This month, I read a riveting post by Elizabeth Gilbert on The Best Thing You Can Do For Yourself — And All The Women Around You that had me nodding continuously, and sympathizing wholeheartedly with Elizabeth’s take on what’s going on for so many women today.
Elizabeth sums it up perfectly:
Nearly all the women I know are stressing themselves sick over the pathological fear that they simply aren’t doing enough with their lives. Which is crazy — absolutely flat-out bananas — because the women I know do a lot, and they do it well.
When I studied to become a marriage and family therapist, I learned of a phenomenon called “overfunctioning” – doing more than is necessary, more than is appropriate and more than is healthy. And I learned that when one spouse or partner overfunctions, the other one inevitably underfunctions . It’s a dynamic we get locked into, and often never escape. That concept made me sit up at attention, because I suddenly realized it was playing out in my own life.
Then, as I began working as a career coach with hundreds of professional women each year, I observed another crippling layer to this – perfectionism. It’s a true epidemic in our society – the desperate drive to get an A+ in everything we do, no matter how important it is in our lives. Doing too much every single day is damaging our lives at best, and killing us from stress at worst.
How do you know if you’re a perfectionist overfunctioner? Answer these 7 questions as honestly as you can:
- Are you driven (and exhausted, depleted and sad) trying to keep up with what you think you “should” be doing in your life and work?
- Do you feel lousy (and “less than”) when you compare yourself to other women, other moms, and other professionals?
- Do you act in your life as if everything is a top, urgent priority, whereas actually, only a few things truly are?
- Is your family used to your doing too much, and you feel it’s really hard now to break that cycle?
- Do you feel that asking for help is a sign of weakness and imperfection, and you’d rather struggle alone and try to do it all yourself?
- Is there rampant underfunctioning going on in your house or your job that you know you need to address but can’t find the courage?
- Finally, when you stop and take the time to really think about it, are you living someone else’s definition of happiness, success and well-being?
Answering these questions honestly will open your eyes to what has to change – and to the need to give yourself a break every day, and stop trying to get an A+ in everything.
I’m a recovering perfectionistic overfunctioner and I know how very hard it is to stay on this wagon and keep yourself there – of loving and embracing who you are, being OK with you what you do and what you don’t do, and living more authentically each day.
Here are 4 steps that I’ve found helpful in recovering from perfectionist overfunctioning:
This week commit to stop doing it all, and watch how that feels
Women have been chronically overfunctioning for years, ever since they emerged on the work scene and took on the overwhelming challenge of trying to balance full-time work with full-time family responsibilities.
What drives women to overfunction? I’ve seen that it’s believing that if you don’t do everything, something terrible will occur: You’ll miss out on a critical development if you’re not always there; someone else (your partner, for instance) will do it wrong; your children’s welfare will be jeopardized; you’ll be ridiculed or judged harshly; you’ll be seen as “less than” others; or, finally, if you can’t be the best at all you do, you’ll be an abject failure.
Research shows that women still assume the lion’s share of domestic responsibilities, even if they work, and even when they are the primary breadwinners. This overload is extremely difficult to thrive through. As Leslie Morgan Steiner, editor of the important and compelling book Mommy Wars, explained to me, she found balancing work and family torturous at times. She admitted candidly that she wished she hadn’t had to face the obstacles she did—namely, being forced to give up her exciting and fulfilling sixty-plus-hour-a-week job running The Washington Post Magazine and reducing her hours and salary by 50% in order to carve out the precious family time that was critical to her.
So what can women do about their overly full plates and their tendency to overfunction?
We have the personal power to change this dynamic. It boils down to prioritizing with courage and conviction what matters most to you, then building the sufficient boundaries to shift your focus away from what matters less. Shed the need to do it all perfectly, and embrace help from all those who will give it. And learn to trust that you aren’t meant to handle everything yourself, and live two or more lives within your one. Identify where you can take action to ask and empower others—your spouse, children, colleagues, subordinates, etc.—to take on more responsibility, wherever possible and appropriate. An essential corollary to this is freeing yourself from guilt and shame about needing and wanting help, and remembering that getting help is a way of saying “yes” to what matters most.
