In a Perfect World
I'm sure some people would look at me and never guess that I am a perfectionist. I don't keep a perfect house, I'm overweight, and my career path is bumpy, to say the least. I am always looking for another job, something more challenging and better paying, something that is more rewarding. I have had a rough time getting to a place where I could perform my best and enjoy what I do.
I think my attitude stems from the perfectionist ideal I was raised with. My mother was very concerned with outside appearances--house, clothes--while Dad focused on his accomplishments. I take after him in that respect. When I was in school, it was imperative that I receive straight A's. If I got an A-minus or, heaven forbid, a B, I would be very upset with myself. In graduate school, I got sick and was hospitalized shortly before midterms. I felt awful and didn't do well on one of my tests. I got a B for my final grade. It was the only B that I received, but I still think about it.
I have always been overweight. Even though I try to talk myself into not worrying about what society thinks, I am still always thinking about it, trying to diet, and feeling disappointed that I can never get the weight off. My mom has always been a pain about my being overweight. She has always been thin, and I take after my dad, who is also heavy. It bugs me less as I get older, but like most children, I want my parents to be proud of me and feel that they did a good job raising me. Now, at age forty-seven, it has become a health issue, which causes even more stress.
I suffered from postpartum depression when I gave birth to my third child--I was completely overwhelmed when she was born. We were moving to another state. My husband went ahead without me, and I had to take care of my two older children and sell the house. It was an extremely stressful time, and I was not happy about being pregnant because I had planned to go back to school after we moved. My husband loved his new job and was not home much. I was lonely and unhappy. I slept only a few hours a night. The PPD came upon me a few days after giving birth. It felt like the world was ending. After some rest and some meds, I was OK, but it took me a long time, about six months, to feel like myself. I hope I never go through something like that again.
When it comes to making decisions, I am the regret queen. I still think about mistakes I made when I was nineteen, and I wish I could do things over again. This is a problem I have dealt with for years and have had many long, expensive talks with my therapist about. My number-one decision that I regret is getting married when I did. I grew up in a very religious family and when I got pregnant, my mother and father felt the best thing for me was to get married. I am still married to the same man, but maybe my life would be different--better?--if I had married someone else, or if I had married him at a more convenient time.
I like to feel like I'm in control of things. That's why I don't drink much alcohol, because I don't like being at all out of control. I hate to drive with anyone else, too. I feel that I am the best driver, although I suppose that has to do more with control issues than with driving.
Hoping everything will be perfect is an insane way to live. There is nothing perfect in this world, and continually trying to attain perfection leads to so many problems. I never quite feel that everything is OK, and I think that stems from my unreal perception of how the world should be.
A hundred years ago, a woman's job was clear: Have children, keep them alive, get meals on the table, and take care of the house. If your house was clean and your kids were fed, people thought you were doing a good job. Now, in addition to those responsibilities, today's women have numerous others. Many work outside the home. We worry about our jobs, the quality of our relationships with our husbands, how our kids do in school, how our homes look, how we look, how much volunteer work we do, how much money we give to charity, how well our kids behave, and so much more. We're even responsible for our kids' social lives. A generation ago, our mothers didn't arrange play dates. Mom booted you out the door and it was your job to find someone to play with while she did her housework (or invited a neighbor over for coffee).
No wonder we're unhappy! We want to excel at everything. But with so much to do, that's unattainable. It is impossible to do a great job with your marriage, your home, your kids, your career, your body, your friendships, your health habits, and everything else. Yet that's our goal--to do everything well. And when we can't, we feel like failures.
Remember my patient Kim, whom I mentioned in the introduction? She had almost everything going for her, but she felt depressed because her house was cluttered. That demonstrates the sinister nature of perfectionism. When Kim reflects on her life, instead of listing the many things she's got, she looks at herself and says, "You're a failure because your house is cluttered." If you can't learn to let go of a feeling like that, unless you can get the perfectionist monkey off your back, there's always going to be something wrong in your life.
A Perfect New World?
In many ways, perfectionism is a uniquely American phenomenon. In 1620, the first American colony was established by Puritans who had such strong ideas about how to practice their religion that they sailed all the way to a new continent to do things their way. Ever since the Mayflower brought this idealistic group to America, immigrants have flocked here hoping to find the freedom, opportunity, and happiness that had eluded them in their home countries.
By the early 1800s, American Puritanism and its angry God began to give way to individualism, with its emphasis on people's power to determine their own salvation through good works and proper behavior. "By the turn of the nineteenth century, Americans became rampant reformers with a certain righteous pride" that came from creating the largest democracy since the Roman Empire, writes Laura Schenone, the author of a fascinating book called A Thousand Years Over a Hot Stove. "American politics would be fairer than those of England. American people would be superior. Even the food in the new republic would taste better."
To reach these heights, reformists turned their attention to American women. They found much that they wanted to reform. Until that time, most women couldn't read. But America needed strong, principled men to build the new nation, and for women to raise such men they would have to be educated. For the first time, large numbers of girls were taught to read; the number of literate white women skyrocketed.
As female literacy grew, so did the publishing industry. The 1800s brought a wave of cookbooks, women's books, and pamphlets that pointed out women's many failings and urged them to use the discoveries of the exploding field of domestic science to improve their lives, their homes, and their family's health.
