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We’re trying to be perfect, and it’s killing us.
“Perfection itself is an illusion,” says Jessica Rohlfing Pryor, a psychologist and researcher at the Family Institute at Northwestern University. That’s a phrase that merits repeating.
While some of us use perfection as an abstract goal and motivator, others might react “with a feeling of overwhelm or paralysis or defeat.”
We would better serve each other, she says, “by letting individuals know that your best is good enough, you are good enough.”
To help, an array of experts shared advice on taking steps toward a healthier existence, from finance to fitness to family. And we’ve woven in facts about perfectionism that might surprise you.
Happy 2019. Cheers to all things imperfect.
“It can feel overwhelming to try to overcome debt or save thousands of dollars. Make bite-size moves and dedicate five to 10 minutes per week to focusing on your finances. You can do a lot in those minutes, from checking your bank balance, reviewing investments, calling your bank, to revisiting your goals and checking your progress. Start and stick to this quick habit and by the end of the year you’ll be far more secure and knowledgeable about your money.”
Farnoosh Torabi, personal finance expert, host of the podcast “So Money” and author of “When She Makes More: 10 Rules for Breadwinning Women”
“Withdraw from all the marketing distractions and social posts that encourage you to spend more than you want (or can). Unsubscribe from retail marketing emails and mute those Instagram accounts that are giving you severe FOMO. Fill your feed and inbox with only messages that will support you in your goal to improve your finances this year. I like to follow the hashtags #SavingIt, #WomenAndMoney and #FinancialFeminism.”
“Yes, being motivated by something is usually what helps you start a workout routine, but discipline is what will help you stick to it. Getting up early or staying late after work to work out can get tiring, and what motivated you initially may start to fade. This is where discipline comes in! You have to have both in order to be successful.”
Cindy Enkhtugs, personal trainer at Fitness Formula Clubs in Chicago
“Block time off of your schedule for your workout, and treat it like a mandatory work meeting.”
Perfectionism comes in different strains. There’s the positive kind, known as adaptive perfectionism, which Rohlfing Pryor describes as “a great and healthy striving toward high standards or goals.”
Fortunate people who experience that version “have the ability to bounce back rather quickly when or if those goals are not met. And an ability to continue to strive toward those goals, even after hitting setbacks or experiencing failures.”
And then there’s unhealthy, or maladaptive, perfectionism.
Those who experience it “have very strong negative reactions if they fail to meet one of those goals exactingly.”
When unhealthy perfectionists don’t hit their targets, shame can follow. So can embarrassment, sadness, depression and overgeneralizations about their self-worth — thoughts like, “If I didn’t complete that goal exactingly, then not only am I not a great mom, I’m also not a great partner and not a great employee.”
In the face of failure, those with unhealthy perfectionism “set the bar even higher the next time to try to cancel out the previous failures or be vindicated,” says Rohlfing Pryor, who runs a lab dedicated to the study of perfectionism. “The higher you set the bar, statistically, the more challenging it is to meet that, let alone get close to it, so it ends up being a reinforcing cycle.”
Ultimately, “that can be a pretty lonely and painful existence.”
“Once a week, take a look at your schedule and determine one or two days you might have time to cook. Choose a simple recipe with foods you like and make a double batch for ‘planned-overs’ to use for lunches or another dinner later in the week. Each week try one new recipe until you find a few favorites that you can rely on. If you’re unsure of what recipes are ‘healthy,’ start by aiming for three food groups in a meal, such as a lean protein (chicken, fish, beef or pork), a vegetable (raw, roasted or steamed) and a whole grain (roll, rice).”
Melissa Joy Dobbins, a registered dietitian and former spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics
“There’s no shame in buying pre-cut, pre-washed fruits and veggies or frozen (unseasoned and unsweetened) varieties. Busy people are often great at delegating tasks and washing and prepping veggies is an excellent kitchen task to hand off. I lean on pre-washed spinach and salad greens, pre-shredded packaged Brussels sprouts, and pre-spiralized veggie ‘noodles’ when I want to save myself time in the kitchen without skimping on veggies. And my freezer is always stocked with frozen blueberries, raspberries, mangoes, riced cauliflower, broccoli and peas.”
Samantha Cassetty, a registered dietitian and nutrition and weight loss expert
“Throw away that list of specifics and get out of your head. The things that are truly important to you in a partner are imprinted on your heart. You won’t forget them, and you don’t need to check them off a list. These ideas of what you think you need in a relationship may not be what is really needed — and when you leave yourself open to possibility, you may receive something even greater than your ‘list’ called for.”
Laurie Davis Edwards, love coach and founder of The Worthy One, a company aimed at helping single women feel empowered in their dating lives
“A better protector of our heart is our intuition. It’s that inner knowing that we don’t always listen to but is always right. If you find yourself overanalyzing, remind yourself that you trust your intuition. Overthinking won’t guide you to love; only your heart can. Tune in by identifying how you feel. After all, what we ultimately want in a relationship is a feeling with a partner. Directly after each date, ask yourself: How do I feel? Trust that whatever comes up is true.”
Laurie Davis Edwards
According to a late 2017 study that analyzed hundreds of research articles on perfectionism, the trait is more prevalent among recent generations of young people.
Why is that?
We’re a social species, and because we’re bombarded with these messages “on social media, in pop culture, in various media outlets,” Rohlfing Pryor believes that creates “a prompt for perfectionist self-presentation.”
So even if someone doesn’t cling “to these brutal perfectionistic standards, an individual may believe that they need to cultivate perfect self-presentation in their social media, in their exchanges with other people.”
