Eschew approval? Think again.

While I know this dates me, one of my favorite shows when I was a kid (granted, there were only about three morning kids’ shows from from which to choose), was Captain Kangaroo. Kindly, portly, huggable Captain Kangaroo was like a grandpa in the living room, jollying us along to learn those kid-focused life lessons, supported by his sidekick, Mr. Greenjeans. Not unlike a 1950s Dr. Phil, mustache and all. And at least as I recall, each episode ended with the mantra-like repetition of this message:

“You can please some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time.”

(and it’s funny that I can’t find any internet verification of this, so I guess I’ll just trust my memory!)

This lesson about the need for approval became well-ingrained in childhood, probably my first exposure to how unrealsitic expectations can set us up to feel unhappy.  From an early age, I tried to accustom myself to the idea that I didn’t need everyone to think well of me. Whenever I got caught up in that, I remembered the Captain, reminding me that a universal fuzzy blanket of approval simply wasn’t possible.  Fast forward to my college years of studying psychology, where I learned that, according to Karen Horney and other psychoanalytic thinkers, the need for approval and admiration were deemed “neurotic.” In other words, psychologically healthy people don’t need others’ approval. Instead, psychologically healthy people can offer themselves that approval.  I have preached to clients–and in my own head–that we don’t need any approval beyond our own. It’s just a nice bonus.

Yet, in my personal life and in the lives of my clients, that need for approval seemed pretty prevalent and powerful–maybe even universal. This means either that the psychoanalysts were wrong, and need for approval is simply human. Or that we are all a bit neurotic, all “bozos on the bus,” as Elizabeth Lesser proclaims in Broken Open. The truth is probably contained in each of these assertions. There is no such existence as perfect psychological health: we lowly humans all like approval. And as I wrote about in another blog, Captain Kangaroo was right, too. We can’t expect everyone to approve of us, all of the time.

Recently, some new research has shown that affirmation from others is indeed a major component of happiness. In a series of studies, participants rated themselves on measures of how respected and admired they felt, how happy they perceived themselves to be, and earned income. Repeatedly, the sense of feeling admired and a respected, contributing member of a group, was more strongly related to happiness than was financial well-being. The researchers dubbed this “sociometric status,” compared to “socioeconomic status.” Similar research has shown that an overall sense of belonging is related to happiness. These new studies expanded the finding to focus on how affirmed and respected you feel, above and beyond belonging.

Who says we don’t want to have approval from our peers? Sounds like a basic human need to me. Giving approval to ourselves may still be the cake of wellness, but a resounding sense that others agree with us about our value appears to be the icing on that cake. And the frosting has always been my favorite part.

Take it to heart?

“Take it to heart.” Usually, we hear this phrase applied to feedback, aka criticism, offered by others. We feel like a bigger person if we can listen openly to negative words from someone. Seems to me to be another of those casual phrases that do us more harm than good and deserve a hearty “who says?” challenge.

Way back in grad school, 30 plus years ago, I learned that feedback is effective only when solicited. It’s pretty hard to take in and process effectively something that we didn’t ask for and probably don’t want to hear. We all do better when we seek information to help us improve, rather than have it foisted upon us, in any of the typical forms: fights with loved ones, criticism disguised as ‘help,’ yearly job evaluations. It seems to me that this phrase, “take it to heart”, runs counter to human nature. The phrase implies that a grown-up wants to listen to feedback. Truthfully, I don’t think many of us really yearn to hear that we need to do something differently–even when we know on some level that we do. And challenging ourselves to “take it to heart” implies that we just need to suck it into our inner most being. We impose an expectation that criticism is always true and valid and valuable.

(That always sounds like an absolute. And if you’re a regular reader, you know my ideas on absolutes.)

My challenge is aimed at that last phrase about criticism. Criticism/feedback may be necessary to growth. But is it always true, valid, valuable? Many of us believe that it is. Rather than “take it to heart,” I suggest “take it to mind.” Don’t just expect that, because you are an adult striving to do your best in life, that you have to accept negative words right into your core. Think on feedback. Evaluate it. Test it out, dwell on the accusations or challenges for awhile. See if the words fit your perception. Write about it. Check it out with a friend or therapist. Where is the truth–the helpful portion of the words? And where is the anger or defensiveness or misperception on the part of the giver? What might have more to do with them, who offer the criticism, and less to do with YOU? Incorporate what is valuable, and let go of the rest.