If you find this shift in attitude and behavior challenging, it’s helpful to examine why you may believe you’re the only one who can do all that you’re doing. Get support from someone you trust and respect, to see what may be holding you hostage, keeping you chained to your need to do it all, and perfectly.
This type of honest self-exploration often leads to discovering past traumas and subconscious beliefs that no longer serve you. Perhaps your childhood was insecure, and your parents weren’t reliable or there for you, leaving you feeling frightened and alone. Maybe your authority figures or teachers demanded perfection, withholding acceptance or love unless you showed them evidence of your perfection. Or perhaps your self-esteem was beaten down so that being in control or perfect was the only way you knew how to survive.
Address what you fear most
While fear sometimes motivates us to make positive change, it can also keep us stuck. In my past, I had deep fears that bad things would happen if I didn’t control everything at home, and those fears kept me angry, resentful and worn out.
We all have fears. They’re a necessary and helpful component of human existence. But the more locked away your fears are from our conscious thought, the more they drive you to behave in unsatisfying, self-destructive, and limiting ways—without your awareness or consent.
If you’re finding it impossible to enjoy your life and figure out your top life priorities (let alone honor them), I’d take a look at your deepest fears. How are they driving and limiting you, and wearing you out?
The following are questions and topics that regularly elicit fear, anxiety, or pain for many people:
From the Past:
• Relationships that broke your heart
• “Failure” to succeed or perform
• Being criticized, rejected, or ridiculed
• Being told you were “not enough”
• Being negatively compared with others
• Being abused and mistreated
• Being envied or despised for your successes
• Bringing about harm or suffering to others
• Being alone and frightened
In the Present:
• Dealing with current responsibilities—can I do it?
• Keeping your family safe and secure in today’s world
• Feeling like you don’t matter
• Dealing with crushing financial worries
• Coping with disease and illnesses
• Feeling numb, depressed, and cut off
• Feeling or acting out of control
In the Future:
• Will I find and keep love? Am I lovable?
• Will I handle my challenges without blowing it?
• Do I have what it takes?
• Can I take care of myself and my family?
• Will my children be secure and successful?
• Will I be safe and secure?
• Will I live a long and healthy life?
• Will I be destitute and homeless?
• Will I be alone?
• Will I survive this?
• Will the world survive this?
What do you fear most? Death, rejection, success, pain, exposure, vulnerability, sadness, separation? Bring this fear into your awareness and talk to it. Get to know it and live with it. Confront what frightens you the most, and embrace it as a friend. Only when we face our fears, with open hearts and minds, and the willingness to feel our vulnerability, can we deal with them more effectively.
Get help from others
Receiving help from other people in your life is essential. We can’t do what we dream of and live happy, rewarding lives without support. If managing everything on your plate is overwhelming, reach out and ask for help. I love the concept I learned in my therapy training: “Never do for others what they can do for themselves.” When we overdo for others, we rob them—our children, spouses, or colleagues, friends, and employees—of precious opportunities to directly experience their own competence and power. To create new balance and wholeness in your life and work, ask for (insist on) the help you need and deserve.
Make joy and fulfillment the barometer
If how you felt every moment of every single day was your barometer for “success,” how would you be doing? Is all this crazy running around, exhausting yourself and driving yourself to distraction, bringing any peace, joy, or fulfillment at all? Can you even be present in the lives of your children or loved ones if you’re driven and obsessed? The obvious answer is “No.” If experiencing the world in a fully present, alert, and alive way, and feeling joy using your abundant natural talents could become your measure for a life well lived, what would you need to do differently? This month, make joy, fulfillment and well-being your measure of success, and observe how you operate differently in doing so.
And let yourself of the hook, once and for all.