Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Perfectionism: Let's talk about this beast

Perfectionism. Sounds nice because it has the word "perfect" in it. But perfectionism is really a thief of happiness. I've been working with a few clients lately where I've found perfectionism at the root of their depression and anxiety. I actually consider myself to be a recovering perfectionist, so I know first hand that perfectionism is a bad thing. The problem with perfectionism is that it looks so good from the outside, and is so appealing from the inside. Imagine that you could really make yourself perfect. Imagine that you could control things, almost everything. How nice to control your grades, your success, your relationships, and never forget, your body. I want to share with you my own experience with perfectionism, and I hope that by sharing my experience I might be able to help others who could benefit from what I have to say.

I remember a time in high school when I was in a very bad place and I had no clue I was there. That is how perfectionism works. To everyone else you are succeeding. You may be doing well in school or have the perfect figure but inside you are all out of wack. In the LDS church they have a program for young women called Personal Progress. There is this book and you have several activities to choose from that you are to complete to help you be a better daughter, church member, and community member. It teaches young women to be charitable and set goals. While this is a good skill, a perfectionist can take this to a whole new level. I remember being in high school and setting goals for my life in the areas of school, body, and spirituality. I had straight A's, had lost weight, and was reading my scriptures for 20 minutes a day. I remember looking at the progress on my goals and I had the thought, "I'm doing so good. I'm like, perfect." As I think back to that moment, I want to throw up. Not because I was delusional or egotistical, but because there was a girl who thought she needed to be perfect. I was so focused on being perfect, who knows what I missed? But now I think I do know what I missed. I missed out on relationships. Perfectionism is isolating and you don't even realize it. In high school, I would say that I was above average on the attractive scale but I seemed to have trouble connecting with boys. I remember hearing that boys had made comments that I was too opinionated or smart or the like. In reality, I was probably just unrelatable. I was so busy projecting perfection that people came last.

The craziest part about perfectionism is that it is completely unnecessary. What would have happened if I had received a "B"? Nothing. My mom wouldn't have been mad. She would have loved me just the same. But I've noticed that many people who have struggled with perfectionism don't resort to perfectionism out of fear of retribution. For me I thrived off the praise of others. I loved that adults thought I was a stellar kid. I loved that the kids in my classes tried to compete with me to get their papers done early. And to slow down or make room for a mistake would mean losing that praise.

In high school, like most girls, there was a point when I gained some weight as my body was changing. I had a freak out moment and decided I needed to lose the excess weight. But I didn't just stop there, I kept going. I became obsessive about counting my calories and calculating calories burned while working out to make sure that my net calorie intake was low. Even though I didn't technically starve myself and I was never a weight that would qualify me as anorexic, I was not in a healthy place. In fact, one time I passed out in class on a day that I had the late lunch hour. I'm pretty sure my blood sugar got too low and that is why I passed out. No one could really see that I wasn't healthy, not even my family. Part of that might have been the image I portrayed. Part of it might have been that as a society we value slim figures so much that we are blind as to what healthy even looks like.

So how did I get to where I am now? Well, I'm not really sure. I couldn't keep up the calorie restriction because my body was starving. Over the following years food was a miserable subject. I've always enjoyed good food and cooking, but not being able to control my thoughts and guilt about how many calories I consumed was maddening. Especially, because before it resulted in my desired weight but in college it seemed that all I did was feel shame about my lack of self-control. And, it didn't help that boys seemed to ask out the skinniest girls most. In fact, I usually had at least one roommate that was struggling with an eating disorder, and without fail, that girl always got asked out the most.

One thing that really started to change the way I think was my mission to Russia. I had grown up leading such a structured life where I believed that if you do A, B, and C that means you are a good person. On my mission I discovered the world through new eyes. I was finally able to see past titles, accolades, numbers, and checklists to see the heart. Maybe that was when I stopped worrying so much about how others saw me and I started to care more about what was happening within myself.

