Wednesday, April 30, 2008

#54: Learn to sit, play, and trust...

One thing I really love about gmail, aside from its other endlessly useful features, is the little rotating headline thingy -- I'm sure the folks at google have an actual, technical name for it -- above the inbox, which changes every time I check my mail. At first, I barely noticed its existence. And even now, most of the time I don't give a second thought to what is up there -- entertainment news, sports stories, movie reviews, and the occasional odd news story. I'm busy ploughing through my e-mails and trying to get on with my day.

But once in a while, the headline or topic catches my eye and I follow it, where I get a good laugh or learn something new. Found treasure. It's kind of like my inbox is a beach, and I'm strolling along, glancing down periodically to see what the gmail ocean has washed in.

What washed up on the beach today was this great article about a Hungarian study of dogs (family pets of all breeds), which found that dogs whose owners play with them regularly are more apt to play with others openly, and demonstrate fewer behaviors that reflect fearfulness and/or protectiveness. The dogs who played often didn't seem to care who they played with, as long as the game was similar and there was fun to be had. Dogs who played less demonstrated more aggressive, protective, and fearful behaviors around unfamiliar people.

Now, I realize that as a therapist, I have a higher-than-average interest in behaviorism (both animal and human). But hang with me for a minute... Like dogs and most other animals, human children need to play when we're young to help us master life skills and to hit developmental milestones. In fact, the whole concept of play therapy with children is based on the foundation that play is one of our very first languages, more primary and intuitive to us than the words we later master.

Play benefits us as adults, too. Playfulness helps us release stress, improve intimate relationships, become better parents, and increase our creativity. When we can be playful in our approach to life and love, we're generally happier and healthier.

What if -- like dogs -- we humans are more inclined to play vigorously (and to relish new people and experiences) when we get loads of playtime with people we trust? That would mean something significant about the role our parents have early on, impacting how engaged and involved we are with the world around us. It might also mean that those of us who are playful in our intimate relationships are better able to have healthy and creative lives outside the relationship.

Since I frequently work with anxiety disorders, I particularly tuned in to how our anxious human behaviors seem to mirror those behaviors exhibited by the dogs who didn't get frequent playtime with their owners. People who are highly anxious and fearful seem to approach the world with the same mannerisms as the non-playful dogs.

If I meet someone new, I worry constantly that I will say the wrong thing and get embarrassed.
[Cower] I've been hurt by relationships before, so I find myself being demanding and harsh with people I date. [Snarl] If one thing goes wrong with something I'm trying to do, I might as well give up because it's only going to get worse. [Whimper].

Perhaps there's also a link for humans between how much we engage in play with our caretakers early on, and whether we are generally exploratory and playful as adults. Maybe those of us who don't play as much as kids, or don't have particularly playful parents, are more likely to be anxious as adults (fearful, wary, self-protective).

Of course I have no research to support my hypothesis, but there's a thread of common sense in there: If we learn that the world is a scary, serious, and unpredictable place, we're probably going to treat each interaction and experience as though someone is trying to steal our last rawhide bone. But if we consistently practice play - as children or adults - maybe we can learn to be more trusting, playful, and open to those new experiences when they come along.

Wouldn't it be great if, the same way we push ourselves to exercise and eat right, we also pushed ourselves to incorporate playfulness and spontaneity into our daily routines? Then we could teach our children to greet life's various characters and opportunities, not with a suspicious snarl or a shrinking whimper, but an enthusiastic play-bow and a gleefully wagging tail.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Lesson #12: Dare to Dream....

...but don't forget to set the alarm.

Okay, it's a little trite. I'll admit it.

You read, "Dare to Dream," in the title, and immediately you get some psuedo-inspiring, extra-annoying WhitneyBetteMariah song creeping into your awareness, complete with violins and some vague, drippy chorus. You see the poster image of the hang-glider or the astronaut that was on the wall of your 7th grade classroom, right next to the poor kitty who was having a little trouble staying on that darn tree branch.... Hang in There, Kitty!

We've heard people telling us all our lives to "Dare to dream," "Reach for the stars," and "Be all you can be." [Though I have to say honestly, I think the folks who gave us that last one actually wanted us to be something fairly specific.] All through our school years, we were told we could be and do anything. Anything at all! Use your imagination! Just as soon as you finish mastering trigonometry and diagram that sentence...

