Alice’s mother, Helen, was a critical perfectionist. Nothing was ever good enough; nothing was done right; nobody could please her, no matter how hard they tried. She’d been that way as long as Alice could remember and Alice had lived in fear of her mother’s attacks at least as long. There had been hundreds of incidents before, but the one that finally pushed Alice over the line was at Helen’s retirement from work when she was seventy. Helen said she didn’t want a party. Alice argued; seventy and retiring were big events, Helen deserved a big celebration, the family wanted to get together. But Helen was adamant, so Alice gave in and made no plans.
The night before her retirement, Helen called Alice and asked when the big party was; she’d been given no details and Alice was a lousy daughter for not planning a party exactly the way Helen wanted.
Alice was stunned but managed to get her brain working. Hurriedly she picked the following Saturday for the event. Alice asked Helen who she wanted invited and what she wanted at the party. Helen said that anything would do, she wasn’t picky.
Alice ignored a nagging feeling that she was being set up as usual. She did her best. She invited all the family and a few friends Helen had from work. She organized a potluck. On the big night, there was plenty of food and everybody seemed to have a good time.
The next morning her mother called Alice and started abusing her. Nothing had been right at her party. She’d invited all the wrong people, had all the wrong food, the party was too small and there was not enough praise for Helen’s long years of hard work. Helen was mortified that Alice was such an incompetent and miserable hostess, and an uncaring, unloving daughter.
Because Alice had sought coaching previously, she was prepared. Something in her snapped. After all these years of submitting to her mother’s abuse, Alice had had enough.
She said she had a new rule when facing a bullying control-freak: just say “No.” No more hiding things and pretending; Helen was mean, nasty and no fun. No more looking the other way; no more colluding or enabling Helen’s behavior. No more planning for Helen. If Helen wanted to see her, she’d have to stop that behavior immediately. If she needed therapy, she should go get it.
Before Helen could interrupt, Alice went on. She was not going to open herself to the usual abuse Helen heaped on her every year so her mother wasn’t invited to have Christmas with them. Alice and her family were gong to relax and enjoy the holidays without any complaining, sarcasm or put-downs. Then she said good-bye.
Alice immediately called everyone in the family and told them what she’d told her mother. Of course, they knew how Helen had always been. Now that a heroine had stepped forward, a few who had always submitted and endured Helen’s past behavior were willing to support Alice by agreeing with her in public and even telling Helen what they thought of her behavior.
With her own children and their families, Alice also insisted on a new family rule: When someone tries to do something nice for you, just say “Thank you.”
Of course, Alice was soon smitten with guilt and self-bullying. She thought she’d gone too far and she really was ungrateful and unloving. She’d expected those thoughts and had planned not to act on them. She took a cold shower instead. And she stuck to her plan.
It was scary for her to stand up for her own standards; to act in public like the person she wanted to be. But she kept herself on track by remembering she was setting a good example for her children and their spouses. Later, she was kept on track by the pleasure she felt when her children and some of her extended family started saying “thank you” instead of complaining.
Critical perfectionists come in all sizes and shapes, create hundreds of different situations and attack in many overt and covert ways.