How to Spot Toxic Perfectionism

Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

Brene Brown talks about living in a culture where we are expected to be perfect, and what it’s like to be our own worst enemy. There is a lot of change happening between generations, and I am seeing a lot of hope within that change. I am seeing people embracing natural hair, acceptance of all body types, no or minimal makeup, body hair, skipping college debt, and talking about race. In other words, slowly a younger generation is saying it’s okay to be you, warts and all.

However, we all have an inner critic to contend with, even if the culture around is starting to accept individual differences. This inner critic can be a “drama queen”, telling us how bad everything is going to be, why we shouldn’t even try, and a host of other lies. The inner critic can be so convincing that it’s hard to step back and realize that these thoughts are not true. It’s so much easier to be negative and hard on yourself than to believe that good things are possible and it’s okay to be vulnerable and fail every once in a while. The following are a few ways to spot when the inner critic has gone too far and taken over your life:

Signs of Toxic Perfectionism

-Nothing is ever good enough.

-You are sure you will fail, so you don’t even begin something.

-You spend way too much money on trying to impress other people.

-You don’t feel good about yourself and wish you could be someone else.

-You berate others for not living up to your own standards.

-You suffer from anxiety and experience stress when called upon to perform.

-You have a hard time making a choice, constantly fearing you are making the wrong choice.

-You put yourself down, before other people can (and you are sure they will, even if evidence is to the contrary.)

-You can’t accept compliments.

-You are irritated or embarrassed by other people’s vulnerabilities and flaws.

-You are constantly measuring yourself and comparing yourself to other people.

-Putting on an appearance of being someone you are not.

-You see things in black and white.

-You place your self-worth in what other people say about you.

Toxic perfectionism can often be a result of emotional abuse, neglect, trauma, culture, social or academic settings, or growing up with narcissistic, or emotionally immature parents. It’s important to realize that we all struggle with an inner critic, even people who seem put together. Find someone that you trust to share your struggles with, so you don’t have to fight your battles alone. Perfectionistic habits can be hard to break, but learning to be okay with yourself is a reward in itself.

How Does Trauma Lead to Anxiety?

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

Anxiety is a pretty common symptom of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. In fact, research has shown that most anxiety is caused by some type of trauma. If someone has gone through a serious trauma, the brain goes into hyper-alert mode, even months or years after the traumatic event took place.

The amygdala, a small part of our brain that alerts us to danger becomes over active. When even small events that remind us of the trauma or seemingly unrelated occurrences happen, the amygdala hijacks our brain, disrupting the connection to our prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that helps us be logical, strategize, assess for real danger, and plan. Instead our limbic system gets stuck playing the same tune and it becomes hard for us to think critically, take action, and unfreeze our brain.

Anxiety has a way of taking over our life. The first way to address anxiety is to be able to identify what it looks like.

Symptoms of Anxiety

  • Avoiding people or places
  • Isolation
  • High blood pressure
  • Hypervigilance
  • Becoming easily startled
  • Emotional volatility
  • Negative or unrealistic thoughts
  • Headaches
  • Overloaded schedule
  • Fatigue
  • Feeling numb

If you suffer from anxiety, it’s good to get help. Whether you read a book on anxiety, talk to a friend, or seek therapy there are a variety of ways to reduce or even eliminate anxiety from your life.

Fall Musings

cozy picture of feet on wooden deck with leaves, blanket, coffee, a book and pumpkin
Photo by Alex Geerts on Unsplash

Fall is a season of change, of loss, of letting go. This year it feels like fall has happened already, again and again. We have lost our normal lives, our ability to feel comfortable in the normal actions we used to take for granted. There is an increase in anxiety, grief, and what will later be understood as societal trauma, not unlike that of the Great Depression.

The great question is, “Where do we go from here?” We can’t predict with certainty what will happen in politics, schools, health, or jobs. We can however, look to what we can know. We can reach out to each other (even if not literally, even if only over a screen) and be there for each other. We can ask for help. We are not alone, even if it seems like it.

We can take this extra time to reexamine our lives and our priorities. Often it’s easy to ignore our problems when we have places to go and things to do. Now is a time for healing and growth.