It’s okay–even extremely healthy–to take some time to sort out what comes your way. You don’t have to “take it to heart” to be a functional person.

Feelings: trusted signals?

“Trust your feelings”–truth or fiction?

We’ve all heard this old adage. We use this phrase to urge others to act on gut feelings, usually suggesting that the recipient will “just know” the answer they need. These cultural underpinnings imply that actualized, emotionally healthy persons wisely let feelings be a guide.

Since my mind constantly locks onto these discrepancies in our use of language, I issue a hearty “who says?”

Sometimes, yes, we do want to trust our feelings. However, like so much of our thinking, this phrase is dangerous if we lock into feelings in a black and white way. Feelings aren’t always an indication of “Truth.” Feelings aren’t always effective guides. Take two of the most common feelings: guilt and anxiety.

In most cases, guilt is not factually-based in wrong-doing. Most of our guilt is driven by inaccurate beliefs, largely fueled by a powerful “should.” “I should be happy, I wanted this baby” when you’re overwhelmed by depression, grieving the freedom of pre-baby life. “I should spend more time on X,” when in actuality you find X boring–or you’re doing the best you can to allocate time to X. “I should feel thankful for Y,” when you’re overwhelmed by stress and having difficulty focusing on the positive. We plague ourselves with guilt for not feeling some prescribed way, rather than trusting a favorite adage of mental health professionals, i.e. that “feelings just are.” Maybe it’s ok to be where we are. Maybe we don’t need to second guess our experience.

Anxiety is an even more powerful signal that we seem to cast as reality. If I’m worried about something, we reason, there must be real danger. We give anxiety such power, translating the biochemical process of stress revving through our bodies as a signal to be heeded. Just like guilt, irrational beliefs (e.g. “it will be a catastrophe! Everything will be ruined!”) abound. Much of the time, worry and anxiety are based in conditioned responses. Our bodies habitually respond with this runaway action. As Rick Hanson says, maybe the tiger in the bushes isn’t really a tiger. We’re paying on that debt we may not owe. We’re anticipating future angst, to use a Bible verse (Matthew 6:34) shared with me this week: “Let the day’s own trouble be sufficient for the day.”

I preach (and try to practice myself) to first stop and evaluate, and then hopefully, to dismiss anxiety and guilt. Is this a real worry? Do I truly have anything to feel guilty about? Call it what it is: energy spent in a direction that is not necessary or helpful. “It’s just anxiety–not reality.” “I have no need to feel guilty–I’m doing the best that I can do.” Talk back to those feelings, saying what you would tell a friend. Offer yourself self-compassion, which I’ve taught for years as self-care, and now has credibility, with mention in The New York Times.

The majority of the time, there’s no magic message in anxiety and guilt. Let those feelings go.

P.S. on Perfection

I stumbled upon this quote from James Ishmail Ford, which shares one more thought about perfection as an achievable concept that already exists in reality:

“The world is perfect as it is. That’s the insight of the spiritual eye. Everything just as it is, is. No judgment, no second thought. Just this. And, and, and, at the very same time, it needs work. Lord, it needs work. That’s the other eye. Starving children, oppressions and exploitations of every sort, greed, hatred, and endless certainties all leading to small and great hurts, the suffering world crying out for justice, for mercy, for some action.”

Sums it up much more eloquently than I could. This clarifies how these two extremes really can and do coexist within us and our world, and we have responsibility to work for improvements therein.

Perfect is a given–Perfectionism, part 2

Perfectionism. The state of being perfect. In part one of this series on perfectionism, I referred to two definitions of perfectionism: 1) that perfection involves being disappointed in any aspect of our lives that is not exactly as we’d wish, vs. 2) a religious belief that moral or spiritual perfection exists within this human life. So which is it? Are we imperfect beings living imperfect lives, with the quest for perfection a crazy-making path? Or are we and our lives perfect already, just as we are? Makes my brain fuzzy, so I’m infusing a little philosophy into this blog today as I briefly explore the concepts underneath definition #2.

