Tuesday, November 2, 2010

The Curse of Perfectionism

Now, I know that I've touched on the topic of perfectionism before but I really think it deserves its own moment in the spotlight. No matter how you spell it, perfectionism is a curse. Yes, for some of us it has accompanied career success. It has meant thorough preparation and research, meticulous attention to detail, lengthy planning, and near-flawless execution.

But, perfectionism comes at a high price. For one thing, it often takes away from enjoying what we're doing. We become so fixated on the end product and whether we're meeting our own high, sometimes unrealistic, standards that we fail to experience the task itself.

Also, perfectionism means never having room to make mistakes. And when we do make mistakes, it means berating ourselves for being the flawed human beings that we truly are. How can we teach our children that it's okay to mess up sometimes, that we don't expect them to get everything right the first time, that the process of learning is just as important as the end product, if we don't live that way ourselves?

Sometimes perfectionism makes it impossible for us to move forward. We get stuck on making something perfect, doing something "just so," or making the ultimate "right" decision. We spend so much time researching and analyzing that we become paralyzed and miss opportunities or our decision ends up being by default.

Perfectionism is often maintained by comparison and misperception. No one is perfect, despite how they may appear. Even the seemingly perfect Mom who appears to get her kids places unhurriedly and on time, who makes all of the treats she sends in to school, and who is a lifetime member of the PTO makes mistakes and wishes at times that she could be more efficient, more creative, more empathic.

Escaping from the clutches of perfectionism requires viewing our faults, our errors, and our foibles in proper perspective. Most of the time our mistakes don't have dire consequences for ourselves or for our loved ones. My son's teacher is not going to shun me and he is not going to be branded a trouble-maker just because I misplaced a form that was due the other day.

Letting go of perfectionism means less need for things to be just so, less self-flaggelation, and more self-appreciation. It means doing your best much of the time, and sometimes doing just enough, and realizing that things will still be okay. Most likely, your house won't fall apart and your children won't be irreparably damaged.

Freedom from perfectionism means learning to give yourself a break in a self-caring way and to practice what you preach when you tell your children that "it's okay, nobody's perfect."

Sunday, September 12, 2010

To Sleep, Perchance to Dream

I recently read an article that stated that Americans spent more time sleeping this past year than in previous years. The author cited an average of 8.25 hours of sleep per night. I don't know about you, but I don't know any parents of young children who get 8 hours of sleep.

In fact, many of us are chronically sleep deprived. Sleep deprivation and I are well-acquainted. Whether it's stress-induced insomnia, pregnancy-related insomnia, newborn waking, or preschool night terrors. You name it - been there, done that. So, I know tired.

On the one hand, it's almost impressive how well we can function on little sleep. However, research also tells us that sleep deprivation is related to decreased cognitive functioning, decreased immune functioning, decreased concentration, lower mood, and decreased reaction time. In fact, driving while sleep deprived has been shown to be as bad as driving while drunk, which most of us would never do.

As Moms, our own sleep is often pretty far down on the list of priorities. Especially when our evenings are filled with kid bedtime routines and preparing for the next day. It's difficult to get sufficient sleep when "we time" and "me time," if they exist at all, begin at 10pm. But, being sleep deprived often turns us into irritable, emotionally sensitive, error-prone individuals who are not always fun to be around.

8 hours is often cited as a good average number of hours of sleep. However, some people have always needed more than 8 hours to function well and feel basically rested while others thrive on less. If you listen to your body, you know what's NOT enough and you probably have a good sense of how much sleep you actually need.

Here are some things that I like to keep in mind when it comes to sleep. You might notice that some of these ideas are straight out of Baby Sleep 101 (some ideas never really get old).
  • Consistency. Go to bed at the same time and get up at the same time every day. Schedule an adequate number of hours and teach your body when to get ready for sleep.
  • Pre-bed Routine. It's important to develop a routine that tells your body and mind that it's time to wind down. This creates a buffer between the stresses of life and the peace of sleep. Take 15-30 minutes to meditate, take a bath, or read something light or comforting.
  • Exercise. Regular exercise helps to re-set your circadian rhythm, increases energy, and makes you more sleepy at the right time.
  • Write Down Your To-Do List Before the Pre-Bed Routine. Get organized and get as much out of your head as possible before you wind down.
  • Limit Bed to Sleep and Sex. Do not watch tv, study, or do work in bed. Bed should not be associated with anything stressful or activating.
  • Avoid Alcohol. Although some people use alcohol to help them fall asleep, alcohol actually disrupts the sleep cycle. Essentially, you spend less time in the various stages of sleep than you need and you do not get fully rested.
  • Decrease Caffeine. Caffeine's stimulant effects, especialy after noon, can worsen an already disrupted sleep schedule, making it even more difficult to fall asleep. Also, too much caffeine in the earlier daytime hours has been associated with frequent night waking.
  • Don't Just Lie There. If you're in bed awake for more than 30 minutes, get up and do something boring. You want to find something minimally engaging to make you feel sleepy and ready to nod off.
Getting more sleep is a means of self-care. It involves recharging your physical and emotional batteries, allowing you to take better care of yourself and to interact better with those around you. You deserve to be rested and to face each day feeling as focused and emotionally grounded as possible. Your family will appreciate it as well.

