Is there such a thing as healthy perfectionism? | Alice Domar | TEDxAmherstCollege

Is there such a thing as healthy perfectionism? | Alice Domar | TEDxAmherstCollege

Is there such a thing as healthy perfectionism? | Alice Domar | TEDxAmherstCollege

By Bryan Wright 1 Comment September 13, 2019


Translator: Tanya Cushman
Reviewer: Peter van de Ven So, a few months ago,
I picked up my older daughter, who’s a junior at a local NESCAC school,
and I was driving her to a family event. And she spent almost
the entire car ride complaining about one
of the classes she was taking. She found it to be very difficult;
she felt really stupid. And she just really perseverated
about the hard time she was having. I’m listening to her
because I’m a good mother – I’m supposed to listen
when my kids are unhappy – and I’m thinking, here I have a kid
who’s at a really good school, she’s thriving academically, she has had the same boyfriend
for over three years – a guy that we actually really like – she’s the president
of her club soccer team, she’s got a lot of friends, she’s five foot eight, she’s blond,
she’s blue eyed, she’s thin – she’s just like me – and yet, her whole persona was focused on the one thing in her life
that wasn’t going well. And it reminded me of a patient
I saw a few years ago. A woman, maybe in her 40s, happily married
to a man who had a very good job, and so she could choose
to be a stay-at-home mom. She had, I think, three teenagers
who were all thriving. She volunteered in the kids’ school;
she volunteered in the church. She had lots of friends;
she was very fit – she was a runner. She didn’t drink alcohol socially. As I’m listening to her, I’m thinking, “Okay, there was never
a course in graduate school about what do you do if you
are envious of one of your patients. Because she, in fact, sounded like
she had a really good life. So finally, you know, I’m taking
her whole bio-psycho-social history and I said, “So, I’m a psychologist,
I teach stress management, why are you here? And she says, “Because every time
I open a drawer where I see clutter, I feel like a failure.” And that started my interest
in perfectionism. And why is it that we do tend to zero in on the one or two things
in our life that’s wrong, rather than embracing
the things in our life that’s right? And I worry most about women – I’m female,
I have two daughters, I have a sister – I mostly treat women. And the fact is, the research shows that, on average, men worry
about three things every day, while women, on average,
worry about twelve things every day. So, if you’re a perfectionist,
if you’re a woman, you’re probably more likely
to be stressed. So, is there such thing
as healthy perfectionism? In fact there is.
It’s called adaptive perfectionism. And in fact, you can be
a healthy perfectionist. You can thrive at doing
some things very well. So, you can be a superb soccer player, you can be a superb math student, you can be a really good friend. There’s all sort of ways to be
an adaptive perfectionist, that when you do something
well, you’re happy, but you also know how to dial down. That you realize you don’t have to be
perfect in every aspect of your life. Which comes us to
the maladaptive perfectionist, who is somebody who can’t do that. And in fact, every time a maladaptive
perfectionist does something well, next time, they have to do it even better. So, a 95 on a physics exam is good,
but next time, you have to get a 97. You score two goals during a soccer game,
next time you have to score four. And maladaptive perfectionists
actually don’t do so well. Their GPA is lower
than adaptive perfectionists. Their alcohol and drug abuse is higher, and they have a very high
risk of depression. It’s hard not to be a perfectionist. I’m a psychologist –
I fight this myself every day. And I remember a number of years ago – I live in a town, a suburb of Boston, and most women in my town don’t work,
they’re stay-at-home moms. And so it’s lonely
if you are a working mom. So, a number of years ago
I joined a bunco group. I don’t know if you know
what a bunco group is, but it’s – literally, you roll dice. It’s like Yahtzee. And you can actually drink
a fair amount of wine, and it doesn’t matter because you don’t need any talent
or skill or insight to do well at bunco. So, I joined bunco, and the way it works
is they assign 12 women together, and you meet at each person’s
house once a month. And I was assigned December,
which is really unfair, but anyway – So, the first month,
I went to bunco – had a nice time. But I noticed that the woman’s
house was perfect. There was furniture in every room. There were pictures on the walls. The drapes matched the furniture – the house looked beautiful
and I started to get anxious. Second month I went, same thing. The house was beautiful;
everything was perfect. The woman was clearly impeccable at home. I complained to my next-door neighbor,
who also works outside the home, and I said, “I’m getting really nervous. You know, we painted seven years ago, and I don’t think we put
the pictures back up yet.” And she reassured me and she said, “You know, doesn’t matter.
People are creative in different ways. In some women it’s really important
to have their house look just so, and Ali, your talents lie somewhere else.” But I got more and more nervous, and as December got closer