So how does perfectionism effect me now? Well, sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes I want to pat myself on the back for not putting unrealistic expectations on myself. Sometimes I don't worry about my to do list and I enjoy the moment. But there are times when I do feel pressure to get it all done; to clean the house, complete the checklist, and being uber-productive. My body is one area where I have probably made the most progress. I highly recommend the book Intuitive Eating to any woman who struggles with body image. This book helped me to accept my body and tune out everyone else's opinions about my body (because it never ceases to surprise me how so many other people are so concerned about another person's body). I can't even begin to describe the freedom that I feel that I no longer have to over-think about my eating. Grades was also a place where I feel that I made a lot of progress. One great thing about grad school is that it is somewhat pass-fail. It is kind of funny because if I look at my the areas of my life now that I had been so anxious to perfect previously, I'm in a better place. When I let perfectionism go, I didn't blimp out and gain a ton of weight. My grades didn't drop. But the worry went away. The shame went away. And a space opened up. And I'm so glad that I found that space because in that space I found acceptance and love. I'm not sure that I could have let someone love me when I couldn't love me. Sure I thought I loved myself, but I loved myself conditionally. And I'm not sure that I could have tolerated imperfection in a partner when I resented any imperfection that I saw in myself.

I can't say that I've completely rid myself of my perfectionism but I can say that I am trying to focus less on being perfect and focus more on creating space for me to be human. I see that a lot of women struggle with perfectionism in my own LDS community though I don't think it is something unique to LDS or even christian cultures. I'm so grateful for my upbringing and I am proud to be a member of a church that expects things from their members. However, there is a cultural (not doctrinal) expectation that because we strive to obey all the commandments, that we actually can obey all the commandments. This is dangerous because it doesn't leave room for us to be human. It also doesn't leave room for Jesus Christ. And it doesn't leave room for others to love us. How can Christ suffer for our sins, if we never commit them? How can we partake of His grace, if we think, "I got this"? How can your spouse truly love you, if neither of you acknowledge both the good and bad parts of you? The truth of the matter is that I don't "got this" and I never have. And, maybe I never will. And that's okay, because my worth was NEVER dependent upon my grades, weight, or how many minutes I read the scriptures. My worth always has been and always will be dependent on my Creator. And, that makes me feel pretty good about who I am.

Friday, January 10, 2014

The big parenting debate

It often seems that every time I log onto Facebook, there is a blog post on my newsfeed written by a parent who is arguing for his or her parenting strategy. Sometimes there is even the blog post that talks about how all parenting strategies are good and we shouldn't be bashing each other. Sometimes I agree with the blog author and sometimes I'm left to wonder why I even read such things.

I want to start this post out by saying that I don't support any particular outlined parenting strategy. You often hear parents talk about the CIO (crying it out method), attachment parenting, and other trending parenting practices. A lot of parents get really excited and invested in a particular parenting or discipline method. I think this is silly, but for authors of books coining a phrase for a parenting strategy is what sells. And for some reason, parents align themselves with these parenting strategies as though they were joining a religious organization or political party.

I want to share a few of my personal views on some of the parenting debates out there.

First, why don't people just parent? I don't feel the need to do attachment parenting or any other particular style. I do me. I parent how I see fit. Yes, it is great to get ideas from other parents and "experts" but as a parent I think it is my responsibility to look at myself and my child to see how I can incorporate good principles into what works best for us. I hear parents bashing other parents for using certain strategies assuming that the parent follows every single word outlined by that strategy. Well, most parents probably don't follow everything exactly. I'm sure lots of parents take what works and leave out the things that don't work. Most parents that spank probably don't beat their children. Most parents that use the CIO method are probably not ignoring their child's hunger or letting their child cry for hours on end. And most parents who believe in attachment parenting are probably not nursing their kindergartner.