Not having much schooling in philosophy and/or Eastern religion, the idea that perfection already exists in the universe has been slow to dawn on me. Eons of writers, from Buddhists to Christians to atheist scientists, have expounded upon the idea that the universe represents perfection already, especially the perfection of nature. American author Alice Walker asserted “in nature, nothing is perfect and everything is perfect. Trees can be contorted, bent in weird ways, and they’re still beautiful.” Likewise, Walt Whitman exclaimed about the perfection of the universe, saying “All the things of the universe are perfect miracles, each as profound as any.” German mathemetician and philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz wrote that God (substitute higher power or source, if you wish) created the universe from infinite choices, saying “the actual world, as the result of all these claims, must be the most perfect possible.” Even fellow psychologist Wayne Dyer, Ph.D., much later to the table but inspired by the Tao Te Ching, writes “Everything is perfect in the universe – even your desire to improve it.”

Courtesy of Argonne National Laboratory on Flickr

These collective views suggest that the universe– and by definition, this includes it’s inhabitants and the progression of their lives– is already perfect. We can embrace this perfection, trusting that the overall plan of the universe is much bigger than our individual minds can comprehend. Who says our meager human brains have a handle on how things should be? In the words of Caroline Myss, “human logic is not divine logic.” At times, believing that “everything happens for a reason” and that all in our world is working out perfectly, the way it is meant to be, can open us up to feeling the boundless possibilities within ourselves. We are already perfect, even in human-scale imperfections.

Perhaps the distinction is big picture, world-view perfection, versus concrete Martha Stewartesque, perfectly-folded-napkins-on-the-exquisitely-dressed-holiday-table perfection. This philosophy says that we can take comfort and affirm our value in our implicit rightness of being and doing. The belief that, at any one moment, we are all doing the best that we can–flaws and all– has infused my entire practice of psychology. Even while it’s hard to apply sometimes in my own life. Remembering this in your daily life can be life-affirming: we’re all perfect, just as is.

Perfectionism is a bad thing? Fuzzy dichotomy #2

Fuzzy or prickly?

Perfectionism. According to the Free Dictionary, perfectionism is 1) a propensity for being displeased with anything that is not perfect or does not meet extremely high standards; and 2) a belief in certain religions that moral or spiritual perfection can be achieved before the soul has passed into the afterlife. So we want to be perfect, and can’t–or we already are? Sounds like a fuzzy dichotomy to me.

As a psychologist, I’ve tended to subscribe to the view that perfectionism is a) a bad thing, and b) unobtainable and unrealistic. With b) explaining a). In my book, Even June Cleaver Would Forget the Juice Box: Cut Yourself Some Slack (and Still Raise Great Kids) in the Age of Extreme Parenting, I challenged moms to let go of that drive to be perfect parents producing perfect kids living perfect lives. “Perfectly good mothering” is the healthy alternative I propose in the book, i.e., defining the best mom you can be, given your personal mix of strengths and weaknesses.

Research has shown that there are, in fact, different types of perfectionism. Self-oriented perfectionists (SOPs) have strict standards for themselves and are keenly motivated to attain perfection and avoid failure. SOPs critically evaluate their successes and failures, not letting themselves off the hook. Other-oriented perfectionists (OOPs) set unrealistic standards for others (e.g., partners, children, co-workers), and are likely to stringently evaluate how others measure up against those standards. This pattern of expecting others to perform doesn’t make relationships with OOPs very easy, and so would be considered maladaptive. Socially-prescribed perfectionists (SPPs) think others expect unrealistic performance from them. Certain that they can’t live up to the high standards they believe others hold, i.e., what a friend of mine dubbed “the magazine life.” SPPs worry that others evaluate them critically.

Whether perfectionism is maladaptive or adaptive in our lives may come down to two broad research dimensions of perfectionism:: positive strivings and maladaptive evaluation concerns. SOPs may not worry about how they are evaluated, but instead focus on the positive striving angle. This, in turn, leads them to great achievements. That the demands of OOPs foster tension in relationships is self-evident, and could fill a whole post. SPPs are definitely driven by worries that they will be evaluated poorly, and likely miss positive feedback, feeling never good enough.

