It’s the thought that counts

“It’s the thought that counts” is a popular phrase, used to extend the benefit of the doubt to others. Behavior CAN be less than stellar, but if intentions are good, we overlook minor transgressions. This is good. Relationships improve when we focus on the underlying well-meant effort, accepting that someone is simply human, busy, gave us an inappropriate gift, etc. Turn the phrase inward, however, and personal judgment rolls in. Women do this all the time, chastising themselves for perfectly normal, incredibly human thoughts. Thoughts like:

  • “I can’t stand this kid/partner/relative.” Guilt seems especially strong with thoughts about our children and mothers.
  • “I just want to run away.”
  • “I have everything I’ve ever wanted and my life still sucks.”
  • “I understand how parents throw a child against the wall.”
  • “I don’t care if I ever have sex again.”

Sometimes, it’s NOT the thought that counts. It’s the behavior. What counts is how we follow through, how we continue to love and care for others who frustrate us to the point of impersonating Edvard Munch’s “The Scream.” Go ahead–have a powerful internal scream. Embrace your truly human emotions. Cut yourself some slack about thoughts. Focus instead on actual behavior–big picture, over the long haul. You’ve thought of walking out of a store with your purchases rather than stand in a mile-long line, too. There’s nothing the matter with you, if you override thoughts and behave in the ways you aspire to, the majority of the time.

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.

The value of friends, part 2

You’ve heard me write–and rant (The Sanity Hour, 3/30/10)–about the importance of honest connection with friends for our happiness. Turns out that emotional well-being is not the only benefit.

Serendipitously, I discovered this relatively new blog, MWFseekingBFF, about the process of making female friends in a new city by Rachel Bertsche, an Oprah web producer in Chicago. I won’t repeat her post on the value of friendship for health–you can check it out here. My conviction to invest time in–and honestly connect with–my BFFs is strengthened once again, if doing so not only makes me happier but will extend my life while protecting me against dementia, colds, and insomnia. Rachel calls friendship “the miracle drug.” I declare that champagne and deep conversation with my girlfriends is way more fun than fish oil, curcumin, and broccoli! Bring on the book groups!

The Pearl Illusion

Time to tear off those pesky June Cleaver masks. Women work day in and day out to put up a good front. Not only is it exhausting to appear decked out in our pearls as we vacuum, but a new study shows that we’ll be happier through honest connection, engaging in depth with others, than when we chatter on at only surface level.

In research at the University of Arizona, the happiest people engaged in only one-third as much small talk as the unhappiest participants. Happy people engaged in twice as many substantive conversations, and spent 25 percent less time alone, than unhappy people. The link is well-documented between loneliness and depression. Even when I was in grad school thirty years ago, research was clear that feeling connected to others was a key factor for happiness and for health.

Women often battle the urge to conceal their troubles, rather than speak honestly about the challenging, tedious parts of their lives. Why invest so much energy in projecting the image that we’ve “got it all together?”

1) We secretly suspect that we’re the only one for whom it’s hard. Everyone else has twenty balls in the air and a smile on her face. We think “there must be something the matter with me,” as another ball goes careening out of reach. “If I were only stronger, smarter, more organized, a better multitasker. If everyone else’s life is smooth, it must be me who is defective, weak, or less than.”
2) We are certain others don’t want to hear us kvetch. Complaining is not attractive. People will tire of it, shy away, judge, or label the complainer as a downer or even a bitch.

Straight thinking is helpful. Is everyone else truly surfing breezily through the stresses in their lives? Are you the only woman out of 82.8 million who forgot her pearls today? Really? Are you accurately judging the ratio of calm versus chaos that you are expressing? Is 100% of your conversation constantly stewed in negativity?

Aim for moderation and middle ground. Yes, perhaps, if all you ever do is bitch, others might tune you out. I believe most women err on the side of minimizing life’s thorns, blocking honest communication and connection, than on spewing complaints 168 hours a week. Besides, it’s not the complaining that drives others away. Listeners shy away if they feel uncomfortable with the topic, or when the complainer doesn’t listen to suggestions, can’t be consoled, or goes on like a CD on repeat, ignoring possible remedies. If a friend is interested and listens, we need to honor her efforts with action on our problems.

I find that a simple expression of “poor baby” is incredibly helpful. When we kvetch, we validate each other. We empower our friends by saying “I get it, I know where you’re coming from.” We feel less alone and less defective.

Remember, June Cleaver only had to parent 20 minutes per week. She had no carpools to drive and no boss-imposed deadlines for her pies or her dusting. We feel better when we acknowledge that life is hard for women in this century–maybe the challenges are different than in previous generations, but hard nevertheless. None of us is perfect. All of us have trials. There’s nothing the matter with me–I’m just part of the whole race of women, tromping through the overkill of daily demands. When we connect through honesty, we feel happier, less alone, and healthier, too.

The broken libido link

So which would you rather live without? Cake or sex?

A friend sent me this Hallmark ShoeBoxcard. (Visit a Hallmark store today.)