It’s also a great time to take risks and change things up a bit. When everything is different, it’s a good time to get a new perspective on life and try new things.

Enjoy the small moments. No matter what happens, beauty is all around us, if we can take the time to savor it.

When Helping is Not Helping

It’s great to be able to help a friend, neighbor, or family member in a time of need. If you have ever been the recipient of a home-baked meal during a family emergency, a gift card when you lost your job, or strangers offering to fix your flat tire (it happened to me in college in the winter), you know how good it feels to have your faith in humanity restored and know that even if just for a little bit, things are going to be okay. You are going to survive for another day.

The evil twin of helping is enabling. It’s favorite disguise is good will and perfectionism. You see, from a young age children slowly and with lots of mistakes learn to do things on their own. In healthy parenting, parents allow their children to explore (within reason), try new things (according to their age level and risk), and take on projects. Parents can challenge their children to do their developmental best, thus letting them know that they believe in them.

Photo by sydney Rae on Unsplash

When my daughter was younger, I saw too many parents on the playground not letting them go down the slide by themselves, not letting them experience the soothing and balancing effects of nature (mud, wind, rain, etc), not letting their babies cry even for moment as they turned away for a minute, pacifying their toddlers with screen distractions, and not letting their babies experience the effects of gravity as they tried learning to walk on soft grass. In other words, enabling starts at a young age.

The effect of enabling is crippling. In adulthood, it leads to lack of confidence, anxiety, anger issues, depression, lack of motivation, panic attacks, and poverty. When people are constantly told, “You can’t do this, you need my help,” through other people’s words and actions, there are a variety of responses. Some turn to anger and acting out as a way to put up walls and fiercely protect their natural need for independence. Others feel lost and helpless, so they learn to manipulate others into doing things for them, all the while suffering from depression and low self-esteem. They are really good at looking like helpless victim because that is the role they were taught from a young age. Other people may internalize and believe that they are indeed helpless. This can lead to a variety of mental health problems including OCD, bipolar disorder, and dependent personality disorder all based on an intense need to get real needs met in unhealthy ways, resulting in feelings of helplessness, loss of control, and interpersonal problems.

If you have been an enabler, it is never too late to turn to healthier ways of helping. Focus first on self-care for yourself, and acknowledge the effects of enabling. Find ways to achieve balance in your life, and how to truly build up others in a way that acknowledges human freedom and capability and does not deplete or diminish you or the person receiving your help.

If you have been shackled by the chains of enabling by others in your life, it’s never too late to find your freedom. Learn to set good boundaries and say no. Develop healthy social relationships with others who respect your free will. Take credit for the hard work that you put into developing yourself. Set achievable goals for yourself, and don’t be afraid to ask for help when you are ready, from the right people.

What to Do When You Have a Narcissistic Family Member

I wrote this post to help people struggling with how to survive and thrive around narcissistic family members. There is so much more I could say on this topic, but I wrote this last-minute after spending many days staying up late working on an application for contract work. Maybe more to come…

Why the Rescuer is So Dangerous

My husband is a fire fighter. He can tell you in detail about all the training required before you can even go on your first call. Being trained as a firefighter is not enough to perform a rescue. You need to be paged out, have the proper equipment, and follow proper protocol. Above all else, the fire-fighter must ensure his or her own safety before helping others. If he doesn’t, it could cost not only his own life, but that of his teammates, and people in need of rescue.

Photo by Neil Thomas on Unsplash

There is a different type of rescuer in psychology, one of the three roles established by Stephen Karpman that allow for dysfunctional drama to continue. The other two roles are persecutor and victim. Working in social services and being a licensed foster parent, I see the rescuer and the harm that he or she does a lot.

Sometimes it is a local teacher, neighbor, friend who takes a youth into their home, not realizing that the youth’s declaration of victimhood fit perfectly into Karpman’s victim role, and was not a legitimate claim of abuse, danger, etc. but rather a reaction to parent’s request to get along with family members, avoid drugs and alcohol, follow curfew, do chores, etc. This type of rescuer does the same act again and again, and can often have a saintly status in the community, using their title as teacher, mentor, etc. while the youth’s parents suffer the stigma and shame of having the lies told about them spread around by the rescuer, the victim (youth), and other community members. Instead of taking the time to communicate with all parties involved (the truth comes out eventually), and get to the root of what is happening, the rescuer enjoys the thrill of “saving” their “victim.” What really happens is that the “victim” finds another way to avoid accountability, using the community as a group weapon against their parents, who are now cast in the unenviable role of perpetrators. The rescuer enables the victimhood, keeping them trapped in a “helpless” loop, rather than finding a sustainable, positive solution for all parties involved.

