It’s OK to Be Angry and Sad Right Now

Emotions are running high post-election. You may be feeling disappointed, shocked, scared, angry, or saddened by the results on November 8.

If you’re like me, you’ve heard a lot of well-meaning people trying to talk you out of your emotions. I’ve been told I need to stop feeling sad, or that being angry won’t help. I’ve been encouraged to wait and see, that “it’ll be OK.”

But I’m here as a therapist to tell you to ignore all that. Your feelings are valid, understandable. And they are important! Core emotions* have what we therapists call “adaptive action tendencies” attached to them. That means that an authentic emotion, one that is coming from your gut, is propelling you to DO something. Grief and sadness urge you to connect to loved ones. Anger energizes you to take action to help yourself. Fear motivates you to fight or flee. Emotions have stuck around through evolution because they serve a purpose. They tell us when and how to act. Sure our thoughts do this too, but emotions bring different information and urges (and also work a heck of a lot faster than thoughts, which is especially important in life-or-death situations).

So listen to your feelings, and what they are telling you. Do you need connection? Do you need to take action? Do you need to do something to protect yourself or your family? Engage your brain, your thoughts, to figure out what to do with the messages your emotions are sending. Think about what friends are the right ones to reach out to, or where you can connect with community for comfort. Engage in activism. Do you need to call or write your government representatives to express opinions, volunteer for an advocacy group, participate in a protest, or make a donation?

A caveat – our emotions are useful only when they are regulated and manageable. When your emotions get so intense that you are overwhelmed by them, it gets really hard to make wise choices about what to do next. When you’re overwhelmed, you may collapse, panic, or sprint into action in ways that aren’t effective or at a pace that leads to burnout. So if you are overwhelmed, take a minute to regulate. Try some mindfulness and resilience tools. Talk to a therapist.  Get some exercise. Once you are back in a place where you can feel your emotions and think at the same time, you are ready to start listening to your emotions again.

So feel your feelings. You can’t really stop yourself from feeling anyway, so you might as well accept your emotions and find the strength and wisdom in them.

* Core emotions are your true, authentic emotions, the ones coming from your gut and giving you wisdom. As opposed to “defensive emotions” which are cover-ups… like when you snap at someone in anger but underneath you are really hurt or sad. 

Procrastination vs. Resilience

My new book, The Perfectionism Workbook for Teens, is available now! To celebrate, I am running a five-part series highlighting some concepts from the book. I’ll talk about some different ways perfectionists struggle, and offer some tools for change. (By the way, although my book is technically aimed at teens, a lot of the tools work for adults too, and these blogs posts will focus on ideas for grownups.) This is the last week! I have procrastinated writing this post until the last minute, because it is about procrastination.

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When faced with a challenging project or daunting task, perfectionists want to envision an unobstructed path towards certain victory. You want to imagine every step of the plan, anticipate every possible challenge and how to overcome it, and clearly see a “perfect” outcome before you start taking any action.

This can lead to a common perfectionist habit: procrastination. You put off getting started on that important project, because we haven’t completely thought it through yet. You have it on your to-do list to get started this afternoon, but then your inner perfectionist says, “Do a little more research first,” or that part might anxiously wonder, “What are you gonna do if X happens?” And then you’re back to the planning and preparing, putting off getting started for another day. Or week. Or year.

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Six Steps to Death

My new book, The Perfectionism Workbook for Teens, is available now! To celebrate, I am running a five-part series highlighting some concepts from the book. I’ll talk about some different ways perfectionists struggle, and offer some tools for change. (By the way, although my book is technically aimed at teens, a lot of the tools work for adults too, and these blogs posts will focus on ideas for grownups.) This week’s post is about catastrophizing.

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Catastrophizing is one of those things that can stop you before you get started, take a perfectly good idea or ambition and make it vanish into thin air. What happens is this: you notice a desire to say, write a blog post. Immediately your inner perfectionist starts weighing in with its worries and predictions… you don’t have anything original to say… your writing isn’t good enough… you’ll embarrass yourself… no clients are going to call after reading this crap… your career with wither away… you won’t be able to pay your bills… you’ll end up penniless and alone. Now feeling anxious and hopeless, you close your laptop and walk away. No blog post ever gets written.

