with Psychologist Dr. Jen Douglas
WHAT YOU’LL LEARN
- Defining Perfectionism
- Understand What Is Unhelpful vs. Helpful About Perfectionism
- Recognizing Thought Traps
- Working Through Thought Traps
- Becoming More Flexible
- Adjusting Your Expectations
Do you find you get stuck trying so hard to do things “the right way”? Do you have incredibly high expectations of yourself, both as an individual and now as a mother? If so, you aren’t alone and are likely to be rewarded by society for this mentality. When you become a parent, suddenly you can’t do everything perfectly. You want so badly to give 100% in all areas, all the time….but then it happens, a sense of burnout and not knowing what to prioritize. How will others accept you if you are not perfect all the time? Psychologist Dr. Jen Douglas joins us to discuss perfectionism, ways to recognize it in our lives, and ideas on how to find ways to be purposely imperfect.
“Perfectionism is a flavor of anxiety that gets rewarded and reinforced,” Dr. Jen said. But if we let perfectionism take over our lives, we’ll wake up years later exhausted, unable to do the things we love. We’ll have built a life around what we think our life should look like rather than what we want it to.
Perfectionism often comes from us setting the bar too high with unrealistic expectations. But with motherhood, society has already set impossible expectations for us. And it’s a role we come to with many preconceived ideas about, so it’s easy to fall into the trap.
Understand what is unhelpful vs. helpful about perfectionism
A little bit of perfectionism can be helpful. It motivates us to take care of things that matter in our lives, but if the dosage is too high, it becomes a problem. A bit of perfectionism motivates good action. A new mother needs to buy a car seat for her baby and she wants to make sure it’s safe. A small dose of perfectionism has her checking reviews and safety ratings. Too much perfectionism has her on her phone at 2 am (even though she has to be up at 7 am) reading Amazon review number 500 and flipping back to Google sheets to plug in what she’s learned.
This level of perfectionism is beginning to interfere with her life. We often get trapped in this pattern of trying to find the perfect solution or make the “right choice”, and it can be paralyzing and exhausting.
Something that comes up a lot with my clients is over researching. Particularly around sleep and feeding schedules. We are thrown into this new parenting role with no experience or training, so researching as we go is necessary and makes perfect sense. However, over researching and getting paralyzed with indecision about what is “right” is not helpful, and erodes our trust in our own parenting choices.
If our perfectionism is starting to interfere by keeping us stuck or paralyzed and/or is causing distress, that’s an indication that our perfectionism is no longer serving us.
Recognizing Thought Traps
“Shoulds” are a thought trap. I “should” keep my house clean. I “should” make a four-course organic meal that can be pureed into baby food. This is something that’s important, so I “should” be doing it. But should you really?
“‘Shoulds’ are incredibly powerful especially in the motherhood realm,” Dr. Jen said. One thing that’s important is to look at where these “shoulds” come from. Sometimes it’s a generational thing that our own mother has passed down.
“I realized some of my “shoulds” were straight upcoming from advertisements! I needed to find the best stroller for my kids, or I was the worst mom,” Dr. Jen admitted.
A lot of our “shoulds” may be coming from media consumption. Advertisers often play on the fears and worries of mothers in order to sell them a product. They highlight a pain point such as sleep and tell you that your baby won’t sleep unless you buy their product. Over time and as you take in subconsciously the tens of thousands of adverts, all of these “shoulds” erode your trust and confidence in your ability to figure out this parenting role without stuff.
Simply put, marketing agencies make money off of convincing you that you won’t be able to parent without their latest invention. These messages play into the should we internalize about what it means to be a good mother.
But Dr. Jen realized her shoulds were an example of “all or nothing” thinking. All or nothing thinking is another kind of thought trap. Either I go all in, or I’m a failure. But that’s not true. We do the best we can and own that it’s our best. We can also ask for help. Not being able to do everything doesn’t mean we’re failures incapable of everything.
Working Through Thought Traps
Dr. Jen is a professional who realized she fell into this trap, so if you or someone in your life at home is experiencing it, you shouldn’t feel bad. Like most problems, the first step to working through all or nothing thinking is recognizing it. Be aware it’s a problem.
Working through all or nothing thinking isn’t a compromise. It’s not that if my kitchen is clean, I’m a good mom, and if it’s a little bit messy, I’m an okay mom. Dr. Jen encouraged us to think about it as stripes or plaid rather than a 50/50 compromise. It’s “My kitchen is dirty during COVID, while I’m virtual schooling, working from home, and trying to keep a good connection with my partner.” It’s recognizing you can be good at some things without being good at others.
If this is a thought trap that you can’t pull yourself out of on your own, it’s okay to talk to a professional. All or nothing thinking after just having a baby could be a symptom of postpartum depression or anxiety, but it can also be a symptom of a myriad of other mental health struggles.