Research backs up the idea that the drive to perfectionism in our daily lives is counter to mental health. Recently, new moms most at risk of developing postpartum depression and anxiety were those who suffered from socially-prescribed perfectionism. In other words, these women believed others expected them to be perfect: house clean, children and selves well-groomed and well-dressed. Sucked up into showing this perfect image to the world, and certain that they would fail, these women exhausted themselves given the realities of life with an infant.

As for one aspect of this fuzzy dichotomy, perfectionism seems to be adaptive only when it leads us to strive in positive ways, so that we set achievable standards for ourselves. If others expect–or we think others expect–too much from us, disappointment, negative evaluation, and even depression and anxiety can result. In the next post, I’ll explore more about the fuzz implied by part 2 of the definition in the first paragraph. Maybe this whole discussion is moot, because we are–and everything about the world in which we live is-already perfect.

Fuzzy dichotomies, #1

Expectations are the subject of the second new category of posts: fuzzy dichotomies. Fuzzy dichotomies are beliefs which seem infused with truth. But introduce another perspective and my brain is suddenly clogged with dryer lint. What seemed hard and fast, absolute good vs. bad, now calls for further elucidation–to avoid perpetuating a meme.

I’ve long preached realistic expectations as a more reliable path to happiness than pie-in-the-sky wishes. Expecting the unattainable, we end up disappointed. To protect ourselves, we expect nothing and are pleasantly surprised when expectations are exceeded. However, when we aim low, we may limit ourselves or others, living the subtle bigotry of low expectations. Setting our sights on the basement becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Most of us learned as mere babes to align hope with reality. This lesson often stemmed from a coveted toy, flaunted in Saturday morning commercials. Mine was a fashion doll that magically changed hair color, from blond to red to brunette, all in a 30 second TV pitch. Barbie be damned: I wanted that doll! My hopes were dashed on Christmas day. She had slippery white nylon hair, to be colored with the enclosed markers. To color each strand evenly, I draped her hair over my fingers, which were soon bright red or yellow. The doll’s hair was clown-like at best; not even close to the enticing natural shades on those smooth fake-hair swatches from Clairol color kits on store shelves. Washing her hair out to switch hues meant waiting for her hair to dry, or I’d have a runny mess akin to the tray of watercolors after a painting session. Sigh. I got clever and stuck her under the bonnet of the hairdryer (this was a generation ago, kids, no handheld blowdryers). The heat turned her silky hair to fuzz. Double sigh.

Working with postpartum families, reining in expectations became critical. We expect a brand new baby to fulfill our hearts’ desires. When the crying, breast engorgement, endless poop, and sleep deprivation hit, parenthood ranks tops on the list of failed expectations, staying there for many parents, as this recent article in New York Magazine relates. Parents with unrealistic expectations are most likely to suffer from postpartum depression. I became a zealot for the middle ground.

Reading about the power of positive thinking brought on the brain fog. Expectations are powerful in our health. And consider the perspective of Eastern philosophies. If we embrace what is, rather than yearning for what is not, we will achieve happiness. The Pearls before Swine characters speak up on this.

A recent Psychology Today article by Rebecca Webber looked at five principles endorsed by people who consider themselves lucky. These fortunate souls end up with exactly what they want, versus settling for a mishmash of reworked wishes. The ‘lucky ones,’ according to Webber, expect more, not less. Serendipitous individuals are open to possibility from all sides, saying “yes” to life rather than “no.” They define goals in very flexible, open terms, not strict, locked in criteria. They drift off the path, unearthing surprises. And they embrace failure as an inevitable part of the road to success.

It seems that the fuzz-clearing breeze lies in the specificity of our expectations. The more tightly we define a desire, cramming it with ‘shoulds,’ the greater our risk of disappointment. If we think the party will be ruined unless Glinda shows up, we might miss a wonderful conversation with Elphaba. Broadly expecting goodness, fun, or fulfillment, vs. evil, boredom, or disappointment, we find the positive is made manifest. Perhaps our expectations simply sway our perceptions. Or perhaps we influence the situation to reap desired rewards.

Challenge yourself to expect great things, a cornucopia of satisfaction, rather than honing in on one specific kernel of your dreams. Your chances of fulfillment may soar.