In foster care, the rescuer can be one of the foster parents, social workers, relatives that appear out of the blue, etc. They take temporary, but dramatic measures that appear to be for the good of the foster child, but often end up making their lives worse when a better solution would have involved moderation, patience, and foresight. The rescuers use the foster children as leverage to get their own needs met and often devalue anyone who gets in the way of their destructive rescuing efforts.

I want to add a caveat here. Sometimes when a child is suffering from abuse or major neglect, someone brave will step in and help the child while authorities are called and a plan is made for the child’s well-being. This is not the type of rescuer Karpman was talking about. It is someone who is doing the right thing while being responsible and communicating with the authorities who can then apply their knowledge and skill to help a child that is in danger. When a child is truly in danger, one has to take their word for it and contact the proper authorities who can then sort out what is really going on. If you live in Washington State and suspect child abuse or neglect, call 1-866-END-HARM, or the local child abuse hotline for your state.

Signs of a destructive rescuer

The following are a list of red flags to watch out for and help you identify if someone is a professional “rescuer” a la Karpman:

  • Long-term results for victim do not result in an improved situation.
  • The rescuer does the same type of rescuing on a regular basis.
  • The victim’s behavior and helplessness deteriorate after being “helped” by rescuer.
  • The spotlight is on the rescuer.
  • There is a dangerous lack of communication on the part of the rescuer.
  • The rescuer is very selective about what they say and who they say it to.
  • Watch out for bulldozing in the rescue attempts and afterward by the rescuer. This can come in the form of excuses, casting shame on anyone who attempts to resolve the situation, or the supposed perpetrators who have now been silenced.
  • Look out for group bullying from the rescuer and his or her “flying monkeys” after the rescue.
  • Rescues are generally short-term and ineffective, leaving everyone else to pick up the pieces afterwards.
  • If a rescue feels like a distraction, rather than a resolution, it probably is.
  • Inappropriate boundaries between the rescuer and victim exist.
  • Rescuers make decisions for the victim, rather than believing that the victim can make his or her own choices to solve their own problems.
  • The rescuer tends to overlook important facts and focuses on purely emotions instead.
  • The rescuer has a lot of pretty large problems in his or her own life which can be easily neglected while assuming the rescuer role.
  • Rescuers forego their own needs and self-care, resulting in continuous stress and burnout.

The roles of rescuer, victim, and perpetrator are learned in their family-of-origin. If you think you might fall into one of the roles, don’t be too harsh on yourself. Instead find a good counselor to talk to and find healthier ways of relating with other people. If you are affected by the negative consequences of a professional “rescuer” seek help for yourself in setting boundaries, taking care of yourself, and finding healthy resolution. Even though rescuing can seem admirable, when it’s not done the right way, it can result in a lot of negative, long-term damage to everyone involved.

Summertime Activities During a Pandemic

July has only begun and the summer doldrums have hit us hard. How do I know? Here are some signs at our house:

  • A certain member of our household gets very excited and has a somewhat dreamy look in her eye when the library is open for picking up book holds.
  • That same member of our household complains about the lack of available snacks when the usual crowd-pleasers have lost their snack status.
  • That same person talks dreamily about her friends in California and even looks up our former place on Google Maps.
  • That same person checks out the same tie-dyed masks on Etsy several times a day, but has very little to say at lunch or dinner time.
  • Mom guilt is real, raw, and nagging at my heart multiple times a day as I dream of the days when we could just get together with friends, screens were considered a treat, and summer camp was glorious for everyone.
  • A certain member of the household emerges just long enough to complain about politics.
  • A certain other member wonders if internet addiction still counts as an addiction during a pandemic.
Photo by Tonny Tran on Unsplash