In 1829 a writer named Lydia Child published a book, The Frugal Housewife, which became the bestselling standard of its time. This classic example of nineteenth-century women's books provided firm guidance on a wide variety of tasks, including keeping house, devising home remedies, dyeing clothing, cooking, educating daughters, and enduring poverty. Child touched all of the domestic bases: She taught women how to make full use of a slaughtered cow (mix its brains with cracker crumbs and boil in a bag for one hour), cure constipation (drink dried huckleberry tea when the "digestive powers are out of order"), care for the eyes ("do not read or sew at twilight"), and arrange children's hair ("do not make children cross-eyed, by having hair hang about their foreheads, where they see it continually").
Like many other writers of the time, Child had rigid ideals about how moral women should run their homes and their lives, and she wasn't shy about offering dictates. For example, she warned that public amusements such as steamboats, taverns, and vacations would lead to a "luxurious and idle republic" that was destined to plunge the country into ruin. The message to women was loud and clear: They were responsible not only for their familys' well-being, but also for the welfare, morality, and success of the entire nation. Talk about high expectations.
Food = Health
In the kitchen, nineteenth-century women were taught that perfection wasn't just a goal, but a matter of life and death. "The person who decides what shall be the food and drink of a family, and the modes of its preparation, is the one who decides, to a greater or less extent, what shall be the health of that family," wrote Catharine E. Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe in a book titled The American Woman's Home, published in 1869. "It is the opinion of most medicinal men, that intemperance in eating is one of the most fruitful of all causes of disease and death. If this be so, the woman who wisely adapts the food and cooking of her family to the laws of health removes one of the greatest risks which threatens the lives of those under her care."
The Beecher sisters urged women to perfect their skills in making bread, butter, meat, vegetables, and tea. "If these five departments are all perfect, the great ends of domestic cookery are answered, so far as the comfort and well-being of life are concerned." Bad butter in particular aggravated them. Not ones to mince words, the Beechers condemned most of the butter in America as being "merely a hobgoblin bewitchment of cream into foul and loathsome poisons." They preferred the butter in England, France, and Italy--in fact, they extolled the superiority of French cooking so enthusiastically that American women must have felt the culinary deck was stacked against them simply because they were not French.
Nineteenth-century women em...
"..A wonderful antidote for the anxious, depressed woman for whom no level of achievement seems to be enough. Doctor Domar fills her easy-to-read book with real life examples from her own practice and offers sold, innovative advice for dealing with unreasonable expectations of life and of self."
—Marianne J. Legato, M.D., founder and director, Foundation for Gender-Specific Medicine
"Finally the message all women need to hear. It is time to stop beating yourself up and read Be Happy Without Being Perfect
. It will save your life!"
—Susan Love M.D., president and medical director, Dr. Susan Love Research Foundation, and author of Dr. Susan Love's Menopause and Hormone Book: Making Informed Choices,
and Dr. Susan Love's Breast Book
"Smartly written, greatly insightful...there's not a woman I know who wouldn't benefit from reading this book. Take in its lessons and you will find a deeper level of contentment and satisfaction in each day. This is essential reading for every woman."
—Miriam Nelson, Ph.D., associate professor, Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, Tufts University and author of the bestselling Strong Women
“Giving up perfect sets women on the road to true and sustainable health. If you feel trapped in any way by the need to have a perfect body, a perfect house, or perfect life on any level–you need this book. Now!”
—Christiane Northrup, M.D., author of Mother-Daughter Wisdom
, The Wisdom of Menopause
, and Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom
"Perfection is the enemy of happiness. Dr. Domar teaches us to be more accepting of ourselves so we don't live in fear of failure."
—Mehmet Oz, M.D., professor of surgery, New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia Medical Center
“Reading Be Happy Without Being Perfect
allows women to exhale-- finally. We women are so tough on ourselves, that it takes a masterful advisor to get us to step back and think about changing our daily thoughts as well as our habits. Reading this book is like having a truly close friend, who you trust, and who just happens to be a psychologist, nutritionist and coach. The book is wise, humane, and it goes down easy. I enjoyed reading it- what's more, I have zeroxed a few of the pages and put them up in strategic zones ( bathroom mirror, refrigerator door). There is something in this book for just about every woman I know.
—Pepper Schwartz, Ph.D., professor of sociology, University of Washington and author of Prime: Adventures and Advice about Love and Sex and the Sensual Years
“We strive for perfection in everything we do…Work, the kids, the meals, and trying to be the dutiful spouse. But where does happiness fit into that equation? Not to worry. Dr. Ali Domar tackles all the misconceptions (and misplaced pressures) and gets you back on the right track. Be Happy Without Being Perfect
gives you permission to be you, to be good enough, and find happiness along the way. It’s a must for each and every one of us.”
—Nancy Snyderman, M.D., chief medical editor NBC News
"In her work as a psychologist, Domar (Conquering Infertility: Dr. Alice Domar's Mind/Body Guide to Enhancing Fertility and Coping with Infertility
) found that many of her clients felt overwhelmed, depressed, and out of control in trying to live up to the media's depictions of women as perfect mothers, spouses, hostesses, and decision makers. Together with fitness writer Kelly, Domar here shows that perfectionism has been an issue for American women since colonial times, long before Martha Stewart made the scene. In her survey of more than 50 women whose observations and advice appear throughout the text, Domar identifies six areas of perfectionism: health and personal appearance, housekeeping, work, relationships, parenting, and decision making. In each of these areas, she demonstrates how the technique of cognitive restructuring, or "retraining your brain," can be used to reframe common distortions in thinking and result in realistic expectations and happier lives. Many women will recognize themselves in the descriptions given by Domar and her respondents, and even nonperfectionists can benefit from her advice on decision making and coping with everyday stressors (e.g., journaling, meditation). Recommended for self-help and women's health collections in public libraries."
—Library JournalFrom the Hardcover edition.