It’s recognizing all the reasons why we can’t be perfect and interrupting our inner critic with self-compassion. When something that we can’t control is bothering us, we become focused on other things that we can control. Things are out of control, so we restrict calories, work out more, focus on the baby’s sleep schedule or the kind of food we cook in the house. But we’re just putting more pressure on ourselves. It’s almost self-sabotage to focus on these things rather than recognizing we’re having a hard time with something and letting go.
“The need for perfection drops away when we see ourselves as valuable humans,” Dr. Jen said. If we treat ourselves the way we treat our kids, partners, or friends, we wouldn’t need to be perfect.
The need for perfection can come from harsh outside criticism or trauma. If someone has experienced trauma, they’ve experienced the world as unsafe in some way.
Becoming More Flexible
Perfectionism is often used as our gateway to acceptance. When we’re striving after perfectionism, we’re relying on outside indicators to know what we should do. “Part of what learning to deal with perfectionism looks like is learning that when we are imperfect, we can still be accepted. We can still be good moms. We can still be good partners,” Dr. Jen said. But we don’t have an example of what being imperfect looks like.
The best connections we have are the ones where we can show up as our authentic broken selves and still be accepted. Connections that rely on a mask of having it together are counterfeit—fake. “My best mom friends are the people I text, because my kid won’t go to sleep and it’s 11 o’clock. These are my ride-or-die people,” Dr. Jen said. “Not the surface level relationships of ‘Oh, this is what motherhood looks like.’”
It takes vulnerability to show up, be seen by people, and ask for help or admit we’re struggling. “We can do this in small steps,” Dr. Jen explained. A lot of people are intimidated by the idea of being imperfect. When we find little ways to let imperfection in, we signal to other people we’re not perfect. And that’s how we start getting our energy back, but it’s also how we find our true friends. It gives us the opportunity to find the other mom who didn’t finish the sleep book or just bought a crib instead of researching it for six months first.
A simple way to start breaking away from perfectionism is to slowly build tolerance for the imperfect. This might look like not adhering so strictly to the nap time but trying to read your baby’s cues. Or maybe tolerating the mess on the highchair during nap and sitting for a coffee rather than spending the entire time cleaning. Delaying the need to fix or perfect even if it’s for a short period of time starts to flex that muscle that puts you back in the driver’s seat of your perfectionism.
Adjusting Your Expectations
People don’t like the suggestion of moving the bar down. It almost feels like an insult.
An idea that many people who struggle with perfectionism have is, “If I’m not perfect, I’m the worst version.” But that’s “all or nothing” thinking. There is a big jump from there are dishes in the sink to “I am failing as a mom because I can’t keep my house clean”.
We can still have a relatively high bar without it being 100% perfect all the time. We can also have a high bar for some things without having a high bar for everything in our lives. “I have a very high bar for how much time I spend with my little one. I have a very high bar for how I show up in the room with individual clients, and how I show up for my job in teaching. But things that don’t matter don’t need to have my perfectionism show up,” Dr. Jen stated.
One of the traps of perfectionism is that we feel like we have to be perfect at everything. All areas. All the time. This makes it hard to prioritize because everything feels equally as important. It can also come with a strong sense of burnout, because we’ve been trying to do all the things completely perfect for too long.
“Grounding down to our values in what really matters to us,” Dr. Jen said. “I’ve had clients who say I make every scrap of food organically. Nobody else touches it. That’s totally fine. They can make seven-course meals for their family if they want.” But we can’t do that and make every soccer game, have our hair and makeup perfect, work outside of the home, and sleep 8 hours a night. “Something has to give,” she explained. We need to use our values to guide us instead of just not making it to things or harboring resentment for trying to do all the things.
If my core value is I want to spend quality time with my kids, I need to realize that I can’t do that and have a clean kitchen. So I’m going to have to allow the kitchen to be dirty so I can prioritize my core value. Knowing your values is the system of prioritizing what you’re going to do perfectly and what you’re going to allow to be imperfect.
If you need help navigating how to prioritize your values, I’ve created a motherhood roadmap to help you out.
Dr. Jen Douglas is a mother, wife, licensed psychologist, and Clinical Assistant Professor at Stanford School of Medicine. Dr. Jen is based in the San Francisco Bay Area where she specializes in helping individuals overcome perfectionism, anxiety, trauma, and disordered eating. She can be followed on Instagram @DrJenSF. Dr. Jen has a new virtual course coming out September 21st entitled “Freedom from Perfectionism: How to take back your time and live a more authentic life.”
Dr. Jen recently released her course: Freedom from Perfectionism – How to Take Back Your Time and Live a More Authentic Life. This course covers the origins of perfectionism, what maintains perfectionism, what we gain and lose by trying to live our life “perfectly,” and how to interrupt these processes that are not serving us. Use code F2020 for 30% off of the course price.