I've never thought of myself as a perfectionist, not being the sort to wipe every last finger smudge from my hallway walls. But my score on the quiz in a new book out this week, Be Happy Without Being Perfect, indicates some tendencies to "occasionally get sidetracked by unrealistic expectations." In fact, I am pretty hard on myself when one of the things I'm juggling—parenting, career, friendships, marriage, exercise routine, family relationships—comes crashing down.
Luckily, I don't come anywhere near the "perfectionism is preventing me from enjoying life" zone, since those who do are more prone to depression, anxiety, insomnia, digestive problems, and eating disorders. Author Alice Domar, a stress researcher and Harvard Medical School professor who heads the Domar Center for Mind/Body Health in Boston, blames the "new normal" that sets the bar higher for women. Think Martha Stewart, parenting magazines, and all those put-together actresses portraying moms on TV. I, myself, feel shabby whenever I switch on Cashmere Mafia and Lipstick Jungle. Summing up this dilemma, Domar writes: "From the minute we drag ourselves out of bed in the morning till the minute we fall asleep at night, we are inundated with messages that tell us we should be thin, beautiful, successful and sexy while being exceptional parents, supportive spouses, superlative employees and cheerful volunteers."
We make matters worse by buying in and then judging each other. Domar, a working mother of two, admitted to me that she was mortified when an acquaintance came to her house and criticized her for having white walls, devoid of a decorator's touch. "It's awful," she says of the constant judgments women make about each other. "It makes us feel badly about ourselves." She argues that we need to give up the feeling that we have to master everything in our domain. (I must remind myself of this to assuage the guilt I feel after telling a close friend that, no, I can't help her organize that charity walkathon.)
What we need to do instead, she says in Chapter 6, is make peace with our dust bunnies. Working moms shouldn't expect their homes to be as tidy as those of women who are home all day—and neither do stay-at-home moms need to volunteer for every school event or endlessly transport their kids. To retrain our brains to think realistically about things, she recommends keeping a journal detailing our perfectionist tendencies, what we gain from them, and everything we lose. For instance, whittling your body down to fit in a size-6 bikini may earn you the envy of your friends. But those hours in the gym may mean regularly missing your child's games or bedtime routine. All of her advice, from prioritizing goals to avoiding comparisons with others, comes down to reframing how we view our imperfections. Perhaps donning a pair of rose-colored glasses once in a while isn't a bad thing.