Second, attachment is not just about where you sleep or how long you breastfeed. While I don't find anything wrong with parents having their children sleep in the same room or wanting to breastfeed for an extended time, I think that parents deceive themselves into thinking that these are the most important things for healthy attachment. Attachment injuries can occur at any point in our lives. As a therapist, most of the people that I see that have suffered an attachment injury do not come in complaining that they had to sleep in their own bed as a child or that they were bottle fed. Parents are sometimes more concerned about never letting their child cry than they are about maintaining a healthy sexual and emotional relationship with their spouse. If attachment parenting leads to the child's needs becoming so paramount that needs in the marital relationship are completely ignored, your child could end up having far more attachment problems later. Repeatedly ignoring your marriage for a child will always make everyone lose. Your marriage is the foundation of your family. Parenting is about learning how to balance the spousal relationship and the parenting relationship. I don't think you can build healthy attachment in one family relationship if that means you are depriving another relationship in the family.

Third, your sacrifice as a parent will often make you love your child more, but not all sacrifices are necessary or even equal. I often hear other parents talk about getting up at night to every cry and nursing multiple times in the night. I hear mothers wearing sleep deprivation as a badge of honor. Um, you know what sleep deprivation looks like for me? No energy, low sex drive, bad memory, and extra tears. How does my family benefit from that? Now, sleep deprivation will happen with babies because it is unavoidable. But sometimes it seems that parents refuse to try different thing; not because they won't work, but because the parent wants to be a martyr. If I had an employee that prided himself on working long hours when he could have gotten the job done within the normal 40 hour work week, I wouldn't praise him. I would think he is inefficient. In our sometimes twisted American culture we pride ourselves on working ridiculous hours, sleeping very little, and busyness. None of these things improve quality of life or our relationships. Making the sacrifices that benefit our families the most is what will improve our lives. Suffering does not make you a better parent. It's like when you work out. Pain can mean that you are gaining muscle, but it can also indicate that your are doing something wrong. Parents that make smart sacrifices will have the happiest families.

Fourth, there are correct and incorrect ways to parent. When someone says, "Every parenting strategy is good," I get annoyed. Although I agree that parents need to know how their children operate and make adjustments accordingly, there are some key principles in parenting that if they are not followed, you will have problems. This is not an all inclusive list but here are a few examples of some principles that are just flat out true.  

  • It is important for parents to follow through. If a parent warns about a punishment but never actually punishes the child, the child learns that he or she can misbehave and mom or dad won't do anything about it. It's almost better that you never threatened with a punishment at all.
  • Parents should back each other up and be united in their decisions. I think we all know that when children know that one parent is more lenient they will always go to that one for permission. Kids can't manipulate parents who support each other's decisions or make decisions together. Those kids know that mom will always respond, "What did your dad say?"
  • While parents are to provide guidance and correction, they should also praise good behavior and recognize the efforts of their children. If the only time their parents comment on something is to criticize, this will damage a child's self-esteem. On the other hand, parents who only praise children and fail to critique behaviors will also damage a child's self-esteem. Your child will feel good about his or herself if you are honest with your child. The world will be honest with your child in pointing out strengths and flaws. It is your job to help your child recognize his or her strengths and flaws. 
  • Children need rules and boundaries. "No" is not an evil word and it is okay to hurt your child's feelings. It hurt my son's feelings all the time. Sometimes my son will get into something that could potentially hurt him. When I take it away, he cries. So, should I give it back? My son likes to climb all over the couch but I know he could fall and hurt himself, so I tell him no and put him back on the floor. He throws a little fit. So what? Parents shouldn't feel guilty about setting boundaries. Children cry. That is a way that they express disappointment and they will be disappointed a lot because they don't know what you know. They don't know that eating ice cream for every meal could cause health problems. They don't know how bad a burn from a hot stove will feel. They don't know that staying up late will make them grumpy the next day. Rules and boundaries exist to ensure the best outcomes. 

Parenting isn't an easy task, and we are all learning as we go. Each family is different which is why certain "methods" won't work for every family. But there are true principles that go into creating successful relationships and each parent has to discover how to use those principles in his or her parenting.