It’s hard to stay motivated during a pandemic. It’s not uncommon to feel symptoms of depression, anxiety, boredom, and stress during these difficult times. Here are a few ideas for keeping yourself and your family entertained, even if only for a little while:

  • Come up with a fun or quirky hobby: For a while, we would check out houses for sale and drive past them. It got us out of the house, my daughter loved talking about the pluses and negatives of each place, and we got to know our island a little better.
  • Clean up: Little by little, I have been tidying up our place and sending stuff to the thrift store, now that it is finally open. It’s a nice break in between working on business stuff.
  • Exercise: Ever since having a really bad health scare and the weight I gained from working too much in a sedentary job, I have really enjoyed taking back my health and getting outside.
  • Audio books are great for the whole family: I listen to inspirational and self-help books on Audible on my daily walk. My daughter and I are listening to Lord of the Rings while we do laundry or art together.
  • Try out new recipes: I found a grill for sale and our whole family has been enjoying grilling all sorts of items. I have also taken advantage of this time to share some of my recipes from my hometown with my daughter. She even took the time to learn how to make conchas herself! I was very impressed and proud.
  • Watch funny or silly videos together: All around us is a lot of negativity – from statistics about people dying from coronavirus, people who have lost their jobs, people killed because of the color of their skin, riots across the country, etc. It is important that we know what is going on, and do what we can to help. At the same time, we need to take time for ourselves to recharge and cope. Humor and entertainment help us get through the dark times and keep going.
  • Reach out to old friends: One of the real blessings in all of this is that I have reconnected with a lot of old friends and made some new ones as well. Call someone up, write them a letter, join a Zoom meeting.

Does anyone else have any ideas they can add? I would love to hear from others how they are surviving the shutdown this summer.

Cleaning Versus Therapy

caution cleaning signs

As I have been catching up on the clutter at home during the pandemic, I can’t help but think how the process and the results of deep cleaning are similar to what happens when a person goes to therapy. I don’t know if you are anything like me, but I simultaneously love cleaning and hate it. I hate cleaning when I have a million other tasks that call my attention. However, if you want to show your love for me, tell me that I can drop everything else and clean, and I transform into a household goddess/Zen monk as I work my magic slowly examining each area of the house, focusing on one thing at a time (or sometimes going back and forth between different projects) and enjoying the results and the discoveries made in the process. And you also earn my unending gratitude.

Like therapy, we often resist going. We all have a lot of excuses that are so logical, convincing, etc. We don’t have the money, the time, our problems aren’t that important, there are other more important things, we can figure it out ourselves. Trust me, as a therapist, I’ve heard and probably said those same excuses myself many a time. As Theodore Roosevelt said, “The credit belongs to the man in the arena.” It is a process and a decision to step into the arena of therapy, but until we do so, we go nowhere and keep spinning our wheels fighting the same unconquerable fights.

When I was in Spain, I saw a live bullfight. As a sensitive person who can’t stand watching actors even get pretend hurt on TV, it took a lot for me to attend, but I wanted to show my respect for the Spanish culture. What I saw was very entrancing, even if hard to watch. A bullfighter knows the bull and respects it. I watched as the bullfighter came close to the bull, then led it in a different direction when it got too worked up or the prodding became too much. Then the bullfighter would back away. It was like a beautiful, painful dance between man and bull, fraught with danger and a great vulnerability on the part of both. When we enter into a therapy session, we allow ourselves to be like the bull, prodded and poked in painful areas. When things get too difficult, we are led in a different direction, and eventually we leave the arena, a little bit stronger as we have faced our vulnerable side and come out better and stronger than before.

Cleaning too, can be onerous and time-consuming. It often seems better to just leave things as they are and not worry about doing anything more. When I was working a 40-hour job, it was simply a matter of survival. However, when we really take the time to do a deep clean, we can find not just the nitty-gritties, but also beautiful, long-forgotten treasures and maybe some shining new discoveries as well. As I was clearing out bookshelves and bins full of holiday items, I discovered little pieces of paper, candy wrappers that my kids had tucked away in various corners, broken pieces of plastic toys, short little bits of yarn, etc. In therapy, we bring out a lot of our own “nitty-gritties” the flailing distractions that keep us from looking at what is going on. They are the presenting arguments, the dramatic flair, the false cognitions we have, the stories passed on to us by our family, our community that keep us down and keep us from being our best selves. A good therapist will help us take the time to find the nitty-gritties and show us where the proper waste receptacle is for such things that deplete us and make us avoid living our life to our fullest.