“I always tell parents that you don’t have to RSVP yes to every argument. It’s perfectly acceptable, beneficial even, to take a deep breath and say, ‘I can see that you’re upset about this right now. I need a few minutes to collect my thoughts before we discuss this.’”
Katie Hurley is a child and adolescent psychotherapist. She is the author of “The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World” and “No More Mean Girls: The Secret to Raising Strong, Confident, and Compassionate Girls.”
“Parents are conditioned to think that resilience means bouncing back and toughing it out through stressful conditions. This is only partially true. Resilience is actually about recovery from adversity. Learning to recover from stress, disappointment, failure, and upset is how kids build resilience. To that end, it helps to promote healthy coping strategies. ‘Coping cards’ are a great resource for kids. Ask your child to think of five to 10 relaxing activities that he or she enjoys. Write one per index card and decorate the cards as desired. Examples might include: take a bike ride, listen to music, draw, write in my journal, take a bubble bath, play with my dog. The next time your child struggles with adversity or frustration, pull out the coping cards to process the recovery period in a healthy way.”
“As we move towards our own journey of eliminating the curse of perfectionism, we can help our own children avoid the same pitfall before they develop our crippling habits. The most resilient children are ones who have the courage to face challenges and fears without being hindered by the fear of failure or of making mistakes. This year, instead of pumping energy into your child’s successes, pay more attention to the courage they demonstrate when they try something new or when they persist at a challenging task. They don’t have to succeed, simply give them the credit owed for sticking with it while faring poorly. Instead of admonishing them when they make a mistake, assure them that everyone makes mistakes and that mistakes are not failings, but learning opportunities. ‘What did you learn?’ ‘What will you do differently next time?’ And most importantly, model making big, bold mistakes yourself! Laugh when you burn dinner.”
Alyson Schafer, parenting expert and author of books including “Breaking the Good Mom Myth” and “Honey, I Wrecked the Kids.”
Curious about what causes perfectionism? Investigation is ongoing, but “we do know that genetics play a part,” says Rohlfing Pryor, noting research that “there may be a genetic/hereditary component to perfectionism.”
Upbringing also matters. “If one has a parent who is conditionally supportive based on their child’s performance or abilities, then children learn early on that they need to perform very, very well” to avoid parental disapproval.
Another cause is social learning. Some who grow up with strong athletic or intellectual abilities have been valued for their achievements, Rohlfing Pryor says, by their families, teachers and social circles. “And often that can become intertwined with self-worth — the achievements become part of my identity. And it is very common for individuals then to worry, if I don’t perform at that level, will people stop giving me the positive reinforcement they have? Will my parents love me less? Will my peers turn away from me?”
Neuroticism, she says, is also correlated with perfectionism.
“Before we make any moves, we have to understand ourselves and our situation (and how we got there) with much greater clarity than ever before. Do a full career self-assessment that allows you to think about every job you’ve ever had — what you loved and hated about it, and what you learned from it and what you might want to leverage going forward. Also identify your standards of integrity, non-negotiables, values, desires, past achievements that made you proud, and your longings for meaningful happy work. Once you do that, you’ll have a much better sense of what you really want.”
Kathy Caprino is a career coach who focuses on women and author of “Breakdown, Breakthrough: The Professional Woman’s Guide to Claiming a Life of Passion, Power, and Purpose.”
“Build out your own ideal job description in writing (just like those job descriptions you see on LinkedIn or on company websites) that describes the role you’d dream to serve in — complete with qualifications, experiences and outcomes you want to support. Then start sharing that with everyone you know, verbally and in writing.”
To rein in perfectionism, Rohlfing Pryor says, ask yourself, “Would it be okay if I were a good-enough mom, even if I weren’t a perfect mom? Would it be okay if I were a good-enough spouse, even if I weren’t a perfect spouse? Could I be a good-enough lawyer, a good-enough educator, even if I weren’t a perfect one?” (Hint: The answer is yes.)
She also suggests shifting your focus from outcomes to process. Break down big goals into manageable pieces, she says, and celebrate each step. For example, consider a woman returning from maternity leave.
“It may be a really important goal to first be able to make sure that she’s sleeping enough, and getting enough nutrition, and then figuring out how to find time to also take good care of her body and go to the gym. And then after that, scaffolding other small goals on top, rather than feeling like she has to emerge from maternity leave with all of these parts of life exactly as they were before, or even better.”
Big red flags of damaging perfectionism, the kind that might call for professional help, include excessive concern over mistakes, all-or-nothing thinking and avoidance.
“Individuals with maladaptive perfectionism may avoid the very tasks or interactions that they worry they may fail at,” says Rohlfing Pryor, “and this can turn into chronic procrastination.”
“Add a paperwork drop zone near your entrance using a vertical file box to keep your mail, bills, items to shred, to-dos (like RSVPs and forms to complete) and magazines to read separated and easy for you to address when you have more time to focus. It takes under a minute to do each day and will save you from losing papers and save your countertops from getting covered in stacks of papers. You will also save time by categorizing your mail to-dos so that when all you want to do is pay bills, they are already together. Or if you all you want to do is relax, your magazines are together.”
Rachel Rosenthal, a Washington, D.C.-based organizing expert
“If you’re prone to throwing your clothing on the floor, create a designated spot in your room (ideally on a bench or chair) where it can land instead of hitting the floor. This way, things will pile up in one area instead of all over the place, creating a bigger, messier beast. And when it comes to cleaning up, you know exactly what to conquer first.”
Tova Weinstock, a professional organizer in New York City