Ruly Bookshelf: Be Happy Without Being Perfect

For some professional insight on perfectionism, this month’s Ruly Bookshelf choice is “Be Happy Without Being Perfect” by Alice D. Domar, Ph.D. and Alice Lesch Kelly. Dr. Domar is a cognitive therapist who has counseled numerous women about perfectionism. The book discusses what perfectionism is, including a perfectionism quiz, and then addresses how perfection manifests itself in a variety of situations, including beauty and appearance, cleanliness, work, relationships and decision-making.

The book contains personal anecdotes from women struggling with perfectionism as well as professional advice about how to restructure your perfectionist thinking. Dr. Domar admits that she is a bit of a perfectionist in some areas and that she is a work in progress herself with regard to coping with perfectionism.

I learned a lot about perfectionism from this book, primarily how to recognize the signs of perfectionism. Now that I better understand what perfectionism is, I see it everywhere! As I was reading through the numerous examples in the book, I saw myself, my husband, my family and friends, even advertising messages, business practices, fictional characters, and people I hardly know. We all exhibit at least some perfectionist characteristics.

There are two key concepts that stuck with me from this book. The first is about control.

Perfectionism is an act of control . . . Let me tell you–every iota of stress, everything that brings people to psychologists’ offices is related to a feeling of being out of control. Some people tolerate a lack of control; perfectionists feel overwhelmed by it.

–Alice D. Domar, Ph.D., Be Happy Without Being Perfect

Perfectionism as an adaptation to out-of-control situations makes a lot of sense. You cannot control some aspects of your life so you therefore hyper-focus on the areas that you can. Some perfectionists in effect construct an elaborate mask to hide underlying problems. For women in particular, Dr. Domar indicates that perfectionism in the home setting is a most telling indicator.

“[P]erfectionism causes more trouble at home than almost everywhere else. What it all comes down to is control. The more a woman is feeling out of control elsewhere in her life, the more control she tries to exert at home. Perhaps she can’t control her work, her husband, her kids, her health — but she can darn well make sure there’s no cat hair on the draperies.”
. . .

“Perfectionism at home sets you right in the middle of a vicious cycle. You long for peace and order, but you can’t relax until the dishwasher is unloaded and the trash is taken out. No matter how hard you work, the to-do list never ends. The more you chase the unattainable goal of perfection at home, the more stressed you become.”

–Alice D. Domar, Ph.D., Be Happy Without Being Perfect

On the subject of cleanliness and organization, I am sorry to report that Dr. Domar indicates she has perfectionist tendencies in this area. She joins the voices that essentially say that there are minimum limits of tidiness that everyone must adhere to. The problem I have with this message is not that I disagree that there is a limit between health hazards and tidiness but that no one ever defines where that limit is. Therefore, we all continue to feel a sense of shame that we will never be clean or organized enough.

The other key concept I learned from Dr. Domar about perfectionism is that perfectionists are “black-and-white thinkers.” Dr. Domar defines black-and-white thinking as an “all or nothing” approach. For example, someone might say “I will either make my bed every morning or I will never make it at all.” A black-and-white thinker isn’t satisfied with a halfway or compromise approach. This type of thinking manifests itself in many ways, including parenting.

“The most common cognitive distortion among perfectionist parents is black-and-white thinking . . . with black-and-white thinking there are only two ways to do things: your way and the wrong way.

–Alice D. Domar, Ph.D., Be Happy Without Being Perfect

The next time you read advice (including advice here at Ruly!) keep black-and-white thinking in mind. Is the advice really showing a perfectionist tendency? Is there a compromise position that will work better for you?

Some of the other eye-opening quotes from this book are:

“The ‘baby step’ approach is the complete opposite of what perfectionists are usually drawn to. We perfectionists don’t like baby steps–we like big giant leaps! . . . People who take baby steps can eventually run marathons. They can lose dozens of pounds but it take time and patience, two skills that tend to be in short supply among perfectionists.”

“Most perfectionists are so accustomed to blaming themselves for things that it is a natural reaction when just about anything goes wrong.”

“Perfectionists are famous for making very uneven comparisons [between themselves and others. For example, a perfectionist might compare herself to Martha Stewart rather than the average mom.]”

“[Perfectionists] tend to interpret remarks in the worst possible way.”

“Perfectionists tend to have unrealistically high expectations of others and feel that others have unrealistically high expectations of them.”

“Perfectionists like routine . . . .”

–Alice D. Domar, Ph.D., Be Happy Without Being Perfect

My only complaint about this book is that it focuses exclusively on women and some of the chapters seem to perpetuate a stereotype that all women are perfectionists and all men are not. The book would be a little more interesting if male perfectionist tendencies were also addressed. Perfectionism is not just a female problem.

Women will get a lot out of Dr. Domar’s book, particularly an understanding of where all these perfectionism tendencies are coming from.  I highly recommend it!

Next week, we will discuss a book that explores the opposite approach of Dr. Domar’s book. Stay tuned. Back on Friday with the Ruly Mix!