What the hell just happened?

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Fighting Fire with Fire? Try Water Instead.

My new book, The Perfectionism Workbook for Teens, is available now! To celebrate, I am running a five-part series highlighting some concepts from the book. I’ll talk about some different ways perfectionists struggle, and offer some tools for change. (By the way, although my book is technically aimed at teens, a lot of the tools work for adults too, and these blogs posts will focus on ideas for grownups.) This week’s post is about the cycle of thoughts, emotions, and sensations.

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Our bodies, emotions, and minds are linked. We know this, but we also forget. After a day of ruminating about a past conversation where you think you said something stupid, or imagining future conversations where you tell someone off brilliantly, you wonder why your mood is terrible or your neck is so tight you can barely move. It’s easy to forget the powerful effect your thoughts can have on your feelings or body sensations.

Thoughts impact your bodies and emotions, and bodies also impact your thoughts and feelings. It’s tough to remember this too. So often the first instinct is to fight fire with fire, to try to battle negative or distressing thoughts with more thoughts. To try to talk yourself out of what you are thinking. We’re so enamored with our brains, we think they can do anything!

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Getting to Know Your Inner Perfectionist

My new book, The Perfectionism Workbook for Teens, will be available in just a couple weeks! To celebrate, I am running a five-part series highlighting some concepts from the book. I’ll talk about some different ways perfectionists struggle, and offer some tools for change. (By the way, although my book is technically aimed at teens, a lot of the tools work for adults too, and these blogs posts will focus on ideas for grownups.) This week’s post is about getting to know your inner perfectionist.

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If you’ve ever been tormented by perfectionist worries and self-criticisms, you know how overwhelming it can be. You can’t escape your own thoughts and feelings, you feel consumed by the need to do or be perfect, and the imagined consequences if you don’t achieve that impossible goal.

STEP ONE

Want to reduce that overwhelm? Try this:

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Negativity Bias: Why We Notice What’s Wrong More Than What’s Right

My new book, The Perfectionism Workbook for Teens, is available now! To celebrate, I am running a five-part series highlighting some concepts from the book. I’ll talk about some different ways perfectionists struggle, and offer some tools for change. (By the way, although my book is technically aimed at teens, a lot of the tools work for adults too, and these blogs posts will focus on ideas for grownups.) This week’s post is about the negativity bias.

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Here’s an experiment: after you finish reading this paragraph, close your eyes and think about your day yesterday. Take two minutes to recall everything that had a significant impact on you — events, emotions, thoughts. When you are done, write or type a list of everything you remembered. Do that now, before reading any further.

How many thoughts, feelings, and events on your list were positive? How many were negative — complaints, criticisms, disappointments, etc.? If you are like most human beings, the majority (perhaps the vast majority) were negative. That’s because humans have actually evolved to be negative. For our ancestors, noticing what’s wrong — i.e., dangerous — was more important to survival than noticing what’s right. If they failed to notice a beautiful sunset or a juicy mango, they lived to fight another day. If they failed to notice the smell of rotten food or the sound of a tiger lurking behind a bush, that’s it — end of their genetic line.

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FAQ: Myths and Truths about Perfectionism

Myth: If I stop being a perfectionist, I won’t be successful, ambitious, or hardworking anymore.

Truth: Your perfectionism is not actually helping you achieve; in fact it’s probably holding you back! Perfectionism often causes anxiety, stress, depression, and other feelings that get in the way of your thinking clearly or creatively. Perfectionist behaviors like procrastination and avoiding generally lead to less impressive performances in classes, sports, and activities. You might be worried that letting go of perfectionism will make you “lazy.” The truth is, it’s more likely that your work, performances, and relationships will improve once perfectionism doesn’t have such a tight grip on you!

Myth: Perfectionism is actually a good thing.

Truth: “Perfectionist” is sometimes used as a “humble brag” or the cliché answer to the interview question: “What is your biggest weakness?” That’s because there can be healthy perfectionist qualities, like paying attention to details, working hard, and having high standards. But there are unhealthy qualities of perfectionism too. High standards become impossible standards. You are so focused on your future ambitions that you can’t enjoy the present. Attention to detail turns into criticizing yourself ruthlessly for the tiniest mistakes. For too many people (a Johns Hopkins study found 28 percent of teens are dysfunctional perfectionists) perfectionism is definitely not a good thing—it’s a real and serious problem.