During our formitive years, when we got the most messages from adults that life was full of possibilities, we were also severely restricted in our ability to explore those possibilities by the structure of the adult world and/or the education system. It seems that the message was really more about the dreaming, and not so much with the daring.

I mean, when did you ever have a teacher say to you, "You know, Elvis, you're right. Calculus is not likely to be very useful to you in your music career.* Why don't you go outside and strum your guitar until AP English?" Or, "Sure, take a year off and travel -- work on your novel. School will be here when you get back!"

Now, I'm not getting into a debate about the usefulness of the country's educational curriculum (that's another blog for another day); but for now let's just assume we can agree that there wasn't a whole heck of a lot of time or encouragement in our schooling to get out and try new things, to go our own way. The same people who told us "Dare to Dream," were also the ones who told us "Sit Down and Be Quiet," "Finish Your Homework," and "I'm Pretty Sure These Stories You've Written Could Indicate a Severe Mental Illness."

So we sat down. We were quiet. We learned trig and history and economics and Shakespeare and bided our time for the day when we would be set free to pursue our dreams... and then, something happened. We went to college and tried to pick a relevant major (for many of us either based on, or rebelling against, what our parents thought would be lucrative for us financially); or we went straight out and got a job somewhere. Sooner or later, we entered the workforce, and the world of student loans, credit card debt, mortgage calculators, and 20-page cell phone bills that require your AP Calculus skills to decipher.

And we set about our jobs -- some of us starting with the most convenient opening and working our way contendedly up from there; others of us (like myself) bouncing from pursuit to pursuit, accumulating experiences, classroom hours, and mounting loan debt along the way. But in the middle of this, how many of us are really giving thought to our dreams?

I am amazed, when I'm working with clients on career issues, or just chatting with friends over a beer, how many of us haven't the slightest inkling what we would do if we could do anything at all. If money were not an issue, how would you spend your time? What would be your avocation? It's become such a hypothetical question for most of us, having been beat down by life's realities so much that we automatically dismiss our dreams as impractical, useless fantasies.

I'll concede that some of our childhood career fantasies are hard to translate to the real world... I have a friend whose son wants to be a fire truck. Not a firefighter, a fire truck. For a few months as a kid I wanted to be both the fairy queen of the unicorns and a journalist. Ha! Can you imagine? Everyone knows you can't make a living as a journalist!

So, sometimes we need to adjust what we want to fit reality, and most of us have become pretty good at that. But maybe we're too good at it?

What I mean is, there's some value in those crazy fantasies we had - and still have - about our lives and our identities. Wanting to be the fairy journalist of the unicorns says something about who I am, and if I dismiss that fantasy entirely and become a paralegal or an accountant,** how am I honoring myself?

So many of us get into our careers and our lives and start living on limitations rather than dreams. Instead of asking, "What do I want to do?" or, "Who am I, really?" we ask, "How secure is this job?" and "Will they pay for my health insurance?" Practical? Yes. Dreamy? Not really.

Now, there's nothing wrong with pursuing a nice, safe job to keep yourself and your family afloat financially. Or trying out a job because it's available and practical and then throwing yourself into it. Some of the jobs I've enjoyed the most in my long and varied career are those I never would've pictured myself in -- or even known existed until the wind blew me in the door.

In fact, most of the job titles out there are not those we dream up as kids. Go ask a 7- or 10-year-old what they want to be when they grow up, and I doubt you'll get "Chief Information Officer," or "Assistant Brand Manager." But the point is not so much what we do, or what our job title is, but how we do it. And how we live our lives around it.

What I've found with many of my clients (and a few of my friends) is that when I challenge them to explore their fantasy jobs, fantasy lives, they come up with amazing lists of possibilities... many of which can be incorporated into their lives -- sometimes even right away. It might mean opening up new possibilities for career moves they hadn't thought of before, or even just taking on new tasks or new approaches in their current careers. All based on a fantasy that seemed so out of reach, it wasn't even worth discussing.

Maybe I can't be the fairy journalist of the unicorns, but I can incorporate writing into my career and my life. And maybe in my smallish way, I can inspire others - almost magically, even - to bring more happiness into their own lives. Maybe I can benefit from incorporating more of that imaginative spirit into my life and work, the way I did when play was my primary occupation.

Whether we know it or not, even our craziest dreams and desires can have tremendous value if we take the daring step of letting them into our awareness. Sit with them a while. Make notes. Take small steps and make little changes.

And when you're hang-gliding over the ocean or preparing for launch at NASA, send me a postcard!!

