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Perfectionism Gone Too Far
by Francesca Biller-Safran
TheSyndicatedNews columnist

Award-winning Investigative Journalist and Columnist with experience reporting breaking news, longer features and op-eds about race, politics, business, socioeconomics, arts and culture, ethics and parenting issues for newspapers, magazines, radio and websites. Awards include The Edward R. Murrow Award, two Society of Professional First Place Journalism Mark of Excellence Awards and two Golden Mike Awards for Excellence in Hard News and Best Series Reporting.

It seems like just yesterday when being a “good enough” domestic goddess simply required some old fashioned elbow grease and trying out a new recipe once in awhile. But somewhere along the way, everything simple for women trying to make a nice home turned into everything complicated and even impossible to achieve.

The best selling magazines, including Martha Stewart Living, boasts full-page glossy photos showing how you too can easily make hand-made silk slipcovers, gourmet appetizers from ingredients we’ve never heard of, and marble faux-painted walls all in an afternoon.

Mom’s feel the pressure

Debbie, a mom of young twins who works part-time says she is addicted to making her home look as “perfect” as the ones in the magazines. She spends every weekend refinishing and painting her garage of antiques, and even hand-sews her own curtains and pillows.

“It is like an addiction,” Debbie said. “The more decorating I do, the more that I have to do; nothing is ever perfect enough. Every night I watch more decorating shows but my house never looks the way that I want it to. I just don’t have enough time or money.”

What Debbie doesn’t realize is that not even the houses in the magazines actually look like they seem. Behind the scenes of Martha Stewart Living magazine, for instance, as well as her TV show in which she seems effortlessly to make linen lampshades and stuffed ducks with her own home-grown spices, there are literally hundreds of people behind the scenes working to make everything come out perfectly.

Barbara, a stay-at home of four, says she is embarrassed to have people to her house anymore. “I feel like a crazed, untalented version of Martha Stewart,” said Barbara. “The worst thing is that I have several friends who are just like her.”

“I don’t know how they find the time to make everything so beautiful,” she said. “Most of them also work full-time and have kids. They just seem so perfect it scares me.”

Perfectionism Gone Too Far

This phenomenon of trying to be perfect also scares some psychologists and experts who say perfectionism has gotten way out of hand. J. Clayton Lafferty, Ph. D., who looked at more than 9,000 professionals in a study on performance and perfectionism said, “Perfectionism has really nothing to do with actually trying to perfect anything. It’s about the illusion of looking good.”

According to Lafferty, because perfectionists base their entire self-worth on how well they perform, they often get hung up on meaningless details and spend more time on projects than necessary. Ultimately, productivity suffers.

With more moms than ever working outside the home, ironically- the pressure to keep the perfect house is becoming greater. The onslaught of television shows that show how to redo everything from landscaping to building on additions is largely geared to women.

Cable shows such as The Learning Channel’s Trading Spaces has as many as 18 million viewers a week, and there is now an entire channel HGTV single-handedly dedicated to decorating. The message is loud and clear that one can never do too much when it comes to taking care of the home and making it look picture perfect, never mind if you work 40+ hours a week and have kids.

In a quote by Martha Stewart in response the question, “Are you a perfectionist, or is that just the perception the world has of you?” she answered, “I’m a maniacal perfectionist. And if I weren’t, I wouldn’t have this company. I have proven that being a perfectionist can be profitable and admirable when creating content across the board.”

Profitable, yes, but the question is to what degree perfectionism and success really matter when you’re so burnt out that you lose the ability to enjoy your life. “Perfectionists think, if I’m perfect, good things will happen,” said Dr. Paul Hewitt, who heads the Perfectionism Lab at the University of British Columbia, “but the reality is that these people are cold, guarded and can’t connect.”

Hewitt said that in order to really establish an intimate relationship, one has to be willing to be vulnerable and drop the façade. “Perfectionists can’t do that, “he said. “So they have feelings of hopelessness, anxiety, panic, alienation and become extremely depressed and suicidal. The paradox is that this behavior actually thwarts acceptance.”

Life in the Fast Lane

From simple do-it-yourself maintenance around the house to single-handedly making new garden trellises, the message that women cannot really do it all has gotten lost in the translation. The new slogan seems to be that any woman can accomplish anything if she only tries a little harder a few afternoons a month.