*Revised version of 7/9/2010 post on http://www.collectivelywise.com/

Friday, August 27, 2010

Now HE Needs Something, Too?

As a FT working Mom, my time and energy are limited. And as an introvert, my job as a therapist requires a significant amount of cognitive and interpersonal energy. By the time I get home I'm pretty tired.

What resources I have left are mustered and directed toward my boys. They are my heart and, well, frankly they take a lot of energy. It's a little bit of a self-sustaining energy in that I get a ton from them as well. All the same, I'm exhausted by the time they are both in bed.

So, wait a minute. Who's that guy sitting there on the couch looking at me expectantly? Now that I am totally tapped, what could he possibly want from me? How do I muster enough energy to listen to his day, to nod at appropriate moments, and to ask questions or make follow-up comments when I can barely keep my eyes open?

As parents who are already stretched pretty thin, often our relationships with our partners get short shrift. Sometimes it feels like making time for our husbands is one more of a series of obligations. So the career woman and mother parts of our identities are honored but the wife role often gets left behind.

How do we stay connected? How can we make our relationships priority without resentment or total exhaustion? Having time where we shed the other roles and exist primarily as wives is crucial for our marriages and for ourselves.
  • Have Check-in Time. Set aside a small amount of time each night where the two of you connect, however briefly that may be.
  • Focus on What You Get. Think about what your husband does for you on a daily basis to make your life easier and/or more pleasant. It is easier to find the energy to engage with him when you believe that in general the relationship is a two-way street.
  • Go on Dates. Plan "date" times where it is just the two of you. Decide together how often is feasible and agree not to talk much about the kids. Dates can be romantic living room interludes with wine and dessert after the kids go to bed, but it's even better if you can get out of the house.
  • Reconnect with Former Shared Interests. Don't forget who you were as a couple in the days B.C. (Before Children). Pull out both yoga mats, critique Stephen King's latest novel together, revisit one of the hobbies or interests that filled your lives back then.
  • Ask For a Massage. No strings attached, but the physical closeness and the sensations create intimacy and a sense of being taken care of.
  • Go All the Way. Sometimes you are in the mood and have the energy to follow up. Attend to your own and your partner's sexual needs and ask for what you like.
  • Just Say No. When it's been a really long, really rough day and you just have nothing left to give, it's okay to say "I'm totally pooped and having a hard time focusing on you. I'll be a much better listener once I've gotten some rest. Can you hold those thoughts until tomorrow?"
Sometimes it feels like you're stretched to the limit and that one more thing may cause you to break. But, engaging in an emotionally, personally, and sexually satsifying relationship is fulfilling. Your marriage should be a resource that produces as much as it demands. The garden of your marriage can yield sustaining, nurturing fruit if tended with care. In this way, nurturing our relationships is nurturing ourselves.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Multitasking: Friend or Foe?

As parents we all have to do it. Multitasking is necessary for survival. We have to learn how to pay attention to what the toddler is grabbing while chopping vegetables for dinner and answering the ringing phone.

We multitask on a micro scale as we tackle our basic chores and on a macro scale as we negotiate our multiple roles and responsibilities. Multitasking is a necessary and functional skill. We often measure our competency as parents at least partially on how well we can multitask. So, what's the problem?

I am a multitasking junkie. In many ways this enabled me to balance graduate school and marriage and it now helps me take care of household chores while watching and playing with the boys. But, sometimes my multitasking gets a little out of hand. Sometimes I feel like I'm trying to do three things at once and I still have no clue what the rules are for the game my son is explaining to me.

I think I'm being more efficient by handling multiple tasks nearly simultaneously. But, research indicates that we're actually less efficient when we multitask. Apparently, spreading little bits of our attention out onto different tasks or constantly switching back and forth leads to mistakes and misunderstandings.