*Disclaimer: Before my teacher friends jump all over me, please note that this is a fictional example only. I know how incredibly and practically related calculus and music really are. I can't tell you how many times I've caught a band doing some derivations of parametric equations between sets! It's a total trip, man!

**Second disclaimer: There's nothing, nothing wrong with being a paralegal or an accountant. Both are necessary, important functions, without which our world would not run very smoothly. Many paralegals and accountants also wear very nice suits, which I admire.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Love, Life & Loss

It would be impossible to write genuinely this week without first mentioning Sean. So I won't even try.

Sean Costello, a close family friend of ours and an unparalleled blues guitarist, died suddenly last week, to the dismay of all of us who knew him, and many who did not. This amazing young man, who I have known since he was 10 years old picking out complex guitar riffs with my brother in our basement, was just shy of his 29th birthday when he died. As many at his funeral and in the news articles have pointed out, he seemed to have a bright future ahead of him, both musically and personally. I know that his death leaves many -- not just those of us who knew him -- shaking our heads in sadness for the loss of such a wonderful spirit, and all that would've been created through him.

With his loss, we are also appreciating all that he did create: the tortured strains of his prodigious blues guitar seem to sound sadder and sweeter today than they ever have. If you knew Sean or loved his music, then please know that I'm sharing deeply today in your loss and grief. If you've never had the pleasure, do yourself a favor and visit his website or his myspace page, because Sean's music says it better than my words ever could.

It seems that death -- and sudden or unjust death in particular -- always seems to make us stop and re-evaluate where we are in our own lives. Many of us become reconnected with our spirituality and take a second look at our priorities. I've also read that whenever you lose someone important to you, you grieve not just that person's death, but every loss you've experienced before that as well. So in that sense, grief can be thought of as cumulative. Each loss has a more powerful impact on us because of all the losses before it.

For the average person reading this blog, that means increasing levels of sorrow that build slowly over a lifetime (hopefully one that is also filled with tremendous amounts of joy). For people who experience overwhelming losses -- the death of a child, the loss of an entire family, the horrors of genocide -- I can only imagine what a tremendous burden the grief is to bear.

Like many people, my own experiences with death have been wide-ranging -- from losses of close family members and friends to those with whom I shared a less intimate connection. Each experience has impacted me differently, bringing forth a different combination of shock, sadness, occasional relief, and on some level, joy.

I believe that in every death, there is an opportunity to find a new sense of joy and fulfillment in our lives. (I suspect this is true for all losses: whether it's a loved one, relationship, job, or even an idea we once held about ourselves or the world.)

When someone is taken from us, or chooses to walk away, we lose the closeness and intimacy we once had with them. But we also gain a perspective - painful though it is - on just how much that person impacted our lives. We have an opportunity then to honor them by relishing what was good in them, telling stories, singing, laughing, remembering, and learning as much as we can from the experience.

And if grief is cumulative, why not joy? Why shouldn't every moment we live be buoyed up and enhanced by the joy from our past, as much as it is grounded and made real by our losses?

My Rabbi, a wise and compassionate woman, once told me that we keep people alive by telling stories about them - passing on their legacy to future generations. She wanted me to know that even though my future children will never get to know my mother in person (she died when I was 25), they will know her through the stories I tell about her, the pictures I show them, and the way I honor and attempt to embody her spirit in myself.

It occurs to me that in many ways, I am made up of the people I have known and loved. Those who are still a part of my life continue to influence and enrich me every day. At times like this, I notice and appreciate them more. I try to hold them a little dearer. But the mark left on my soul by those who have moved on is more poignant: carved into relief by the sharpness of finality. I carry it all with me, I carry them with me, in everything I do.

From my maternal grandfather I carry the solace of long afternoon walks, a love of old things, the ability to laugh at myself, and a fanatical loyalty to the Atlanta Braves. His wife, my grandmother, taught me that personal strength can flourish well below the surface, and that a good laugh and a positive attitude can make almost any situation bearable. From my paternal grandfather I got a sense of history, strong work ethic, and the knowledge that a person doesn't need to talk much to command respect. And my paternal grandmother taught me to fish, to love the outdoors, and that a good story is worth far more than money -- even if you occasionally have to exaggerate the details for effect.

