When Sharon first came to see me, she was wrought with anxiety, distraught that her marriage was ending. But her unease seemed to be coming from an even deeper source. “I try so hard to be great at everything. To be the best wife, the best mom, the best at my job. But I’m stressed and overwhelmed all the time. I can’t even make my marriage work.”
“I’m a perfectionist.” That’s what people often say in a job interview when asked to describe their biggest weakness. It’s the answer they give when trying to spin a negative into a positive.
While interviewees may think it’s a secret strength, perfectionism actually IS a bad thing. The downsides include self-defeating behavior (like binge eating and conflicts in relationships), never feeling good enough, and even a greater risk of early death.
There’s nothing wrong with aspiring to be a great wife, mother, friend, or boss. Those are all worthy goals. But when you reach the point that you beat yourself up about even slight “imperfections,” you may be going too far.
Whoever said you have to be perfect, anyway?
Don’t think you’re a perfectionist? See if any of these statements resonate with you:
I wish I’d smiled more in that photo.
I want to relax at night but there’s always something that needs to get done.
When I have guests over, I feel the need to point out the ways my house isn’t finished yet (“we’re going to renovate the bathroom” or “this room still needs drapes”).
Everyone said dinner was good, but I think I used too much salt.
If I’d (been a better wife, stayed in shape, had sex more often, etc.), my marriage wouldn’t have ended.
If any of these sound like you, you’re in good company. Not surprisingly, studies show that women have a stronger need to feel perfect than men do.
Outwardly, you might say you don’t have to be a super-heroine. But, what’s your inside voice telling you? Sharon believed so strongly that she needed to be great at all things that she exhausted herself trying. She snapped at her kids and her husband. And when her marriage ended, she beat herself up for her own "failings."
It’s one thing to want to be good or even great. But this often subconscious striving for perfection in every area of our life is not only unattainable. It leaves us feeling inadequate and unworthy. And when you’re going through a divorce, that belief might be multiplied times 100.
What would you say to a friend who was down on herself? Would you remind her how incredible she is, how untrue all those things she was saying about herself are? It should be no different when we put our own selves down. It’s time to show yourself the same compassion you’d give to a friend.
Self-compassion is about treating yourself with kindness. It’s recognizing that mistakes, pain, and failure are something we all experience.
There are many ways to show yourself compassion. I learned a great one from Amy Morin, bestselling author of13 Things Mentally Strong Women Don’t Do.
She suggests writing yourself a “kind letter.”
What’s a kind letter? It’s the encouraging note you’d write to someone you care about who was going through a rough time. But you write it to yourself.
If it’s hard to write nice things to yourself, pretend you’re writing to a friend you admire. Think about the things you say to yourself, then imagine a friend saying the same things about herself. Now write what you’d say to her. Point out all her wonderful qualities. Tell her she’s good enough just as she is. You can even address your letter to her. Then when you’re done, cross out her name and write your own.
It took Sharon some time (and the help of a therapist) to do this, but here’s what she wrote:
You are a loving and caring mother. You cook healthy meals (most of the time), help with homework, and are team mom for the basketball team. You do the best you can for your children. You have a nice strong body and take good care of yourself. You have been a good wife. You showed support when he started his own company. You gave in many times to stop an argument. Everyone makes mistakes. Everyone snaps from time to time. Life isn’t about being perfect. You are good enough exactly as you are.
If you’re in a really painful place right now, it might feel impossible to do this exercise. But that’s when you need it the most. If you’re struggling to find the words to write, enlist a friend to help you. Or feel free to borrow any of these:
I am lovable and worthy. I don’t have to be perfect. No one is. I do the best I can.
I did the best I could in my marriage. I tried my best. I deserve happiness.
I am smart, funny, and caring. I have many wonderful qualities. It is not my job to be perfect.
Keep your kind letter in a place you’ll see it often - taped to your bathroom mirror or refrigerator, or on the front seat of your car. It takes repetition for new thoughts to sink in. Read your letter every morning when you wake up and every evening right before bed, so you start and end your day with kind words.
Keep it up, and soon you’ll train your brain to speak to yourself with kindness.