When possible, we need to slow down and focus on a single task. Our work, whether it's washing dishes or writing memos, is more accurate and more efficiently done if we dedicate our full attention to each task independently. Being present in the moment and giving our full attention to what's in front of us is good for productivity and for mental health.

This is the basis of mindfulness, which is a term that is being thrown around everywhere these days. Mindfulness is being focused on the present moment with nonjudgmental clarity. Being mindful means being aware of where our attention is and choosing to focus it on one thing.

The research bears out - mindfulness is good for the mind. Practicing mindful thinking and meditation is associated with stress reduction, improved attention, and enhanced mood. Basically, mindfulness is good self-care. Learning to be mindful allows us to really hear about our partner's day, to fully attend to our children's stories, and to completely relax when we finally have downtime.

As mothers, can we ever really eliminate multitasking? And should we, if we actually could? Probably not. It is necessary for us to juggle our multiple activities and multiple roles, sometimes at the same time. But, it is also important for us to learn to slow down and fully attend to who or what is right in front of us. It's good for our relationships and for our mental health.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Rock the Boat, Don't Rock the Boat Baby...

The traditional view of women is of meek, submissive accommodation. We've certainly come a long way from that stereotypical role. But, many of us still struggle with the idea of conflict.

Some of this comes from the whole "sugar and spice and everything nice" mentality. Girls are always supposed to play nice and are rewarded with smiles and praise when they do so. Standing up for ourselves, voicing dissenting opinions can be labeled as "bitchy" and "confrontational."

Some conflict avoidance develops from the emphasis that female socialization places on relationships. We're taught to nurture and maintain relationships at all costs. That often translates into "don't do or say anything that might rock the boat."

And some of us avoid conflict because of how we viewed or experienced conflict in our families while growing up. I use to avoid conflict because I viewed it as frightening and synonomous with loss of control. I'm aware of the family dynamics that led to this view, but I still have to fight the urge to crawl up inside myself when I'm preparing to tell someone something that I don't think they're going to like or agree with.

So, we often end up swallowing our pride and keeping quiet so as not to upset anyone else or to "rock the boat." Some women avoid conflict so much that they feel stifled, voiceless, and resentful.

The truth is, conflict is not always bad. In fact, it is often good in many ways. If done right, it can bring people closer together. Good relationships can tolerate disagreement. Healthy disagreement that is honest and clear while still respectful of the other person can help you understand each other better and feel more intimate with each other.

Healthy self-expression begins just there...with the self. Statements should start with "I" and focus on your thoughts and feelings. "I feel frustrated when you..." "I felt disappointed that..." It's important that you own your feelings and reactions and that you present them in ways that are less likely to put the other person immediately on the defensive.

Opening up a potentially sensitive dialogue is most effective once the heat of the moment has passed. If you're in the throes of intense anger or hurt, it's best to take a time-out to experience and deal with the feelings before bringing them up. That way it's easier to express yourself in a way that you'll feel good about and that you're more likely to be heard.

Once you have expressed yourself firmly and clearly, be prepared to listen. Try to be open to the other person's reactions and views. But don't let their views invalidate your own. You have a right to your feelings and you have a right to express them. You may be able to use the different perspectives to explore options for change.

Healthy self-expression is good self-care. It prevents unpleasant feelings from tearing us down, creating walls between us and our loved ones, or building up until they become explosive. Rocking the boat does not have to cause it to tip over. Rocking upsets the old, stifled rhythm and replaces it with a new, more coordinated rhythm that makes the ride much more fulfilling.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Saying "No" (Fairly) Gracefully

You have tons on your plate on a regular basis. Your days are packed with running from work to the market to home, where the second shift begins and you're taking care of everyone else around you. Why would you possibly take on more?

Yet, every week you're faced with requests to take on something else. Whether it's a general request sent out to multiple people or it's a specific request for you, these situations often put you in an uncomfortable position. Do you take on the additional task or not?

Of course there are times when it makes sense to say yes. When things are lighter at work or the kids are between sports. When the one organization that you are truly passionate about has a major event. And even under these circumstances, it's important to be aware of what you're agreeing to and what kind of commitment it will mean.

But how about when you're feeling slammed at work and each night the kids have an activity in addition to homework to finish? What is so difficult about saying no? Does it make you selfish? Ungrateful? Not a team player?