From my dear friend Laura, courage: to embrace life fully every single day, despite all its imperfections and hardships, to sing karaoke even when you're terrible at it, and to do the right thing no matter what anyone might say or think about you. And from my mother, I bring a thousand things. Among them, a love of music (even though, sadly, I didn't inherit her talent for it), a warm and easy laughter, and a generous spirit that reminds me no matter how bad my life or situation might seem, there is always a neighbor or friend who needs my help.

And as for Sean, even though it had been many years since we'd been in frequent contact, I will take with me his broad, shy smile (always my favorite among the facial expressions for which he was so well known), his music, and the way he proved every day that with passion and courage, any of us can defy, exceed, and redefine the expectations that seem to govern our lives. Wherever Sean is, wherever all those congregate who have been lost to this world, I believe with my whole heart that the message is the same for him as it is all of us....

Play on.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Lesson #28: Listen to your body, even when your body is an irrational idiot.

For some unknown reason, my internal clock decided to go off this morning before 4:30 a.m. This seems to happen to me more and more these days -- of course, never on those days when I need to be up early for something. It's always on a day like today when I'll be working until 9:00 p.m. and I'll need half a case of Diet Mountain Dew to keep me going.

In general, I try to listen to my body as much as possible -- I've found that it's a good harbinger of what I really need: physically, emotionally, and mentally. I'm starting to develop a pretty decent relationship with my inner signals and what they mean, and my life has definitely been better for it.

On days like today, however, it's more like arguing with Lumbergh from Office Space:

Body: Um, yeah. I'm sorry to bother you, but I'm going to need you to go ahead and get up now.

Self: Wha? No... no... [soft whimper]

Body: Um, yeah. Unfortunately, that's the word from upper management. Apparently it's hot here and we're hungry, so we're going to have to ask you to go ahead and just get up. Out of the bed. It's nothing personal.

Self, blearily: It's 4:17. You've got to be kidding. I have to work a 12 hour day today. I need some sleep.

Body: Well, you know, if it were up to me, I would absolutely let you sleep in. I'm all about that whole "sleep until the alarm goes off" philosophy. Sure, it never won any battles, but ---

Self: Wait. What? What are you saying?

Body: Nothing. No, nothing at all. It's just... well, I don't want to tell you how to do your job or anything, but it kind of seems like maybe you haven't crossed much off the old "To Do" list lately -- haven't posted a blog in a week or so -- and maybe there are some things....

Self: You don't think I'm productive enough?

Body: Not what I'm saying. Of course not - sure you are. You're great and all. I'm just saying that maybe someone who sleeps a little less might get more accomplished. That's all. You're fine. Really. You know what? Why don't you just go on and go back to sleep? We'll just be productive another time.

Self: Well, okay I guess .......... But, now I'm awake.

Body: Super. Now get me some coffee.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Under the Pollen, You Look Familiar

Spring is here and, in my hometown of Atlanta, love is -- quite literally -- in the air. The trees and shrubs are doing their best to reproduce despite the recent drought; and as a result the entire metro area is covered in a soft, yellow-green carpet of pollen -- so thick and pervasive it's a little hard to avoid calling it "lustrous."

When I pull my car out of my space in the morning, the powdery pollen flies off it like fresh snow in Colorado. Throats are tickling, sneezes are echoing, and non-native Atlantans are loudly, irritatably, questioning their choice to move to a city that turns into one giant allergen for 4 weeks a year.

But for me it's all about renewal. I'll gladly suffer the sniffles and the semi-permanent yellow tint we all acquire this time of year for the beautiful green that emerges with it -- and those unmistakeable signs that winter is over and the warm days of summer are on the way. I'm particularly joyful this year, because as spring emerges from its shell, I get to look forward to graduation with my Master's in Professional Counseling.

A journey that started for me in Texas 5 years ago is finally drawing to a close -- or at least the first part of the journey is ending. Now I can go forth as a learning professional, rather than a professional student. And perhaps more importantly, I get to focus my constantly wandering attention on the pursuits that interest me most... and be only minimally concerned about meeting external standards.

Now that the final weeks are upon me, I find myself staring out the window more. I am learning to allow my thoughts to wander occasionally and not feel completely guilty about it. I've been shopping online. I've been planning trips. I've been tracking down some of my long-neglected friends and making plans to spend quality time with them --- not just the occasional 'in-passing' time where our minds are mostly focused elsewhere, but real time that involves really listening and really connecting.