and closer, I got more anxious – with all my inner perfectionism – and I think I took two days off
from work to vacuum – and I really wanted
my house to look just so. And time came, opened the door,
women walked in. And a woman walked into my front hall and looked up and said,
“I can’t believe you have white walls.” And for the next two and a half hours, I was like, “Oh my God,
I can’t believe I have white walls.” You know, I didn’t know you’re
not supposed to have white walls. But after about two and a half hours,
I thought, “Wait a minute, what a witch. Who walks into your house
and criticizes the color of your walls?” And I could feel all my inner
perfectionism crumbling, and I realized it really didn’t matter
what color walls my house had. And so I quit bunco, and still, to this day, hang out
with the same women, every month. We call it girls’ night out, drink wine,
talk about our feelings. And we don’t care
about what color walls we have. And so you can let go
of perfectionistic tendencies. But what are the triggers
for perfectionism? Body image, number one. Body image is such a big deal. And it’s very scary to me;
I’m a psychologist, I was trained – you look out for depression,
look out for suicidality – those are the things you
worry about as a psychologist. Not so. Anorexia is actually the most lethal
of all psychiatric disorders. And in fact, anorexia kills
12 times more adolescent girls than other diseases. 41% of first graders are afraid of getting fat. 82% of fourth grade girls
wish they were thinner. The BMI of Miss America,
when the pageant started, was 22. The BMI now is 16.9 A woman with a BMI of 16.9
probably can’t get pregnant because she’s so thin. So, body image, eating disorders –
they’re very scary. In one five year period, in this country, the prevalance of bulimia
went up five-fold. Perfection is an issue. The average model in this country
is five eleven and weighs 117 pounds. The average woman in this country
is five four and weighs 140 pounds. Which means that no matter what we do
or how perfectionistic we are, we are never going to look like a model. What are the other triggers? Grades. You know, is the A good enough?
Is the A plus good enough? I had a patient once
who was in grad school, and she was working part-time, and she was really pushing
herself to do well in school, but she didn’t have the time to do
the quality of work that she wanted because she was also working. And she kept on getting As and she
couldn’t figure out why she was getting As when she actually thought
her work was really subpar. Until one day her professor
had all the students do peer-editing of their papers,
and so she read her classmates’ papers, and she realized why she was getting As. And yet, she continued to do well,
but at least she realized that her perfectionism was driving her
to far exceed her professor’s expectations of what a student needed to do. Social goals, social media – I have a 15-year-old
who spends half her life looking at Snapchat and Instagram. Most of my patients look at Facebook. And the problem is:
people don’t post bad things. People don’t post unflattering
pictures of themselves. I see a lot of pregnant
women in my practice, and they say, “All you see on Facebook
is these blissful pregnant women.” And I’m like, “Yeah, people are not going
to post pictures of themselves vomiting; people only post good stuff.” But what they also post is
parties and social events that you may not get invited to. And it causes hurt feelings and it
really affects our feeling of inclusion. Athletic goals – I had a patient
a couple of years ago who was a student
at a different NESCAC school. She had been recruited
to that school to play a sport. And she came to see me
because she was so stressed out that her performance
in that sport wasn’t enough for her. And she also realized
that she couldn’t experience college life. She wasn’t able to attend her classes,
she wasn’t able to go to social events, she wasn’t able to drink,
she wasn’t able to do anything because she was pushing herself
so hard to excel at that sport. And she ended up leaving college
simply because of that. Finally, family issues – It’s so easy to look at other people and think they come from a perfect family. Again, that’s what we see on social media. I can tell you, I’m a psychologist. If you’re a psychologist, you’re nosy,
you hear about these things, you see patients who seem
to have perfect families. There’s no such thing. There’s alcoholism, there’s abuse,
there’s infidelity, there’s gambling. There was a family in our town that
I truly thought was the perfect family. I didn’t know them well, but I knew them enough;
I saw them socially. Both parents had big jobs;
they made a lot of money and they went on beautiful trips. Both parents were
very physically attractive. They had three kids who were all
extremely attractive, all very athletic, all very intelligent,
all extremely popular. And so, everyone’s image – I remember actually once being at a party, and when this family walked in,
everyone sort of deflated. Because, like,
the perfect family was there and no one else was going
to look good in comparison. Well, around that time,
I was writing a book on perfectionism, and I sent out a notice saying I need
people to be interviewed for my book. I wasn’t doing the interviewing, my writer was, and so
