I had a great conversation recently with a coaching client of mine about perfectionism. We are both recovering perfectionists and enjoyed tossing around old “war” stories about the problems perfectionism has created in our lives.
Many of the women I coach will at some point or another face the fact that they, too, have been pursuing perfection for most of their lives. Many of us think it’s the key to our success, when in fact, it’s the very thing leading us away from our true purpose and completely wipes out our energy in the process.
Women and girls have “perfect” tossed in their faces frequently in both overt (airbrushed magazine covers and slick marketing campaigns) and subtle (chatter from friends and family and messages from childhood) ways.
According to research by Dr. Brene Brown, these are three of the biggest perfectionism struggles women face:
I was eating my breakfast the other morning and happened to catch some of Good Morning America. One of the stories was about a woman who racked up $30,000 + of debt trying to look like Kim Kardashian. The woman said that when she has her “Kimmy” on, she feels more confident.
According to Brown, “Body shame is so powerful and often so deeply rooted in our psyches that it actually affects why and how we feel shame in many of the other categories, including sexuality, motherhood, parenting, health, aging, and a woman’s ability to speak out with confidence.”
Luckily, some companies are trying to change this by showing women of all shapes and sizes selling their products, and most recently, dispelling the myth that the phrase “run like a girl” means something negative.
Many of my friends and relatives are taking care of aging parents. My hat goes off to them because it is hard work. My best friend’s dad recently passed away, and she felt so guilty for not spending more time with him because she lives in another country. In order to be a bigger part of the process, she organized family conference calls about his care, but there were tensions and arguments within the family about who got to make final decisions about treatments to pursue and who got to talk to the nurses and doctors when.
Add to the intra-family issues the fact that our workplaces haven’t yet caught up to the fact that caregiving is one of the hardest jobs on the planet. Bosses still expect you to be at work on time, carry a full workload, and do your job with the same energy you would normally have, even though you were up all night praying that your aging parent would hang on just a little longer and trying to deal with all of the emotions that go with seeing your mom or dad in ill health.
Women are in a perfectionism catch-22 when it comes to their decision about motherhood. Whether you’re struggling with infertility, have decided not to have children, have purposefully delayed having children, have decided to have only one child (what, you’re not having more!?), or have decided to have a large family (why did you have so many?), women just can’t win.
Brown says, “Society views womanhood and motherhood as inextricably bound; therefore, our value as women is often evaluated by where we are in relation to our roles as potential mothers…Once women hit ‘the age’ set by their community, they begin to feel the need to defend themselves against expectations of motherhood. Women are constantly asked why they haven’t married or, if they are married, why they haven’t had children.”
The way out is to build shame resilience, which has the following four components:
1. Recognize your shame triggers – for example, you think, “I can’t be perceived as unable to manage it all;”
2. Practice critical awareness – acknowledge and filter all of the messages and beliefs that block your way;
3. Reach out – find the people in your circle who will offer empathy and support around these issues; and
4. Speak shame – talk about how you feel and ask for what you need.
Women put a tremendous amount of pressure on themselves in all of these areas. By building shame resilience and becoming less critical of ourselves and those around us, maybe you can go from perfect to good enough.
Paula Davis-Laack, JD MAPP, is the Founder and CEO of the Davis Laack Stress & Resilience Institute, a practice devoted to helping busy professionals prevent burnout. Paula is the author of the e-book, 10 Things Happy People Do Differently.
Paula has been a featured expert on the Steve Harvey TV show, US News & World Report, Working Mother and Women’s Health magazines and speaks regularly about burnout prevention. Paula is available for speaking engagements, training workshops, media commentary, and private life coaching. To learn more, contact Paula at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.pauladavislaack.com.
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The four shame resilience components and the three big areas of perfectionism for women come from Brown, B. (2008). I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t). New York: Gotham Books.