It's hard to describe how freeing this has been for me. MDH (My Darling Husband) tells me I'm starting to seem much more like myself -- and less like the exhausted, fragile, overwhelmed mess he's been married to for the last year or more. Okay, he didn't say the second part, but I know he's thinking it!

These days, I find myself with renewed energy that builds on itself, because I'm able to use it not just for the things I have to do (which tend to drain my energy), but also for things I want to do. Two months ago, I often crawled into bed like it was my only sanctuary -- too exhausted and drained to move or think -- and waking up feeling like I'd barely been able to sleep at all.

Now I'm starting to notice that I'm still buzzing with positive energy late into the night, less concerned about grasping for a couple of hours of sleep and more focused on just enjoying whatever I'm doing at the moment. I've heard that when great artists, athletes, and scientists are at their best, they get into a zone in which time, food, sleep, and the outside world become mere abstractions. I am far, far from being an artist or athlete; but at times like this when the world seems bursting with possibilities, perhaps I understand "the zone." At least a little.

I think most of us need more of that particular state of mind in our lives, and we don't always make time for it. It's hard to lose yourself in a project when yourself has to go to the grocery store, finish a paper, respond to twelve e-mails and fold laundry -- all before bed. So we start with the shoulds, dutifully checking off each item as we go; and put the wouldn't it be cool if I coulds last on the list. And guess how often we get to those? Not often. We usually don't see them as productive or necessary to our daily lives.... But I wonder about that.

In order for the various plant species to survive, our leafy and flowery friends literally have to put themselves out there. They give up millions of tiny bits of themselves, most of which land impotently on cars, asphalt, and in the lungs of unsuspecting and allergic pedestrians. Only a tiny fraction of the pollen produced will find its way to bearing fruit and helping to create new life. But the plants go on pollenating, without regret or concern. They're in the zone, doing their thing, obeying their natural drives.

So with spring on the calendar and renewal on the wind, I'm gearing myself up to get totally, esctatically lost. Lost in a good book. Lost in conversation with an old friend. Lost in a writing project about which I'm passionate. In a new country I'm exploring. In music I've never heard before. Lost in the night, missing sleep -- not because I am worried or overwhelmed, but because I have more interesting and fulfilling things to do than merely sleep. I'm going to try to honor the impulses I have had my whole life: to do the creative, the fun, the utterly unproductive. And hopefully what will emerge is some combination of who I've always been and who I've been working so hard to become.

As one of our counseling heroes, Carl Rogers, so eloquently put it: "The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change."

Maybe to create yourself, you have to start by losing yourself.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Wallowing in Imperfect

So, for today's entry, I decided to operationalize the suggestions I made in yesterday's blog about perfectionism... Meaning, what good is it to talk about having the courage to be imperfect but not say how?