Women’s missing libido is legendary. Consider the accepted “fact:: men think about sex every seven seconds; women think about sex seven times a year. There’s the classic bit from Woody Allen’s Annie Hall. Annie and Woody’s character, Alvy, each tell the therapist that they have sex 2-3 times per week. Alvy labels this “hardly ever, never.” Annie says that it’s “all the time.” Books lament today’s sexless marriages.

The problem lies in expectations –and unquestioning acceptance– that a woman’s libido goes missing in action for years. Sex drive drops as work demands pile up. Children come along, constantly tugging, clinging, and creating mommy “touch fatigue.” Sometimes, women believe “mothers don’t do those things.” Fluctuating hormones take a toll, with breastfeeding, perimenopause, and menopause. Not to mention when women are constantly running on empty and even simple self-renewal like sleep, exercise, or fun stays on the bottom of the list for weeks on end.

Women can reclaim this most basic need by tuning into the benefits. Feelings of closeness to your partner rise with levels of the hormone oxytocin, which jumps to five times normal levels. Oxytocin increases drowsiness, easing sleep. Research has shown that orgasm releases endorphins, like a runner’s high, relieving pain of cramps and headaches. Endorphins boost mood and ease PMS irritability, too. Finally, the neurotransmitter dopamine rises, enhancing lust and the relaxation response. This explains why libido is enhanced by an active sex life. “Use it or lose it” is not a myth.

Acknowledging the benefits encourages us to put satisfying sex back on the list ,for ourselves, not just to assuage our fears of a wandering partner. But how to rebuild the missing link?

Cynthia Kling in A Bitch in the House nails it: “eventually the pure animal rutting feeling stops rising out of your depths, and that’s when you need … your brain to take over and bring it back.” Plan to ignite that sleepy part of your brain by simply allowing yourself to think about sex.

Read a sexy novel. Watch artfully crafted sex scenes in a movie –no porn required. Sex scenes are often labeled “gratuitous sex,” designed to lure young movie-goers. Who says we can’t enjoy them –if we allow ourselves to embrace this basic human response.

Then make time for sex, by handing over household/childcare chores, a carrot on a stick, to that hopefully willing partner. Young moms, in particular, can delegate bedtime rituals to dad for at least one night. Take the free time to relax in the tub, daydream, delve into erotica. Brent Bost, MD, author of The Hurried Woman, affirms it: the best aphrodisiac in the world is a man with a vacuum cleaner.

The Tiger Affair

The Tiger Woods affairs and his confessed sense of entitlement have revved up an ugly old myth: “if I’m not satisfying my man, he’ll look elsewhere.” Low level, anxiety-provoking brain chatter for many women goes likes this: “Keep the sex lively, or at least frequent, or he’ll stray. He’s only a man. Men have needs. My man’s needs are my job.”

The pressure of this expectation can be as tight around the loins as too tight control top pantyhose. (I love the line from “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.” The mother of the bride shrieks to her sister, heading to the store to buy pantyhose. “But not queen size. They make me look fat!”) The expectation that a good woman satisfies her man leads right into blaming the woman if her man has an affair.

When couples show up in the therapist’s office after he has committed a Tiger, inevitably he is penitent about straying and she is equally penitent about neglecting him. Nearly 100% of the time, in her head the “shoulds” and “if onlys” abound. “I should have enjoyed sex more.” “If only I was less tired.” This puts men into the category of one more person women need to take care of –and/or police. Not equal partners in a relationship, both committed to preserving that imperfect union.

This blaming stance is an outdated view. Personal responsibility comes first. If either party is dissatisfied with how needs are met — or not –in the relationship, it is that individual’s job to address the problem in the relationship. Problem= no sex? Not enough sex? Not the right kind of sex? Talk about it together. No emotional connection? Feeling neglected, secondary to kids or other life demands? Solve it within the context of the relationship.

In Tiger’s apology last week, he rightly claimed total responsibility for his behavior. When cheating occurs, physical or emotional, it is the sole responsibility of the cheater. Not the wounded party. Women need not blame themselves if the problem was never offered up as something to solve. No blame game. (See caveat #2.)

Differentiate sins of omission from sins of commission. He strayed because he made a bad decision about how to solve his unhappiness or his horniness–NOT because she was too busy, too tired, or too angry for sex. The cheater made a choice and wasn’t “driven to it.” A couple may need to solve underlying issues, but responsibility for the transgression still falls with the cheater.

Caveat #1: The above assumes an unfaithful “he,” because women frequently fall into blaming themselves if their significant other strays. I don’t know how commonly men blame themselves if she cheats. Women are unfaithful in lesser percentages than men.

Caveat #2: Exceptions exist. Sometimes, la Scarlett and Rhett, she banishes him from the bedroom, declaring “I don’t care about sex — or you — just leave me alone.” With this action, it’s arguable that Scarlett has relinquished the right to complain about Belle Watling.

What about women and sex? Why does sex end up last on the list? Tune into the next blog for an exploration.