What many people who have never experienced therapy don’t realize is that when you take the time and make some space in your life for self-examination, there are many great treasures to be discovered. As I was cleaning out my bookshelf, I found a grease-stained lined white paper with writing on it. On further examination, I saw a handwritten recipe for my husband’s famous Kung-Pao recipe that has brought joy and delight to many members of our household, friends, and extended family. That day, I decided not to let it sit on a bookshelf any longer, but wrote it down in a computer and made a copy for my recipe binder. It is a recipe that I will always cherish as much as I cherish the creator of that recipe and look forward to passing it on to my children. In therapy, we should find not only areas of improvement, but the good parts too, the valuable stories and strengths that were just waiting to be found, if we only take the time to look.

Cleaning Up

In grad school, I wrote a thesis on hoarding. One thing I learned in my research is that cleaning is an emotional process. For people who hoard, letting go of an item isn’t just letting go of an item. It means letting go of possibilities, trading low anxiety for high anxiety, and that feeling of known comfort versus the scary unknown.

A lot of people are cleaning up right now during this pandemic. Overall, everyone wants to be more clean with a pandemic going on. It’s been hard finding soap and other cleaning items on the shelves here on the island. People are spending lots of time at home and tackling projects that have been neglected for a while – tidying up, painting, gardening, etc.

woman folding clothes
Photo by Sarah Brown on Unsplash

Here at our own house, I am enjoying the process of letting go of not just things, but what they represented. I can’t help but smile at the thought of what I learned from my college research as I too faced my own struggles of letting go. Like most houses on the island, space is limited and we don’t have a garage. As a foster parent, I had this idea that I should keep as many clothes as I can for future foster kids. However, my last foster child turned up her nose at all used clothes, clung passionately to her way-too-small-for-her and stained clothes rather than wear clothes that were comfortable, albeit gently used.

I think in many ways, we are all like her in different areas of our lives. How many of us want to cling to what we know, even if it doesn’t fit us anymore? In the book, Business Boutique, Christy Wright quotes Suzy Kassem, “Fear kills more dreams than failure ever will.” We are afraid to try new things, or invest in ourselves or our dreams because there is always the possibility of failure. No matter how well you do, or how many mountains you climb, failure is always available and we can’t always predict when or how it will show up. So many people stick with what is known, even if it doesn’t work or feels uncomfortable. It somehow feels safer. The truth is that failure is very painful, but it is worth the risk.

What dreams have you held back on because you worried that you might fail?

What have you always wished that you could do?

What are some obstacles that keep happening again and again in your life?

I realized in the end, that I was not just hanging onto clothes for their own sake, but holding on to the hope of having more kids. I was able to gladly pile up bags of clothes for the thrift store when I told myself that my ability to have more children was not dependent on the amount or type of clothes I had available for them. Besides they might be like my last foster child, and insist on dirty and too small clothes. And given everything that foster children go through, I can understand and respect that they might have their reasons for clinging to what is known until they want something better. When that time happens, we can explore options together.

The Power of Choice

Photo by Jordan Whitt on Unsplash

One thing I like to remind parents is that when nothing else works and you have been trying hard, try giving your child a choice. Sometimes in our desire to help our children or accomplish an objective we forget that we are dealing with small beings who have their own feelings, wishes, and needs. And if our children have experienced some trauma in their life, the ability to handle stress and decision-making is that much harder. Giving children a choice let’s them know that they matter, that you believe they can make good decisions, and you respect their free will.

Giving children a choice does not mean free reign, or having a choice over everything. When children hurt themselves or others, we have to step in and correct and build up our children. However when we say to a child, “Are you going to fill out your job application Thursday or Saturday” we are saying that we believe they will make a right choice, but it’s up to them when they will do what needs to be done. A lot of teenagers I work with say how much they hate when their parents nag them. I think offering them a choice of how or when they do the dreaded task can help to avoid the repetitive questioning from parents and gives them a chance to shine.