Aiming for perfection? Don’t.


Let’s talk about how we measure things, specifically how we measure ourselves.

I meet people every day who measure themselves in ways that lead to depression, anxiety and general unhappiness. Part of the problem comes when we use the wrong tool, applying standards that are appropriate for one thing onto something else. Sometimes we have only a vague idea of what we’re judging ourselves on and so cannot possibly ascertain whether we’re hitting the mark or not.

Let’s use a school-related example. Suppose you take a spelling test. There are 20 words on the test. Success is defined typically as getting above a certain grade, and this is easy to measure. If you’re aiming for 100% and you miss a word, you know you have “failed.” If you’re aiming for 70%, and you miss a word, you know you have “succeeded.”

For adults out of school, the goal might be losing 10 pounds or doing a certain number of push-ups every day or quitting smoking. These also are (fairly) easy to measure. What does the scale say today? How many push-ups did you do? How long since your last cigarette?

But is pass/fail really the best method for measuring human effort? If you want to lose 10 pounds and you lose 8.5, did you really fail? What if you lost one pound but it’s the first time you’ve lost any weight in 20 years? And suppose your goal is to get Job X, but they hire someone else? Perfection can’t be the standard by which you measure yourself — not if you want to be happy.

And how do we measure ourselves on other things like being a “good parent,” a “loving spouse” or a “successful professional”? These are what matter most to people, but we tend to use crappy, haphazard ways of assessing ourselves. You’re a good mom if you don’t yell at your kids? Good luck meeting that standard 100% of the time. You’re a successful professional if you meet every deadline and the boss always seems happy with you? Those things are not always in your control.

I’ll say it again: Perfection can’t be the standard you use if you want to be happy.

Goals vs. values

It’s also important to point out that good parent, loving spouse and successful professional are not goals so much as values. A goal has a defined end point. A value is something we move toward and, by definition, can never actually reach. There is no end point of “good parent.” You are engaged in an on-going process of growth in parenting that shouldn’t really stop.

One of the first things you learn in the human services field is how to set goals with clients. This is common to social work, psychology, nursing, occupational therapy, etc. The common acronym is SMART. That is, goals should be Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-bound.

So rather than “I want to get healthy,” you set a goal that looks like this:

Goal: Eat a healthier diet (specific) including at least 1 serving of fruit/vegetables at every meal (measurable, achievable via frequent grocery trips, and relevant to the goal) for one month (time-bound).

The time aspect is important for a couple of reasons. First, any goal-setting is essentially an experiment. You can’t ascertain the outcome of an experiment that never ends. Second, goals sometimes need to be tweaked to fit your actual life. If you discover that you can’t get to the grocery more than once per week, you’d better not plan to eat salad at every meal unless you like them wilted. If getting up at 5 a.m. to work out results in worsened mood due to sleep deprivation, you might need to pick a different workout plan.

Use the right yardstick

How we define success has a direct effect on how we feel about ourselves. How do we know if our definitions are healthy or helpful? Well, you should be measuring things you can actually control. Success can’t be defined as getting someone else to do something (hire you, marry you, obey you, etc.). That’s a trap, and you can’t ever be “successful” if your definition of success focuses on anything except your own behavior.

So instead of “get Job X,” measure yourself on “prepare for interview by thinking of 10 possible interview questions” or “manage interview anxiety by arriving early/praying/meditating,” etc.

One of the recent buzzwords in psychology and education is “growth mindset.” This basically means orienting oneself toward improvement. It means looking at success as a spectrum rather than a bulls-eye we either hit or miss. It also means looking at the “misses” as opportunities rather than reflections on our competence or worth.

If we go back to the spelling test example, a growth mindset uses a test as a teaching tool. The one word you missed? You probably know it now, thanks to testing yourself and discovering that you couldn’t remember if i came before e or the reverse. And what about the 19 words you did learn for that spelling test? or the 8.5 pounds you did lose? or the 14 days you did go without smoking (your lungs are better for it)? A growth mindset also sees value in what you have, rather than focusing entirely on what you lack.

We’ve all heard the glass half empty/half full analogy, yes? Seeing clearly means noticing that the glass is half empty AND half full, and discovering whether that is enough water to meet your need. Let the act of noticing the water lead to figuring out where to get more, rather than kicking yourself for not having gotten more the first time.

Go easy on yourselves, people.

May you be well.

Anxiety isn’t helping you … probably

Fear is useful, but anxiety is often a lying son-of-a-gun. Fear is what you feel when faced with an actual threat to your life or health. Anxiety is a thought about something that might be a threat sometime in the future, maybe. See the difference?

Suppose you’re on a hike in the forest. You come around a bend in the trail and see a bear. It turns to you and stands up. That feeling you get? It’s fear. This is an actual threat to your life, and your body is preparing to face that threat.

Suppose, instead, that you’re hiking in the forest and there is no bear. But you’re worried that you will see a bear. That feeling is anxiety, and most of the time it is not your friend.

Notice I said “most of the time.” Anxiety is necessary and helpful at times, but most of us are pretty bad at recognizing when and how to best use it. Let’s think of it this way: The only reason you exist is because your ancestors figured out how to avoid danger long enough to reproduce. How did they do that? Well-honed fear/anxiety circuits and the ability to relax them long enough to obtain food and shelter, build community and, uh, “get busy” with their partners.

