Monday, December 10, 2007

My (not so) perfect little life

In spite of my best intentions, I had to stop myself in the middle of a flurry of activities this weekend. Multi-tasking at its worst, I'm afraid. I was filling out holiday cards, absent-mindedly petting the cat with my foot, talking to my mother on my cell phone, and keeping one eye on a lasagna in the oven. All at the same time. Meanwhile, I am certain that Mom knew my mind was in a million places because she kept repeating herself. Finally, she asked me to call later when I was not so busy.

And when will that be, I wondered, as I begin to beat myself up for my various failures, from being a bad cat-owner, to a sad excuse for a daughter, to probably a wretched cook, and so on.

This state of affairs is not intentional. I do not plan on spreading myself so thin that, even in my own estimation, I am unable to do anything well. It seems to be my personal default, though... what happens when I am not vigilant. It seems to get worse when I plan too many things in a block of time, set very high standards for myself, then heap on self-criticism when things don't go as I planned. Am I alone here?

Apparently not. Professionals, such as Dr. Kenneth Rice at the University of Florida, tell us that perfectionism is common and very difficult to change. And, importantly, it is linked to depression when it travels with high levels of self-criticism. Perfectionism can be thought of as a tendency to set a high bar for success and then view efforts that do not measure up to that as unacceptable. The real problem happens when we blame ourselves (or others) each time something does meet our perfect expectations. Ouch.

If perfectionism is a pretty stable part of my personality, what can I change? To start, I can stop planning far too many things into a small block of time. In other words, one way I can stop setting myself up for constant failure in my own eyes by allowing myself to focus on fewer things at one time. Of course, it'd counter-productive to do fewer things but then hold myself accountable for perfection even in those, so maybe I should also wish for a big lump of realistic standards in my Christmas stocking.


Aaron said...

Perfectionism during the holidays is an especially deadly combination! I've had experiences when I've had to throw up my hands and "give up" on a task or on some expectation - but then there is an amazing sense of relief that comes from something being off my plate. I guess you are suggesting that we consciously decide what we want to keep on our plate rather than have stuff slip and slide off!

Angela said...

Yes, that is exactly what I am trying to say! When I am over-committed, I am especially prone to handling things in ways that do not meet my own standards. I suspect that I need to loosen those often unreasonably high standards, but also not overload myself.

Cathy said...

I recently heard the bright and beautiful Queen Rania of Jordan interviewed. Among other things she talked about “perfectionism.” “If you are trying to be a perfectionist, then you’re always going for either 100 percent or zero, which means that you go through life averaging 50%. But, if you accept the 70%, then you’re averaging 70% in your life, which is better.”

Sounds good to me. With a little more effort we can even push the 70%, or not.