Be Happy Without Being Perfect: How to Break Free from the Perfection Deception

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9780739358214: Be Happy Without Being Perfect: How to Break Free from the Perfection Deception
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Do you have trouble going to bed at night when there’s a mess in the kitchen? Do you think you would be happier if only you could lose weight, be a better parent, work smarter, reduce stress, exercise more, and make better decisions? You’re not perfect. But guess what? You don’t have to be. All of us struggle with high expectations from time to time. But for many women, the worries can become debilitating–and often, we don’t even know we’re letting unrealistic expectations color our thinking. The good news is, we have the power to break free from the perfectionist trap–and internationally renowned health psychologist, Dr. Alice Domar can show you how.

Be Happy Without Being Perfect offers a way out of the self-imposed handcuffs that this thinking brings, providing concrete solutions, practical advice, and action plans that teach you how to: Assess your tendency toward perfectionism in all areas of your life · Set realistic goals · Alleviate the guilt and shame that perfectionism can trigger · Manage your anxiety with clinically proven self-care strategies · Get rid of the unrealistic and damaging expectations that are hurting you–for good!

Be Happy Without Being Perfect is your key to a happier, calmer, and more enjoyable life.

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About the Author:

Alice D. Domar, Ph.D., is executive director of the Domar Center for Mind/Body Health in Boston; director of mind/body services at Boston IVF; assistant professor of obstetrics, gynecology, and reproductive biology at Harvard Medical School; and senior psychologist at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. She is the author of the national bestseller Self-Nurture, as well as Healing Mind, Healthy Woman and Conquering Infertility. Dr. Domar lives in the Boston area with her husband and two daughters.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:


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...

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