Sometimes we agree to do something in an effort to be sure that we are doing our share; to make certain that we're pulling our own weight. It's great to make sure that you're doing your part, but you may end up pulling others' weight as well. Which is okay once in a while, but constantly being the one who picks up the slack eventually leads to exhaustion and resentment.

Sometimes we agree to do things because we don't want to disappoint others. The fact is that people live with some disappointment all the time. They can tolerate it and it often has less impact than you think. It may stick with you for days, but the requestor has most likely moved on and taken the steps necessary to get what they needed.

Sometimes we say yes in order to avoid conflict. Most of the time our fears about how others will respond are out of proportion to their actual reaction. Basically, we build it up in our minds making it worse than it actually turns out to be.

But, there are people in our lives who don't take no graciously. They give us a hard time, pile on the guilt, or badger us with the hope of breaking us down. So, we say yes to avoid dealing with all of that. But, as unpleasant as it is to have to hear all of that for however long we choose to listen, is it really less work to do the task? Wouldn't it actually be simpler to say no, stick to our no, and end the conversation when the other person gets pushy?

And yes, I said how long we choose to listen. We do have some power over how long we allow ourselves to be badgered or harrassed by another person. Enough is enough. You have a right to look out for yourself and to conserve your energy for the people and tasks that mean the most to you.

Yes, it's flattering to be viewed as reliable and competent. But, that does not mean that you owe it to the world to use those qualities at every possible turn. There is such a thing as "too nice."

Always saying yes often leads to feeling overextended, underappreciated, and taken for granted. And a good rule of thumb is to never say yes to a request right away. Give yourself time to really think about what you would be getting yourself into.

Self-care means considering your time and energy as the valuable, limited resources that they are. It means thinking thoroughly about every request and asking yourself why you should say yes. It also means practicing saying no in a firm, respectful manner and staying strong if others do not treat you with the same respect.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Letting Go of "Mommy Guilt"

I recently did a Twitter search for "Mommy guilt" and was amazed at what I found. Mommy guilt is everywhere. It’s like an inescapable disease for which there is no vaccine or cure. As Moms, we carry around so much unnecessary guilt, it's a wonder that we're not bent over double. And when we feel the full weight of that burden, we really feel it.

As a Mom working outside of the home, I am basically gone from 8-6 five days a week, so I'm entitled to some guilt. I hate being away from my boys and missing the daily antics as well as some of the important milestones.

But sometimes undeserved Mommy guilt takes on a life of its own. A few weeks ago I took the afternoon off to attend my son’s end-of-school program. The train was timed perfectly, I arrived 15 minutes early, and I got a great seat. I was scoring pretty high on the Good Mommy Scale.

Then, as other mothers began to file in, it quickly became apparent that they all knew each other and the teacher well. They talked about their playdates together and the recent Parent Council meetings. Suddenly, I felt the weight of guilt like a lead box that nearly crushed me.
Why did that hit me so hard? Does that really make me a bad mother? The logical answer, of course, is no. But guilt does not bow to logic. Mommy guilt is the ultimate expression of our perfectionism, our constant comparison to others, and our Superwomen Syndromes, all rolled up into one.

Most of the time we know deep down that the guilt and shame are unwarranted. But, we still have such a difficult time letting go of it. It is challenging to absolve ourselves of these relatively minor lapses and to focus on the big picture of our children's lives. So, I’ve come up with a few guidelines to help begin the process of letting go of the guilt.
  • No more comparing. Comparisons are almost always unfair, unreasonable, or based on inaccurate perceptions of other Moms.
  • Avoid the trap of compensating. Usually guilt-ridden compensation leads to either overindulgence (kids do need rules and limits) or overcommitment (you don’t have to volunteer to do everything for Field Day just because it's the only event that you made it to this year).
  • Consider quality rather than quantity. When you’re with your children, look at how they behave and interact around you. If it's clear how loved they feel and how attached they are to you, then you are doing just fine. 
  • Aim for “Pretty Darned Good” Parenting. Many Moms take comfort in the resilience of children and the concept of “good enough” parenting. But, some hate the phrase “good enough” and their lingering perfectionism leads them to feel like for their standards it’s not, well...good enough. I like to think that “as a parent I’m not perfect, but I’m pretty darned good!”
Letting go of the useless burden of Mommy guilt is another form of self-care. It is about treating ourselves with the same kindness and forgiveness that we shower upon our children. It means focusing on and truly appreciating what we are doing rather than constantly dwelling on what we’re not doing.
*Modified version of my guest post originally posted on http://www.collectivelywise.com/ on 6/18/2010.