Have you ever made a mistake while engaged in a task and unconsciously called yourself stupid? Or maybe a jerk?
Australian psychologist Honor Jane Newman wants you to end that pattern immediately!
In her book, Killing the Perfectionist Within: A Self-Help Guide for Women Suffering from Perfectionism, Anxiety, And Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS), Newman takes on these issues both as a practitioner and through the prism of her own journey with anxiety, depression, and the beginning stages of CFS.
[Note: Newman has received some pushback on her suggestion that CFS could be related to perfectionist tendencies, but she has clarified in interviews that the extreme end of the spectrum "MAY contribute to chronic fatigue syndrome" and that she believes that "ALL illnesses have a specific mental pattern associated with them."]
At just over 100 pages, the text has a number of relevant themes, many which dovetail with the tenants of meditation, mindfulness, mind-body connection, and the philosophy of being in the moment.
In the first part of her book, Newman traces how the perfectionist mindset develops and evolves, and how to identify it. She discusses strategies for reorganizing thought patterns and behaviors in the second half.
Newman also connects the larger culture to women constantly striving for perfection, a response to advertising media's insistence that women look a certain way.
Simultaneously, there is a scramble to fulfill the message suggesting that women can "have it all."
The premise Newman puts forth is that being a perfectionist emanates from a core belief that either one is "not good enough...or that one is "unworthy." This can develop as a result of "parental criticism or parental indulgence (the latter being constant praise)."
It's clear what ongoing disapproval can do; the praise leads to a recurrent fear of not measuring up to expectations.
When taken into the world outside the family, thinking becomes black and white, with no grey. "I should" statements become a precursor for anxiety, as self-pressure to create and present an "idealized self" yield a constant dilemma. Does one say "no" to opportunities out of fear of not measuring up, or "yes" in a constant effort to satisfy the needs of others?
Newman believes that these behaviors can be transformed. She points out that women suffer from depression in higher numbers than men and are at greater risk for anxiety. It doesn't help that women are conflicted because they are up against a value system that labels assertiveness, power, and anger as negative traits for the perfect female persona.
No wonder women are tired! It's exhausting trying to keep up the façade of having your act totally together, while privately dumping on yourself for perceived inadequacies.
Before offering strategies to get rid of these self-defeating thoughts and actions, Newman emphasizes that healing is possible only if you are ready.
"You are exactly where you need to be, doing exactly what you are supposed to be doing and everything in your life has led you up to this point."
One of Newman's key takeaways is that "happiness is a learned skill." She suggests it can be achieved from "aspiring to be average." This doesn't mean accepting mediocrity or being unsuccessful. Rather, it's a call for self-acceptance, and letting go of the need to constantly compare yourself with others.
In order to get on track, self-awareness is crucial to making changes. Catch yourself when your inner critic gets nasty. Engage with positive self-talk (The Navy Seals do it!). Self-esteem practices are key. This includes eating properly (it's been shown that the quest for perfectionism is linked to eating disorders), exercising, and getting adequate rest. Develop a realistic concept of who you are. Accept your emotions, release past traumas, set boundaries with others, and connect with activities that give you pleasure.
Working to stay in-the-moment is essential. Who doesn't replay the past and agonize over what the future may bring? Often, it's the expectation that we hold for others, not to mention the world, that leaves us upset when anticipations and standards are not met.
You've heard it before... Get out of your comfort zone!
Newman's premise is that burnout among women in western society was common because, "Women are being forced by society to fit into masculine patriarchal models that do not work for the female nature." (It probably doesn't fit all that well for many men either.)
The bottom line is we maintain unrealistic expectations of ourselves, then end up feeling badly. Check out Sheryl Sandberg's revelation that becoming a single mother after the death of her husband gave her a whole new outlook about how hard it was to "Lean In" when you are on your own.
I did some of the written exercises, including a visual map to help me make sense of several life changes that I have experienced recently. I also wrote down one of Newman's final pieces of advice:
"No matter how hard things get, just keep going."
This article originally appeared on the website Ravishly
If you're struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorder Association hotline at 1-800-931-2237.