So here are 10 ways to fully enjoy being an imperfect human being:
  1. Next time you are going to a party, intentionally walk in with lipstick on your teeth, your shirt inside out, or obviously non-matching socks. See who points it out to you.
  2. Think back to the first time you got a speeding ticket. [If you've never had a speeding ticket, move on to #3.] Remember the horrible, sinking feeling you had when you saw the blue lights behind you -- and how upset you were when the cop decided that you were not getting just a warning this time, but an actual, fine-inducing, insurance-raising ticket. Remember how terrible you felt? Thinking your parents or spouse were going to kill you and that your day was totally, irreparably ruined? Cursing yourself for not going 2 mph slower or not paying attention to what you were doing.... Now think back at how that incident has really impacted your life. I mean, really. Chances are, not much. And for most people, that first ticket was a great lesson in paying attention to how fast you're driving. Okay, for me, it took seven or eight of those tickets to accomplish such awareness - but who's counting?
  3. If you've never had a speeding ticket, and you are over the age of 22, then we need to talk about your obsessive commitment to a perfect driving record. Sure, it sounds good at parties: "Who, me? Speeding ticket? NEVER. Who do you think I am, some reckless ne'er-do-well?" But think what you are setting yourself up for. Someday later in life, just when your stress is at its peak, you will get distracted and allow the speedometer to creep past 50 mph in a 35 zone and see the ominous blue lights behind you. And because you've held this perfect record for way, way too long -- a simple ticket will be totally devastating. You'll cry for weeks, lose your job, and your friends will be forced to drive you around because of your crippling fear of incurring another traumatic ticket. You can't do this to yourself. You owe it to yourself, your friends, and your mental health to go out and get -- no, earn -- yourself a speeding ticket as soon as possible. (Please do this on a safe, straight highway outside of school and construction zones). Make it an excuse for a road trip. Your friends can have a betting pool on how long it will take you to get a ticket and how fast you'll be going when you do. And when you see those blue lights in the rear view mirror and prepare to lose $80 to $200 from your savings account, be polite to the officer, turn the radio up as you drive away, and say to yourself "Sweet! The burden of a perfect record is no longer mine to bear. I am LIBERATED!!!"
  4. Take a class in something that you've always been hesitant to try, because it scares the hell out of you. Some thoughts: acting, cooking, rollerblading, public speaking, photography, belly dancing, race-car driving, hang-gliding, or singing.
  5. Think back to something really embarrassing that you did (or that happened to you) in high school or middle school. Remember how mortified you felt at the time, and then think how funny the incident seems now -- maybe with a little twinge of the old pain, too. Tell the story to your kids if you have them, or to someone else in your life who you normally try to impress. Make a big deal of it. Be dramatic. Laugh hard.
  6. Read a book or article about someone you admire (or if it's someone you know, remember or ask about the life he/she has lived). Make note of the ways that the person made mistakes in life, and how those mistakes helped shape his or her character, life and success. Do the same for your life so far.
  7. Go somewhere and get lost. It could be an exotic destination or 2 neighborhoods over. Drive around until you are completely unsure of where you are. Before you look at the map, stop and realize how confident you are that you'll find your way home.
  8. Think of someone you've hurt - either intentionally or by accident. Write them a letter or e-mail of apology (even if it's someone you don't know). Don't explain or rationalize your actions -- just accept responsibility and apologize. Send it if you can, unless sending it would cause more harm. If you can't or shouldn't send it, read it carefully, take a deep breath, and throw it away. Go do something fun or relaxing.
  9. Intentionally (carefully) trip and fall in a public place. Smile gracefully as you get up and assure concerned onlookers that you're fine.
  10. Think of a way you've enjoyed being imperfect and add it as a comment on this blog!!! :)

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Becoming Perfectly Flawed

Ideals are like stars: you will not succeed in touching them with your hands, but like the seafaring man on the ocean desert of waters, you choose them as your guides, and following them, you reach your destiny.

~Carl Schurz

Anything worth doing is worth doing well.

I don't know who said this originally, but I know it's been repeated by nearly every parent in the English-speaking world for decades. And I'll bet if I investigated a bit, I would find some kind of similar saying in most other cultures, too.

Most of us were brought up by loving parents who, for very loving reasons, pushed us to do and be the best. Their intent was, of course, to help us understand the relationship between hard work and personal success. They were equipping us with the ability to struggle, work around, and rise to challenges. And in many ways they were right. If you don't practice the piano, you'll never get better at it. If you want to be a better baseball player, you're going to have to work at that, too. If you want friends, be nice. And if at first you don't succeed.... well, you know.

But somewhere along the way, our culture has amplified and altered the way we view this basic and logical truism. We've gone from a culture of hard-working innovators to a society increasingly populated with intense perfectionists. I don't mean "perfectionist" in the way that most people hear it -- as someone who really likes to keep things tidy, the stereotypical "hospital corners" personality. In fact, I've met perfectionists with incredibly messy cars and homes.

The perfectionism I see so often in my clients (and my friends, and myself) is more subtle and insidious than a quirky need to have things neat. It's the pervasive idea many of us have that if we don't do something absolutely perfectly, right away, every time -- then something is horribly wrong. It's a little voice inside us that tells us, not only that things must be perfect, but that we have the control to make it so. It's this mistaken belief that is often at the root - or at least a contributing factor - of the increasing levels of anxiety many of us feel.

Maybe it's partly because we live in an era of immense and immediate personal freedoms. We have access to information, people, and resources at a speed with which we couldn't even imagine just 20 years ago. In our current society, we seem to have almost limitless choices about how to spend our free time, work time, and family time. Rather than growing up to become exactly who our parents were (occupationally, geographically and personally), we can choose to construct our lives however we like, from thousands of options - with millions on millions of possible permutations.

For the most part, our freedom and mobility is a good thing. It’s kind of the antidote to the caste system in a way – because with a little hard work and creativity, just about anyone can become just about anything. But with so many choices, so many opportunities to succeed or fail, so many criteria against which to measure ourselves – we feel more pressure than ever to do the right thing. The perfect thing. It’s almost like we no longer have any excuse to fail. No wonder 15% of the U.S. adult population experiences clinical anxiety at some point in their lives. It makes me feel a little paralyzed just thinking about it.