When it’s useful

One of my cats is deathly afraid of thunderstorms. At the first crack of lightning or thunder, he’s off in his hidey hole, and you will not see him for the duration of the storm. But as soon as it’s over? He’s back to his normal self. Eating, playing, etc. He’s not nervously pacing at the window wondering if the storm is coming back. He has moved on.

Mammalian nervous systems are intricate and finely tuned. We have basically two channels — the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. The sympathetic is engaged when we perceive a threat, and its job is to charge us up to fight or flee. Heart rate and breathing rate increase; digestive and reproductive functions slow down; vision and hearing ranges narrow, and there is often an urge to do something with the excess energy we feel.

The job of the parasympathetic nervous system is basically everything else. It decreases heart rate and breathing, relaxes muscles and allows functions like digestion and reproduction to resume. (If you have trouble remembering which system is which, I use this memory aid: the sympathetic is speedy and the parasympathetic is peaceful).

We function better and more happily when we have parasympathetic dominance — that is we are in the peaceful mode more often than not. If we stay in sympathetic dominance when there is no current threat, we have trouble sleeping, relaxing, enjoying ourselves. We snap at people and feel squeezed all the time. We may even develop panic attacks or agoraphobia.

Let’s go back to my hiking example. It is useful in bear country to have a small amount of anxiety about bears, if this anxiety leads you to take appropriate actions such as buying bear spray (yeah, that’s real) and learning how to use it, storing your food appropriately while camping, etc. If it leads you to avoid hiking altogether, and hiking is something you value and enjoy, then anxiety isn’t helping you, it’s constricting your life.

A little bit of anxiety helps performance. If you’ve ever wandered into a restaurant for a late lunch, and you’re the only customer there, you may notice that the service is surprisingly slow. Why? The staff are too relaxed. A little anxiety makes us move faster and more efficiently. Too much makes us run around like Chicken Little, unable to take effective action.

Controlling the “dose”

Anxiety management is not anxiety control. It’s learning to live with, not get rid of, something that can be very useful. Staying in the useful anxiety “window” is key, and here are some ideas on how to do it:

First, it’s important to drop the belief that you can avoid anxiety entirely through some magic formula. You can’t, and you wouldn’t want  to for reasons stated above. The key is learning to act with anxiety instead of from anxiety.

Second, you need to learn to notice and experience your feelings, even the unpleasant ones. So many people don’t recognize anxiety building because they’ve dissociated from their bodies. They’ve bought the cultural message that uncomfortable feelings are bad, so they jump right to trying to fix, manage and avoid; or they act out in anger because of their discomfort. Mindfulness training can help you recognize when anxiety is starting to build in your body and make effective choices about what to do with it.

Third, you need tools to use in the moment if anxiety is overwhelming your ability to be effective. Relaxation skills are important here, as is the ability to use them while in traffic or in a board meeting without having to exit the situation. The key is to practice them in the moment, over and over until you can use them consistently. Such skills mainly focus on muscle relaxation and can be learned in a few minutes.

Feedback appreciated

I would love to hear from people who have found effective ways to live with anxiety. You can also click “Follow” and input your email address to get notified when new blogs are posted. I welcome any questions, as well.

Now go for a hike or do something else you enjoy. Life is short, my friends.


Accept it, then change it

There is a story of a Zen master who told his students this: “You are all perfect just as you are. And …you could use a little work.”

It’s an interesting paradox that I have noticed in my therapy practice: The thing people hate is the thing they cannot change. Once people accept whatever “the thing” is, then it is amenable to change.

If you have anxiety, you can’t change it while refusing to have it. You can’t lose the extra weight you’re carrying while actively hating your body. You can’t refuse to have a thing and expect to be able to do something with it. If I asked you to fix my broken coffee cup, can you fix it without first opening your hands to receive it?

People often misunderstand what we mean by accepting something. It doesn’t mean resigning yourself to it, but simply seeing clearly that which is already here.  It is an active type of surrender. It’s a recognition. If you have panic attacks, it means actively noticing the anxiety in your body, and the judging or fearful thoughts about it, and the witnessing presence that is you. It means seeing that you’re having a thought about anxiety, but you are not anxiety. Anxiety is not you, but it is a thing that shows up in you sometimes.

You are bigger than anxiety, or obesity, or PTSD, or whatever you struggle with. Moving away from something you don’t want is much less effective than moving toward something you do want. How do you move toward health rather than away from your problems?

There is a great metaphor that we use in ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy). Suppose you’re driving a bus (your life), and a few unwanted passengers (your problems) get on. You want to get to your destination (health, happiness). So does it make sense to stop the bus until the passengers get off? Of course not. You keep going, knowing that the passengers are coming, too, at least for now. You move toward what you want rather than struggling to control what you don’t want, no matter how loud and annoying those passengers get.

You have urges to eat chocolate even though you want to lose weight? OK. See the urge, know that it’s there whether you eat the chocolate or not and know that it will pass whether you eat the chocolate or not. Don’t hate yourself for wanting the chocolate, or for choosing to eat it sometimes.

You have anxiety every time you’re in a new social situation? OK. See the anxiety, see the thoughts that show up with it. Know that you can choose to introduce yourself to someone at that networking lunch even if anxiety tells you that you can’t. You don’t have to get rid of it first. You can have the life you want right now.

So, your problems are coming along for the ride.

Now — where you will go?





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