I could keep confidentiality. So fast forward about a year,
and I was reading the galleys of my book, and I read a story,
and it was this woman, who said, “I know in my town, I have this image
that we are the perfect family.” She says, “But I’m not in love
with my husband anymore, and I intend to leave him as soon as
my last kid graduates from high school. And my older son is addicted to marijuana. And one of my other kids
was just arrested for shoplifting. So, we’re not perfect.” So, be careful about what you see;
be careful how you judge people because, in fact, people may not be
as perfect as they look. So, what can you do about perfectionism? One are physical strategies. Believe it or not, exercise is
an incredibly effective way to treat anxiety and depression,
which feed into perfectionism. So, when you’re feeling badly
about yourself because you’re not perfect, go for a walk,
go for a run, go for a swim, go for a walk with a friend. Exercise is very powerful. A study just came out, in fact,
showing that meditation, specifically, reduces the symptoms of
maladaptive perfectionism. So download an app, meditate,
do some form of relaxation, and it really will help
your degree of perfectionism. When we talk about body image – you know, there’s this issue in America
now – people are embarrassed to eat. So, we teach our patients
what’s called the 80-20 plan. So, if 80% of what you eat
is the good stuff – you know, the whole grains, the fruits,
the vegetables, the nuts, the berries, the good stuff – the other 20%
can be what you want. Because what my patients do is they
don’t have anything sweet for five days, and then they eat a bag of cookies. And it’s a whole lot better for you
to have a cookie a couple times a day and make that your 20%,
than to do it every five days. Cognitive strategies: What can you do?
How can you think in a different way? You are your own worst enemy; nobody is as mean to you
as your own mind. Just once, write down everything you think
about yourself and see how nice it is. Because we’re not. When we look in the mirror, we criticize ourselves;
we put ourselves down. When I was a kid, my father
used to say I was lazy, and I probably spent most of my adult life trying to get that voice out of my head. Think about the voices
you hear in your head; those are the ones
that we need to rechallenge. One of my patients asked me, last year, “Is it a good thing or a bad thing
to compare yourself to other people?” And my answer was,
“It’s a great thing to compare down.” Comparing yourself to other people
who aren’t doing as well as you is really good for you. But that’s not what we do. We always compare up. We look at people who are
smarter than us, who are thinner than us, have happier families than us,
have more money than us, who travel more than we do,
who have more friends than we do. But do me a favor – start comparing down. Because if you compare down,
you’ll be healthier. Gratitude: There’s been
a ton of research on gratitude. There’s actually a textbook on gratitude. Simply acknowledging
the good things in your life. Research shows that if you get
a notebook, put it by your bed, and at night, before you go to bed, just write down a few things
in your life you’re grateful for, your whole outlook will improve. You’ll be less depressed and less anxious. It’s really stunning. Recognize hidden issues. There’s no such thing as a perfect person. I can tell you this: I see people who are considered
to be perfect people as patients – that’s a lot of Ps. There’s no such thing as a perfect person. Everybody has issues;
they just show it in different ways. People hide their issues
in different ways, but everybody has issues. A number of years ago,
I was traveling with a group doing these big women’s
health conferences – you know, two or three thousand women
would come to each conference. And these women were of all shapes
and sizes, all races, all identities, they were big cities and small cities. And one of the things that was
happening was one of the sponsors was doing a sort of beautification –
a campaign for real beauty. They wanted women to recognize
their beauty, not in a traditional way. And so what they did,
amongst the whole exhibit hall, was they had these huge mirrors, and attached to each mirror
was a pen, a Sharpie, and then there was a little sign
on each mirror, and it said, “Look at your reflection and write
down something beautiful that you see.” And at the end of each day,
I would walk around and look at what was written
on these mirrors. And it was amazing. Now, remember the women who came
were not rich, they were not beautiful – these were typical American women of all shapes and sizes,
all races, all everything. And I would walk around and it would be: “I have beautiful eyes,” “I have gorgeous hair,” “I love my curves,” “I have such a strong spirit,” “I am so resilient,” “I’m such a good friend,” “I’m a wonderful mother,” “I’m a great daughter.” So, do me a favor,
the next time you look in a mirror think of something
beautiful about yourself. Thank you. (Applause)

1 Comment found

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Michael Mak

Thank you so much for doing this talk. It is very inspirational and I am so glad that I have came across this video.

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