I have so many clients who enter my office expressing inordinate frustration with themselves for not being “successful” in a particular area of their lives; and then after a short interview I find that they have accomplished amazing feats in their careers, built loving relationships, cared for their families, pursued recreational activities with gusto, and still found time to bake cookies for the PTA meeting or to help a friend who is experiencing a serious problem. And yet they feel entirely devastated and worthless because their boss said something nasty to them or they had an argument with their spouse.

By way of illustration: Recently, my husband and I went to my best friend’s house to have dinner with her and her family. We all stay busy, so it’s a treat when we get time to hang out. In a rare turn of events, we were able to go out early in the afternoon and spend a leisurely evening eating dinner, drinking wine, and playing games. The only slight fly in the ointment occurred when my friend realized that she’d forgotten to turn the crock pot on that morning – and so the chili she’d thought she was cooking all day was ice cold and inedible. The solution was a quick phone call away, though, because all we had to do was place a quick order for pizza and in 30 minutes we were all happily fed.

Now, my friend is a highly intelligent, well-accomplished woman. She and her husband have a great marriage, two wonderful little girls, stable jobs, a nice home, loving family, a wide group of friends, and a great support system. My friend is that special kind of person you call on when you really need support – she has a rare gift for emanating calm in a crisis. And yet, this amazing woman spent most of the evening apologizing for messing up dinner. Almost every hour, she would suddenly remember her mistake, and – rather than just enjoying a relaxed evening with friends – her imperfection would weigh so heavily on her that she would scowl and apologize again.

[And when she reads this, I suspect that rather than noticing all the wonderful things I’ve said about her (which are true), she’ll worry for days that she ruined the evening (which she didn’t) by apologizing too much…]

I’m not picking on my friend. I see this in my own behavior, too, and that of countless others in my life. Somehow we are training ourselves to “filter” out all the positive, wonderful, and enriching parts of our lives and to focus primarily on the negative things, the places where we can improve. Of course, it’s good to understand your weaknesses and to find room for self-improvement; but when we beat ourselves up for imperfection, we will find ourselves taking fewer risks and enjoying life less.

As human beings, we are by nature incapable of total perfection. But when we forget this fact, it’s easy to paint ourselves into the corner of not doing something at all, because we convince ourselves we can never do it exactly right. We don’t speak up in meetings because we worry that our ideas won’t be well-received. We don’t go swimming with our kids because we worry that we don’t look good in a bathing suit. We avoid trying something new because there’s a vague possibility we could be hurt or embarrassed.

Sometimes we also turn our perfectionism on the world around us. We scream at fast food employees for forgetting to leave off the onions. We wrap our kids in bubble-wrap and equip them with hand sanitizer and an emergency cell phone before sending them outside to play (or worse, decide not to send them out at all). We threaten to sue everyone in sight when life doesn’t go our way. When fear and anger rule our lives, everyone loses.

Perfectionism simultaneously creates both the illusion that we are in control and the paralyzing fear that we are not. And when we model for our kids that perfection is the goal, we set them up to fail – and for a host of problems like anxiety, panic and eating disorders (all of which are related to the need for control and the fear of loss).

If you think I’m just waxing philosophical with this, consider this: Eating disorders – arguably the quintessential expression of perfectionism and control – have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. Approximately 1% of all adolescent girls suffer from anorexia, while 4% of college-age women suffer from bulimia (men also suffer from eating disorders – but they are about 3 times more common in women). Research suggests that only 60% of those with eating disorders will make a full recovery, and up to 25% of cases can be fatal, particularly without treatment*. In this case, the push toward perfection isn’t just annoying or quirky; it can be deadly.

As a society and as individuals, we must learn to release our need to control every aspect of our lives, and we must stop pursuing perfection over balance and fulfillment. We have to start working towards an acceptance of our beautifully flawed selves, and to see life’s minor setbacks for exactly what they are. Small mistakes should be met with a shrug and a laugh; major mistakes with a commitment to make amends and do better next time. We need to abandon the perfection myth and fall in love again -- with life’s ups and downs and with our own beautiful brokenness. We owe it to ourselves, and more importantly, we owe it to our daughters.

*I got these statistics from ANRED (Anorexia Nervosa and Related Eating Disorders, Inc.) You can learn more about Eating Disorders by visiting: