From the time I was a little girl I struggled with perfectionism.
I suppose it started as a result of the attention I got when I did something extraordinarily well. “Wow, that is great! You are really something!” Hearing those accolades gave me a higher sense of self worth.
I remember bringing home one of the few “B” grades I ever got in high school. “What? No straight A’s?” my father said in sarcastic jest; yet to me it was a devastating reminder that I had fallen short of the perfect 4.0 that semester.
Excelling and doing our best becomes perfectionism when the need to achieve becomes compulsive. Over time, I realized doing things perfectly was my dysfunctional coping mechanism for stress, anxiety, and loneliness. Everything became black and white; it was either perfect or not. Because you can’t always be perfect I would become dissatisfied with myself and work harder, do more, over-function like a pro.
My wake up call came when I failed the bar exam the first time I took it, just out of law school. That glaring imperfection, in public for all to see, caused me to feel shame and unworthiness. Because I hadn’t really ever failed before I wasn’t’ sure how to handle it.
As lawyers, failure doesn’t sit well with us. If we lose a trial, or don’t prevail on an appeal, or are unhappy with our performance, we might agonize and rehash the circumstances for days on end. For some of us such failure or imperfection can set us back and cause depression or worse.The anecdote to perfection is that we have to learn to fail, and most importantly to have resiliency, or the ability to bounce back.
Resiliency is a lost art in America. The failure to have healthy bounce back is becoming worse because many of us are raising our children, to get the trophy. In our quest for imparting self esteem we shower our children with indiscriminate praise and tell them that they are special, amazing, extraordinary and well, you know, perfect!
A recent report from the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence highlights the fact that today’s teens are unskilled at resiliency. In fact, a 2013 survey of college students shows that more than half suffer from overwhelming anxiety and a third experience intense depression during the school year. Business leaders are concerned this will adversely impact the United States’ ability to compete globally if those students are tomorrow’s leaders. This report and others asks whether we might be emphasizing the wrong things in our kids. At what point do emotional management and non cognitive skills have to be as important as intelligence and being in accelerated academic classes?
Does resiliency seem to be a problem for you or your children? If so, how do you become resilient and teach your children do the same?
- When things don’t go your way, or you suffer disappointment, become aware of your emotions without letting them hijack you. You can’t escape strong emotional feelings but you can courageously face them. Don’t push them away (that actually makes them stronger) but instead acknowledge that you are suffering. “I’m disappointed with my job performance review. Wow, it’s really painful to hear what my boss said about me. I have knots in my stomach right now.”
- Recognize that the feelings will pass if you don’t give them power. Replaying our victim stories and getting carried away with the drama will only keep you stuck. When the bad version of what happened comes into your head, switch instead to kindness, self care or nurturing of yourself. “I’m upset about that review of the article I wrote, I think I will take a hot soak in an Epsom salt tub and then read that book I have wanted to start reading.” Self care can remove you from the intensity of the disappointment.
- Talk to yourself like a friend, or mentor. “You worked so hard on that proposal, I know you are disappointed it wasn’t accepted for the conference. But don’t give up! You have an important message and there will be other opportunities.” When we talk to ourselves it’s often the voice of our inner critic. Recognize that voice, and switch to the inner mentor/friend.
- Recognize that others have had similar failures and disappointments, and have come back with strength. The bar association is full of lawyers who have contributed to a better society, after having failed the bar exam the first time. Famous authors have drawers full of rejection letters. Actresses have been turned down for parts and gone on to win academy awards. Nobody is perfect. Reminding ourselves that we are not alone in our suffering helps us recover.
- Practice hope and optimism. There is such a thing as learned helplessness. And the opposite is leaned optimism. Positive psychology tools actually do work. Visualizing what you want and moving towards it, instead of lingering on what doesn’t work does have an impact. Counselors and life coaches are good resources to teach these skills.
- Take steps towards the positive path you have visualized. Staying stuck in quicksand and hiding under the covers only works temporarily. Taking one small step towards “digging out” is progress and leads to the next small step and so on. Having accountability partners around you to encourage and support your efforts is helpful.
Often we are packing shame or disappointment and think that sharing with others is an embarassment or even a burden. Chances are there are people in your circle who would be glad to help you bounce back if given the chance. Staying in your own bubble of negativity and disappointment not only keeps you from having resilience, it can drag down the loved ones who have to live with you in your negative state.
Resilience isn’t easy. But it’s necessary to lead a full and productive life and becomes easier with practice. Since that bar failure over thirty years ago I have gone on to lead a productive and fulfilling life as a lawyer, with many triumphs and other disappointments along the way. I found my life’s passion in serving as a mediator in legal disputes. I wonder what might have happened if I had let that defining moment defeat me.
And remember, nobody’s perfect.
“Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.”- James 1:4