Myth: Perfectionism isn’t serious because it’s not a diagnosed mental health disorder.

Truth: While perfectionism itself isn’t a mental health disorder, many studies have shown clear links between unhealthy perfectionist personality traits and depression, anxiety, and eating disorders. Perhaps most disturbing, perfectionism is a predictor of both suicidal thoughts and attempts in adolescents.

Myth: Everyone else looks effortlessly perfect; I have to keep up!

Truth: People often present a very polished version of themselves to the public, especially on social media. But appearances deceive! No one has a flawless life, and no matter how casual someone acts or how amazing her online posts and photos look, there is usually a whole lot of effort behind that grade, performance, or picture. Comparing yourself to those perfect personas will almost always leave you feeling disappointed with yourself—you can’t compete with something that isn’t real!

Myth: I’ve tried to change, and it didn’t work. I’m stuck like this.

Truth: You can change your perfectionism! Your perfectionism was built over time, from many repetitions of thoughts, beliefs, feelings, and actions. Unwinding these patterns also takes some time, as well as the right tools. There’s no one tool that works for everyone; you are a unique person and your experience of perfectionism is unique too. You may have to try some different techniques to find what works for you. Check out my free six-week perfectionist email challenge, The Perfectionism Workbook for Teens, or contact me about therapy to learn more about what tools will work for you.

Wondering if you are a perfectionist? Take this quiz to find out.

Three Ways to Combat Beginning-of-the-School-Year Perfectionism

Want a free copy of my new book, The Perfectionism Workbook for Teens? Enter the Goodreads Giveaway!

Starting a new school semester? Perfectionism loves to show up at this time of year to create impossibly high expectations, unrelenting anxiety, and debilitating self-criticism. Here are three ways perfectionism gets in the way — and what you can do about it.

1. Fantasizing about perfection.A new school year means a whole lot of things starting — classes, sports, friendships, activities. It’s natural to imagine what these will be like and how you will perform. If you are a perfectionist, you may find yourself daydreaming about performing flawlessly in all these realms. While it’s great to think positive and visualize success, you also need to be able to feel genuinely satisfied when things fall short of perfection. If you notice you are feeling disappointed all the time simply because life doesn’t turn out like your fantasies, your inner perfectionist is definitely getting in your way.
What can I do? See if you can catch yourself in the act of fantasizing about perfection. You can certainly allow yourself daydreams about making the winning shot, getting the A, or falling in love, but see if you can expand your fantasy to include some other scenarios as well. Imagine yourself getting into a jam and getting out of it. Try envisioning small mistakes or missteps and then learning something unexpected. Better yet, daydream about how enjoyable the process will be, rather than the outcome.

2. Not trying new things. There are a lot of opportunities to try new things at the start of a semester. If you are a perfectionist, you might hesitate before signing up for a sport, academic subject, or activity you haven’t tried before, worried you won’t be great from the get-go. Even though you know rationally that you probably won’t be good at something the first few times you try it, your inner perfectionist freaks out at the thought of being less-than-awesome. Your inner perfectionist convinces you that being a beginner is too scary or humiliating, so don’t even try.
What can I do? Sign up anyway! Pick one or two new things and try them out. When you encounter the normal bumps of learning something new, try to be gentle with yourself. Imagine what you might say to a friend who is a beginner and talk to yourself with the same kindness and compassion you would show them. And make sure you also have some activities and classes you are confident about, so you get a break from the stress of being a beginner!

