Olivia, 6. Photo courtesy of Jaime Primak Sullivan
My oldest child Olivia has a strong competitive nature. I don’t have to go far to see where she gets it: I, myself, am an overachiever, and that’s why it scares me to death.
I have always competed with everyone around me. To this day, even with the personal and professional successes I’ve had, I have to make a conscious effort not to compare myself to the person who can run five miles in the time it takes me to run three, the publicist who lands a magazine cover I myself had pitched, or the friend who can eat French fries three times a day and never gain a pound. However none of this compares to the way I compete with myself.
And while I’m well aware that it’s this same competitive nature that has afforded me the majority of my success, the difficulty lies in the degree to which I push myself to be better than I was yesterday. Sometimes I just wish I could find contentment. Being a competitive person, especially when you are always competing with yourself, is exhausting, both physically and emotionally.
The author and her daughter. Photo by Bravo.
Which is why it breaks my heart that I know all too well the road Olivia will travel. I want so badly as a mom to protect her, even from herself, but I don’t know how, because I struggle with the same thing. What can we do when we see the personality traits that we struggle with surface in our children?
When Olivia was a toddler, I, like any mom, cheered her on as she learned to walk, talk, and feed herself. When she struggled to do something and it frustrated her to the point of tears, I admired her determination. As she got older and her personality began to grow, I loved how self-assured and assertive she was becoming. And, truth be told, being from New Jersey but raising her in Alabama, where I was often singled out for my aggressive nature, I associated her fierceness with being a strong female, and that excited me.
But when she was about 4, I started to notice concerning behaviors. Regardless of the game or who was playing, for example, Olivia needed to win. Hers was more than just the “typical” preschool reaction when she would lose; it was as if she related the loss to her self-worth. She began to rationalize why she lost, making excuses such as, “I couldn’t really see the board well,” or “If Max didn’t go first, I would have won.” It was simple, but so complex. And I recognized the self-excusing behavior because I myself had spent a lifetime using it. She would cry crocodile tears of injustice over a loss and obsess over it for months, often seething at the winner and proclaiming, “I’m going to practice until you can never beat me.”
Shortly after her 5th birthday, she turned that competitive streak on me, unconscious or not. She began to compete with me for my husband Michael’s attention, and for my attention over her siblings, at times becoming cutthroat and nasty. I knew all too well that it stemmed from her fear that she was not good enough, and that killed me. As time went on, it only got worse. The word “perfect” began to take over her vocabulary; she expected an unreasonable level of perfection from other people, but mostly of herself. Now I live in constant worry about the amount of pressure she puts on herself — but I don’t know how to help her when I can’t help myself.
One day Olivia was working on an art project in the living room. As I washed dishes in the kitchen, I could hear mumbles of frustration. I could hear the self-loathing in her voice as she begin to cry. I walked into the living room. Olivia looked up and saw me and I knew that my presence alone would make it worse, but it was too late. She picked up her paper and crumpled it in her hands as she cried out that it wasn’t good enough. My heart broke in a thousand pieces. I went to her, took her in my arms. She tried to fight me, tried to wriggle herself free, but I held her tighter. She sobbed and I sobbed with her because I understood. I kept saying “I love you” over and over, but still I was at a loss for the right words.
This is where the real parenting struggle really sweeps in. I want to support her best work, but have no idea how to find the balance when I can’t find it for myself. I have to watch everything I say around her about my own contribution, my own drive for success, because she listens so intently. She knows the expectations I set for myself. She is bright and intuitive, and I can hide very little from her.
My example is not ideal for her personality. I am painfully aware that I am my own worst enemy. Each time I achieve a success, the happiness is fleeting because it’s only a matter of time before I quickly move on to the next mountain to climb. I don’t want my child to share in this this insatiable need to conquer the world.
I want so badly to protect Olivia from the burden she will carry if she continues on this path. I pray about ways I can make her understand that there is a difference between striving for success and killing yourself for it. Her father and I work daily to reinforce that she can always do her best, but she cannot always be the best — and truthfully, more often than not, it’s a lesson we both need to hear.