Monday, November 21, 2011

Turning perfectionism into optimalism

I’ve always been a bit of an idealist and a dreamer, and now my daughter is teaching me that what I thought was dreamy and romantic has always been perfectionism in disguise.

My perfectionism permeates every part of my life. And when it comes to health and living with diabetes, I have grand expectations of myself. I will go to great lengths to cure my body, live in perfect health, and have amazing blood sugars. But then, I get completely frustrated after pricking my finger and seeing a high or low sugar. I think about how I exercised and ate just right, counted my carbs and yet my sugars don’t always hit the perfect mark. And then whatever joy I had in what I was doing or whomever I was with at the time disappears and turns to stress and anxiety. And well, unhappiness.

I didn’t really think that I was such a big-time perfectionist though until I was watching my baby daughter Aria play, and I saw some of my own traits in her. That’s when the light bulb went off.

I was trying to figure out her frustrations. Babies nowadays are given tummy time since they sleep on their backs all night. And they sleep for something like sixteen hours a day. That’s a lot of time on your back! Time on their tummies is precious as it helps them learn a bunch of things like crawling and rolling over. Sounds nice huh? Yeah, well, because they spend much of their time on the backs, they don’t really like being on their tummies. And boy do they complain about it.

Aria has slowly gotten used to being on her tummy as she’s gotten stronger. And she has been rolling from her back to her tummy for over a month now. But after a few minutes on her tummy, she gets very frustrated and starts to scream. I figured she just didn’t like it, and so I showed her how to roll back. But then she’d roll back to her tummy again five seconds later. An automatic reflex? Probably. Babies tend to try to do things until they’ve mastered it. But then my husband noticed that she would make motions with her hands on the floor, kick her legs, and that she was staring straight ahead as though on a quest to get somewhere else. My husband realized immediately that she was trying to crawl.

I was amazed that she was even trying to crawl because she’s only six and a half months old. Actually she’s five and a half months old if you calculate her corrected age (which you do when a baby is born premature). And crawling is a nine-month old baby milestone. And then I realized – she was trying really hard to do something unrealistic for her age. It could very well be normal baby behavior, although my son doesn’t act that way. Each baby does develop differently. But what gets me is how frustrated she gets that she can’t do it yet. Where did she learn that from? Of course I first assumed that she had learned it from my husband. But then I realized: Had she learned to be a perfectionist like me?

I wasn’t searching for an answer when I found it. I was randomly reading a selection entitled “Perfectionism and Optimalism” from Even Happier by Tal Ben-Shahar, positive psychologist and the teacher of the most popular course at Harvard.

“The key difference,” between the perfectionist and optimalist, Ben-Shahar writes, is that “the former essentially rejects reality while the latter accepts it.” He says that the perfectionist expects “her path toward any goal – and indeed, her entire journey through life-to be direct, smooth, and free of obstacles.” And when things don’t turn out as a perfectionist had planned, she is extremely frustrated and has difficulty coping. And that could describe my daughter’s bout with trying to crawl at five and a half months of age – and my, well, entire approach to life - to a tee.

An even happier way to approach life is as an optimalist – a person who accepts obstacles as a natural part of life’s journey. “She understands that failure to get the job she wanted or getting into a fight with her spouse is part and parcel of a full and fulfilling life; she learns what she can from these experiences and emerges stronger and more resilient.”

Ben-Shahar tells us that perfectionists pay a high emotional price. Their rejection of failure leads to anxiety. They tend to set unrealistic standards for success. And because they never meet these standards, they “are constantly plagued by feelings of frustration and inadequacy.”

Optimalists on the other hand derive great emotional benefit, according to Ben-Shahar, and are able to lead rich and very fulfilling lives by accepting that failure is natural. “They experience less performance anxiety and derive more enjoyment from their activities.” They set goals they can actually attain because they are aware of their limitations.

I would like to learn to be more like an optimalist. Not only for my daughter’s sake, but for mine as well. Ben-Shahar suggests a mindful approach to turning perfectionism into optimalism, such as journaling on areas where you are a perfectionist and areas where you tend to be more like an optimalist.

I can say that I’m a perfectionist when it comes to art and design, and I am an optimalist when I write. Which may be why I write, but don’t paint or draw even though I want to. I can’t help but wonder: What would I be doing if perfectionism – or fear of failure – wasn’t holding me back?

I heard myself saying to Aria the other day, “You can do it. Keep practicing. Rome wasn’t built in a day.” Perhaps I should take the words I use to encourage my daughter – for myself.

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