Never mind that few mothers have “free” afternoons, and even if they did, most would spend time either catching up with laundry or just trying to catch their breath. This latest expectation of perfect domesticity puts yet impossible pressure on women, as if there weren’t enough on their plates, or French Country Toile Provincial China, as the Home Decorating magazines suggest.

The obsession with Martha Stewart and making the perfect home has made it difficult for many women to live what they would really like in a much simpler life. And with more mothers than ever before working outside the home and still continuing to take on the majority of the housework, this can be hard enough, without trying to achieve perfectionism.

Linda, a mother of three who also works as a legal secretary says she feels like a failure in all areas of her life because “nothing at all is even near perfect.”

“I go from my job to home and back again and everything seems a big mess,” Linda said. “My house needs an entire makeover from top to bottom and I don’t know where to begin because it doesn’t look anything like the ones in my favorite magazines, House Beautiful or Martha Stewart.”

Linda said that before kids, her home was like a showcase home that she worked very hard on. “Now that I work and have small children, I barely have time to clean,” she said.

Linda’s right that a clean house and a good meal used to be the most important factors in keeping a good home and that everything has actually gotten only more complicated with time.

Gone are the days of simply using Mr. Clean and putting in a Pot Roast for the evening dinner. Now there are enough cleaning products to confuse even the most savvy of domestic pros and more decorating fads that Martha herself can’t keep up with.

Living the Simpler Life

Referring to the fast-paced, perfectionist attitude that so many people ascribe to today, Paul Pearsall, Ph. D. in his book The Pleasure Prescription writes that this is a “toxic epidemic” plaguing families. He writes that many families today suffer from what he calls “Delight Deficiency Syndrome,” a “lack of joy and sufficient daily bliss to bring about necessary psychological and physical health.”

Pearsall stresses how learning to be still and take pleasure in the calm is not a “magic potion, cure-all exercise or talisman but a basic way of life,” he writes, “much more of a way of being than another thing to do.”

This is in stark contrast to perfectionists, who according to Hewitt, can be guarded, defensive, too harsh, critical, always striving and always dissatisfied with the outcome. “They actually create failures. At root they have a fragile self-esteem,” says Hewitt. “Perfectionists are rarely superstars. They’d blow it first, engaging in self-handicapping, throwing roadblocks in their way.”

Pearsall points to the Polynesians as a culture that Westerners can learn from, who view daily existence as naturally creative, rather than as a last resort to a life filled with chaos and strife. Their prescription for pleasure is not found in more goals and plans but rather, it is about “rediscovering a sense of aloha- literally and metaphorically catching your breath.”

This is in stark contrast to perfectionists, who according to Hewitt, can be guarded, defensive, too harsh, critical, always striving and always dissatisfied with the outcome. “They actually create failures. At root they have a fragile self-esteem,” says Hewitt.

“Perfectionists are rarely superstars. They’d blow it first, engaging in self-handicapping, throwing roadblocks in their way.”
As defined by Hewitt, perfectionism is a “maladaptive pattern of behavior involving inappropriate levels of expectations, intangible goals and lack of satisfaction. It’s a core personality trait, like intelligence, it doesn’t waver throughout your life.”

All of this is not to say there is anything wrong at all with enjoying all of the success that you have worked so hard for, as well as all of the material and aesthetic pleasures that come with it.

After all, the saying that “Our home is our castle” still does hold true. It’s when our castle becomes our main source of stress that we can’t say “It’s a Good Thing.”

Tips and Reminders for a Domestically Friendly Household

• Take pride in all of the work that you do in your home and try to not compare it with others’
• Learn to enjoy your home and its beauty the way it is, not the way the experts tell you it’s supposed to be
• It’s okay to clean the house and make it a comfortable place to live in for yourself and family. It’s also okay not to crochet doilies to go under every appliance
• When your children are older, try to think of what they will remember more, whether or not the house looked better than their neighbors’ or whether you spent time with them
• Decorating like the pages in the magazines is a good thing only if it results in pleasure for you, not if it leads to more stress and feelings of under-accomplishments
• Remember that most homes in the magazines and on the shows are decorated by professionals with a lot of money and time, probably neither of which you have if you have small children running around

Published: Sep 15,2008 21:53
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