieving the most prestigious college acceptances. Society praises and rewards good grades instead of praising the journey and learning experience overall. Is an A in a class where very little effort was put into it better than the C that took time and perseverance to earn? For me it is not, but most people says it’s the “A” that matters. That’s how we are judged, by the outcome and not the effort.

As a parent I try to be more mindful. Being a self-proclaimed “recovering perfectionist” I am careful of the messages I send my children. Both of my children play team sports and I remind them that it is about having fun and not just about the win. I tell them that success is defined by being better today than they were yesterday and not about being the best or better than anyone else. I believe accomplishments are important in the sense that they reflect effort, motivation, and drive, however those accomplishments do not define us, they are a part of a much more complex and full sense of self. My daughter has said to me that I am the only mom who doesn't care about grades. I reply by telling her I care about her happiness first and foremost, grades are a byproduct of learning. 

Another message I have tried to convey is that mental health and physical health are not much different despite the stigma associated with mental health or emotional health. My children both know relatives and friends who have struggled with depression and anxiety and I am open about things I do to manage my own anxiety levels. They understand diseases affecting mental health can be treated just like other medical issues such as a broken leg, diabetes, or strep throat. Mental health struggles are not personality flaws, personal weakness or something to hide or be ashamed of.

Even though I try my best, sometimes things slip through the cracks. For example recently I had an eye opening conversation with my 10-year-old son. He had been really busy with travel sports and summer camps and increasingly irritable and angry at home and I wondered if maybe he wanted to talk to someone other than his mom. He sometimes will meditate with me and uses some cognitive skills I have taught him but I thought it was important to ask if he needed more support.  I asked him if he wanted to talk with a counselor or as we call it “feelings teacher.” To my surprise he immediately became angry. He said, “I’m not stupid, why would you say that!” 

What? What did he mean, “stupid?” Is that really what he thinks? I was completely blindsided by his reaction. I approached him with curiosity and tried to understand what he was feeling. He expressed being embarrassment at a sports camp that was new to him and he wasn’t performing well and falling behind his friends. He had internalized his performance from a negative and fixed mindset instead of seeing potential to learn and grow and enjoy the opportunity take on a new challenge.

The take away I want to share today is for all of us to be aware of the messages we send our kids, whether consciously or not. Take time to understand how they are feeling and show them they are valued for who they are and not just what they accomplish. Recognize that pressures today are increased with social media and many of us just can’t fully appreciate what it is like for kids today compared to how it was for us when we were that age.  Not only should we tell them they don’t need to be perfect, but show them by modeling our own self-care, acceptance, and self-compassion.

Maddy’s story is heartbreaking and my hope is that by sharing it in her book, Kate has opened up dialogue for others who are struggling and can make progress toward reducing the stigma that contributed to Maddy’s death.

If you or a loved one are in need of help, please reach out to the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at: or call 1800-273-8255.