I have banned the word should from my vocabulary for the sake of my mental health. We grow up with so many ‘should dos’ that when we get to adult age, the pressure switch is permanently on.
When my therapist first said ‘your problem is that you are a perfectionist’, I honestly thought this whole therapy thing might be overrated. I really did not need someone to tell me something I already knew. And something I was even proud of. I was not one of those kids that used perfectionist as one of the shortcomings examples in an interview. For me, it was a quality. As I should.
The Background: why I should be perfect
I don’t remember when I became a perfectionist. As as cancer sign holder, I always remember being a people pleaser. I hated conflict (I still do) and always found the best way to avoid it was to keep people happy. Yes, I have learnt better now.
I grew up with an older sister that was (and is) a superstar – she was intelligent, smart, beautiful and very social. And she always had a personality. On my side, I always saw myself as an ugly duck. The one with glasses since age 2, the one with braces in teenage-hood, the one that did not care much about how I dressed, the one less keen to shine (other than in school), the one that should not bother others.
I remember my mum telling me that I should keep my head high when I walked to project confidence, even when I did not feel it. I don’t remember the age. It’s not like anyone ever tried to make me feel that, I guess it just came with the package. In fact, this same sister is to this day my greatest supporter.
School: where I should be perfect
The thing I was certain and proud of was school. I excelled in all my subjects (ok, perhaps not in arts). I was part of all the sports teams. And I was always involved in all school plays, often as a writer or narrator. I should be able to excel at everything.
The only thing I could not do in school was to withstand piano auditions with the parents. That was an early sign. I also could not bear someone listening when I practised. Because it was not perfect. I should be able to practise enough to be perfect.
But so far that is all kind of good? No question. They say a key piece of someone’s success is having role models, and I certainly had one in my sister.
In addition, I had a father whose only reply to any grade that I had was to ask if anyone had a higher mark and why. He did not tell me off, he would just ask that question. He could not tell me off, as I always had straight As at everything. But it was always clear excelling was the expected. I should be the best in my class.
Until one day I had a C and he said I finally had a grade like this. I don't think I have yet accepted finding that out!
Years later, when I got into Harvard and he asked me to reconsider moving to the US, I explained in a sort of joking mode that it was his fault. I could in no way say no. Even though I never had the aspiration of going, I was in, and giving up on it was not an option. This was the peak of any perfectionist, after 3 years working for a top-notch investment bank. I should go to Harvard.
Truth be said, I loved it. All of it – the school, M&A, HBS. So again, being a perfectionist was only good for me. I should be happy about it.
Motherhood: the ultimate (im)perfection
When I reached motherhood, the word should really took over. It was not sleep-deprivation, as I had years of experience with that. It was not having difficult children or too many in one go. Little Girl C was a sole child for 4 years and until that age mostly a loving and sweet child, with her personality naturally. I should have been ok.
But by then, I should be perfect at one thing too much. There was really no longer perfect – it was all about great, but great is so vague. I thought by aiming at great and not perfect I was compromising. But the truth is, my brain did not know what great meant, other than half an inch away from perfection.
- I should be great at work, because why would I not continue to be a top performer if I was working the same hours in the same team;
- I should be a great wife, maintaining a happy healthy marriage, dedicating time to my husband and maintaining a beautiful loving relationship;
- I should be a great sister, daughter, friend, keeping long lasting meaningful relationships with the people that were always there for me;
- I should be a great charity worker, continuing to keep my charity’s leadership and intense evening working hours without a doubt;
- I should be a great housewife, keeping everything together, paying bills, doing admin, managing the home, the nanny and the schools, maintaining nutritious menus and plenty of children activities
- And the most difficult of all, I should be a perfect mother, always want to be with my children, always caring for them, attending to their every need, be there for every moment. Oh, and never shout.
Scorecard: what you should know
You can imagine how I did at this shopping list of impossibilities in the same person. I was most of the times a B, with occasional As. I was even not too bad at most times. But that is not what it felt like. I started feeling like I failed everyone and at everything. That I was not good enough for anything. Like I had become a fraud.
Maybe I was not going to be a good mother after all.
Maybe I could not keep valuing my work so much.
Maybe I could not keep my charity.
Maybe I was no longer a good friend.
Maybe… maybe… maybe…
For New Year’s Eve 2015, my good friend Shilpa came to me in the middle of the desert (literally) and told me
“Sara, this year you should just pat yourself on the back, you have done so many great things“.
I thanked her and smiled. I actually even tried that night. But I truly did not believe it. Through the following six months, I felt chased by similar messages. I guess people were sending me a message, even if they did not know. Each time someone complimented me with a “wow”, I got more enraged at their words. All I could think was:
“If only you would know that I am not amazing, and it is not perfect, and it is all so hard”
I mostly smiled and said, “oh, it’s no big deal really“. Which means, I lied through my teeth. By the summer of 2015, I knew I could not keep lying.
The act of kindness
It is easy for you to read this and say “Sara, you were just being too harsh on yourself, you kind of had a lot on your plate“. It’s true, I see it now. But you know what, I have even more on my plate now, and I don’t feel the same. I certainly did not go back to being Little Miss Perfect.
Originally, I thought I had to give some stuff up. And it got me even more frustrated. Because I kept “failing” and “unhappy”. I did a check on my values and what was truly important for me. And I realized I did not want to give any of it up. Actually, I wanted more. But I could no longer keep up with my feeling of constant dissatisfaction. Constant FOMO.
In one of the last sessions we had together, Catia asked me to sit in different chairs.
- In chair #1, I would speak about how I felt about this ineptitude, this failure at everything. That was do-able.
- In chair #2, I would be the evil voice in my head that tells me off whenever I fail (or feel like I failed). That was easy.
- In chair #3, I would imagine the first words came from my best friend and console her. That was mission impossible.
It still brings tears to my eyes to think of that day, when I stared at my first chair and just cried, feeling sorry for my friend but being totally unable to be kind, the way that I knew that I would be if it really was not about me. That day I found out that I was unable to be kind to myself.
Since then, I have practised kindness with myself. I have little failures every day – the meeting I did not prepare, the school book that did not make it to the school book, the Tuesday afternoon birthday party I can not attend, the shouting over soup, the arguing over mundane house things, the being late one more day with charity accounts. They will always be there, as long as I am alive. I know that now. But I just won’t beat myself up over it. I will certainly always seek growth, but not make growth the end goal, just the journey.
For mental health; ban SHOULD
During therapy, I realized how much the word should was all over me. Catia, in her strong Italian accent, kept repeating it to me. Even though I did not say it much out loud, it was part of every sentence in my head. I now try and divide my options into I want to do something or I must do something. And the only thing I really “should” I realised, is to be kind to self.