After giving my first TEDx lecture this past September in San Jose, I have intermittently immersed myself in the world of TED. I was recently inspired by a talk given by Brene Brown that focused on some of the major side effects of perfectionism and the true power of being vulnerable. Read this post, see the talk, and share with anyone you think would benefit. This can be life changing! At a time of the year when we are brainstorming resolutions to make our imperfect selves feel and appear a bit more perfect, I decided to take a step back and start accepting the essence and beauty of imperfection. I especially connected with this topic since not only am I constantly trying to achieve some level of perfection with work, my book, my kid's basketball skills, etc. but I also find my hard-driving Silicon Valley patients doing the same. The pursuit of perfection is such an illusion, constantly leaving us hungry for more and never leaving our souls satisfied. It also means we are sacrificing other important areas of our life. For so many of my patients, often an addiction to their professional work leaves little to no time for taking care of their health or spending enough time with family and friends.
Emotional Consequences of Perfectionism
Are there health repercussions to being a perfectionist? After watching Brene Brown's talk and speaking to a handful of therapists, the answer is a resounding yes! Perfectionists deal with chronic stress from trying to fulfill nearly impossible expectations in every area of their life, including relationships. They are also highly susceptible to psychological disorders like anxiety and depression. The key difference between perfectionism and “healthy striving” according to Dr.Brown is that individuals who strive and fail, learn from their experience and move on. In other words, they may say, “I didn't achieve my goal this time, but I learned a lot through the process and will try a different approach next time.” A perfectionist on the other hand feels shame from not achieving a particular goal. This “failure” reduces self-esteem and may prevent that person from ever trying again. Dr.Brown says it so well:
“Perfectionism is a 20-ton shield that we lug around thinking it will protect us when, in fact, it's the thing that's really preventing us from being seen & taking flight.”
Health Consequences of Perfectionism
When it comes to achieving health goals, individuals who are perfectionists often fail. They set a near impossible goal to eat a highly restrictive diet and exercise hard 5 days a week, which is hardly sustainable. Inevitably the realities of their life settle in and they fall into old patterns, regaining any lost weight. Shame settles in as they consider each of these experiences a personal failure, making the concept of eating healthy and regimented exercise a taboo. Chronic stress from a perfectionist approach to health can result in rebound binge eating since any form of stress makes us crave unhealthy foods typically loaded with sugar and excess carbohydrates.
Hazards of Perfectionist Parenting
The seeds for pathological perfectionism are often planted during parenting. I see this too often in my South Asian and East Asian patients who are constantly driving and hammering their kids to be the absolute best in every area of their life from academics to piano and on the soccer field. A healthy approach is motivating your child to do their best and not punishing them or reducing their self-esteem if they don't accomplish their goal. You want your kids to grow up feeling confident and emotionally resilient, not feeling chronically stressed, anxious or depressed from a state of pathological perfectionism!
Setting Your Imperfect Resolution
If resolutions have failed repeatedly in the past, I ask you to start off setting a very simple, achievable goal. Something you are nearly guaranteed to accomplish. I focus on the importance of reducing dietary carbohydrates in my book and throughout this blog, so perhaps you cut out or cut back on excess carbohydrates from one of your meals. For exercise, maybe just walking once a week if you are getting no exercise at all or investing in a standing desk to reduce your sitting time. Eliminating the word “resolution” and its stringent connotations and replacing it with “healthy habit” may be a better approach. Check out a prior post I did for my medical group on setting healthy habits.
What's my 2014 goal or habit? Although I mostly consider myself a “healthy striver,” I do often fall into patterns of perfectionism that emotionally wear me down. I'm going to be much more conscious of this in all parts of my life and especially in my approach to parenting. As a matter of fact, I already applied this approach to writing this post. Rather than my usual meticulously groomed post which often takes several days or weeks to finish, this one was written in less than an hour with a few quick proofreads. It may contain some speling erors, but I'll use the saved time to spend with my family. I'll try to do better next time.
Happy New Year Everyone!