3. Feeling “not good enough.” When you are having all those “what did you do over the summer” conversations, it’s tempting to compare yourself to everyone else and judge yourself as “not good enough.” Your inner perfectionist might criticize you for not being ambitious or productive enough, not having enough fun or adventure, not being creative enough… the potential for self-criticism is nearly endless!
What can I do? Before you have any how-was-your-summer? conversations, take a few moments to sit and review all the good stuff about your break. First think about everything that was fun, even the small moments, and write them all down. Think back to all the activities that were relaxing, list those too. Write out all the things you accomplished as well. Make lists for any other categories that matter to you…feeling connected to friends, creative pursuits, saving money from a job, etc. You’ll probably notice your inner perfectionist interrupting you during this process, trying to point out all the things that were “wrong” or not perfect. Try saying “not now” or something similar, and return to making your lists of good things. When you are done, reread your list and let yourself feel happy, proud, and content for at least 30 seconds (I’m serious, set a timer). You don’t necessarily have to share all or any of these things with other people who ask about your summer, but it’s important for you to have a sense of everything that was good about your summer — and everything that is good right now.

 

Want a free copy of my new book, The Perfectionism Workbook for Teens? Enter the Goodreads Giveaway!

Three Ways Perfectionism Poisons Relationships

Perfectionism doesn’t just impact your mood, self-esteem, and productivity. It can also cause real harm to romantic partnerships. Here are a few direct and indirect way perfectionism gets in the way of you having the relationship you want:

  1. Your partner feels helpless as they watch you suffer. You are likely very aware of the pains of perfectionism. You beat yourself up for tiny mistakes, you get paralyzed with anxiety, you procrastinate and avoid your way into misery. What you’re not always aware of is how painful it can be for someone who cares about you to watch you struggle, especially if you (like many perfectionists) have a hard time accepting any comfort or help.
  2. You expect perfection from your partner too, not just from yourself. Perfectionism can bring up feelings of frustration with your partner, for the same kind of tiny mistakes that make you angry at yourself. Maybe this results in you criticizing your partner, or shutting them out, or bottling up irritation until you explode for no good reason.
  3. Avoiding social situations takes a toll. Perfectionist anxiety can lead to avoiding social events….a fear that you might not look perfect or have the exact right thing to say can be so distressing that you just stay home. Your partner might feel hurt or angry if you are avoiding spending time with their family or important friends. They could also feel resentful, worried, or bored as more and more fun activities get abandoned. There’s nothing wrong with staying home and nesting if it’s coming from a place of desire for quiet time, rather than fear of being out in the world.

Being hard on yourself hurts you, and hurts the people who care about you. It’s important not to turn this insight into another layer of self-criticism and self-loathing though! The point is not to beat yourself up for being a “bad” (less than perfect) partner. Try to bring some self-compassion to this process — relationships are hard work, and reforming unhealthy perfectionism is also hard work. As you practice mindfulness about when and how perfectionism is showing up in your relationship, be gentle with yourself. You are not alone in this struggle! Once you are aware that perfectionism is guiding your thoughts or actions, see if you can make a different choice, one that brings connection, compassion, and joy to your relationship, instead of perfectionist distress.

Perfectionism and the Price of Admission

Most of the time when we think of perfectionists, we think of people having impossibly high standards for themselves. But perfectionism can also show up in relationships, if the form of impossibly high standards for friends, family, or romantic partners. Do any of these sound familiar?

  • You expect your partner to never forget a date or  promise, no matter how small (like picking something up on the way home from work)
  • You have trouble letting your partner’s occasional bad moods or bad days roll off you (you hold a grudge)
  • Offer a lot of unsolicited advice and criticism for how your partner could do things “better”
  • Find yourself making “jokes” that have a sharp edge to them, that end up hurting others more than you intended

Expecting perfection from others is a set-up for anger and disappointment. No one can be perfect. No matter how much your partner loves you or how hard they work at the relationship, there will always be ways they don’t measure up to your “ideal,” there will inevitably be moments of hurt feelings or conflict and disagreement. These imperfections are the price of admission (to quote Dan Savage) to be in relationship. You have to put up with some annoying habits and small disappointments if you are going to make any relationship work. You have to truly accept others’ imperfections (as well as your own).

Of course you don’t want to swing too far in the other direction and expect too little from your partner. Expecting your partner to treat you with kindness and respect shows you have healthy self-esteem and value yourself. You don’t want to be a doormat that lets other people get away with anything, and never apologize. The price of admission for a relationship can’t be your values or sense of self-worth.

The key of course is finding a balance. A place where you can let little things go, where you can have empathy for your partner’s needs, feelings, moods. From a balanced place, you can also voice hurt or anger when appropriate, genuinely accept an apology and move on.