By the time you read this newsletter, your commitment to sticking with your New Year’s resolutions to exercise more, lose ten pounds, stop procrastinating, develop better posture, or be a nicer person may be wavering. For some of us, this happened on January 2nd. We get caught back up in the demands of real life and slip back into our old habits like a comfortable but ratty pair of sweats.
So, my timing is perfect.
I’d like to present the possibility that the best resolution you can make for the rest of 2003 is to stop trying so hard. Striving to be less perfect can help you increase your sense of well being, boost your self-esteem, and be a more relaxed and happy spouse.
Physicians and their families are often seen as pillars of the community. Many of you would say that this is both a blessing and a curse. In order to live up to these higher standards, spouses of physicians and physicians in training can put pressure on themselves to be perfect wives or husbands, parents, and members of the community.
Being perfect is a tough job. You can end up constantly on the go, working at presenting a good face to the world, and becoming overly focused on what other’s think and whether you are doing enough. Striving to be perfect takes a lot of time and energy; time and energy that would be better spent on the people that matter most in your life including your self, your spouse, your family and your close friends.
How many of you created stress for yourself this holiday by trying to do it perfectly?
You wanted to create a memorable and festive holiday but trying to pick the perfect gift, make it from scratch, and travel too much to try to please too many parents, in-laws and family may have created pressure and detracted from your enjoyment of the holiday.
Trying to be perfect means that at the restaurant where you are having your first real date with your spouse in 3 months, you worry about ordering that second glass of wine because one of your spouse’s patients might see you and conclude you are alcoholics.
Trying to be perfect means you worry about leaving the house without being dressed nicely (certainly not in those ratty sweats I mentioned earlier). Trying to be perfect means that even those with demanding careers feel obligated to be active in the PTA, the church, community groups or charitable organizations. Some might not only feel obliged to participate, they might think they need to assume leadership roles in these organizations in order to make a real contribution.
Here are two suggestions for resolving to be less perfect and taking the pressure off yourself and your spouse:
1. Stop trying to be a pillar of the community.
Certainly, you want to be involved and make a contribution. But many high energy, achievement oriented people (read ‘medical spouses’) find themselves involved in too many activities. They chair committees, head up fund raising campaigns, coach soccer and teach Sunday school. They are harried and hurried. They complain about not having enough time but don’t assertively protect or reclaim their time.
One good way of protecting your time is to learn to say “No” to requests from some community, church or school groups.
Why do you say “Yes” when you want to say “No”?
a. You aren’t clear on your priorities. Being clear on your priorities helps you make good decisions. For many of you, your priorities are to take good care of yourself and create as civilized a life as possible for you and your mate and kids throughout the years of schooling and early years of practice. If these are indeed your priorities, you will find it easier to say “no” to a request that you know will overextend you or infringe upon your time for yourself, your mate or your kids.
b. Habit: Are you someone who always says “yes” because you are a good team player and a nice person? Cut it out! Put that hand down! Be thoughtful and deliberate about the commitments you make. You can still be a good team player and a nice person without agreeing to every request that’s made of you.
c. Guilt. You think the organization’s mission is an important one and you know they are short-handed and….Before you know it, you’ve “guilted” your way into accepting a leadership position that is going to require lots of time and energy and create stress for you. You have heard the maxim, “If you want something done, ask a busy person.” (read ‘medical spouse’) You might be the busy person they are counting on. This may come as a shock to you, but there are other people within the group that can probably do as good a job as you could.
d. You don’t understand the implications. Have you ever agreed to take on a task and later found that accomplishing it took a lot more time and effort than you had anticipated? Before you say yes, take the time to fully understand what is expected of you. A good habit to develop is to never say “yes” on the spot. Always say, “I’d like to get more details about what will be involved and take a look at my calendar. Can I give you a call back about this tomorrow?” Cooler heads will prevail.
2. Find trusted friends to whom you can talk honestly about your marriage, family and life and not have to act as though everything is perfect.
Why is this so important?
a. Being honest about both the good stuff and the bad stuff deepens friendships.
No one is as off-putting or intimidating as someone who appears to totally have it together. My hunch is that this is part of the reason that Martha Stewart stirs up strong reactions that range from admiration to vitriol is because she appears so relentlessly “together”. While many of us admire her competence and long for the graceful lifestyle she espouses, she stirs up our own sense of inadequacy. Our lives seem shabby and we seem lazy when compared to the Martha Stewart ideal.
It’s the same with friendships. If you are always putting a positive spin on things, glossing over the difficult parts, and making out that your relationship with your mate is always dreamy, people won’t want to be friends with you.
It’s like one of those “The year’s been such a success, aren’t we blessed!” Christmas letters you get that are so bad they are good. You never hear about the $10, 000.00 credit card debt, the teenage son’s totaling the car, or the husband’s concern about getting laid off. It’s not real and you know it.
Being real about the ups and downs in your life also gives your friends permission to be real about what they are experiencing. This is the way friendships deepen.
Now, be picky about who you choose to develop friendships. You only want to deepen friendships with those that you know are trustworthy, discreet and as real with you as you are with them.
b. Being honest about both the good stuff and the bad stuff makes you better able to cope.
Have you ever met another couple that, after having been married for several years, still seems to be madly in love, devoted to one another, and act as though everything their partner says or does is just darling? (kind of sickening, isn’t it?) Then you find out several months later that the couple is getting a divorce. If this couple spent as much energy nurturing and sustaining their marriage as they did in putting on a facade of a happy marriage, they might not have ended up heading for divorce court.
Simply because you are the spouse of a physician does not mean that you need to be the perfect couple and have the perfect family. Show me a medical spouse who never admits to getting frustrated, irritated, or temporarily insane about some of the rigors of the years of medical training and early practice and I’ll show you someone who is not being truthful. You must find friends that you can talk to honestly about what you are experiencing. No sugar coating it.
It’s only when you come clean about what you are experiencing – the good, the bad and the ugly – can you get the support, insights and perspective from friends that can help you to cope so much more effectively.
Being real with friends about what’s going on also helps you not be so isolated in your world. If you’ve ever experienced the rush of relief that comes when you have described a distressing experience to a friend and had her say, “I know just what you mean. I had the same thing happen”, you’ll know the power of honest talk. It helps you be less alone.
Some spouses think they are being disloyal if they talk with friends about the stresses of their relationships. This is not true. Many a marriage has stayed strong because a spouse was able to get support and advice from trusted friends.
In closing, let me tell you about my increasing level of comfort with my own imperfection. In August, I presented a motivational speech to a group of spouses of executives. Very bright, high achieving group. I was making a point and mid-point, I forgot where I was going with it. Instead of weaving and dancing, I stopped, smiled at the group and said, “I can’t remember where the heck I was going with that point but it was a good one. It will come back to me and when it does, you’ll be the first to know”. The group seemed delighted with my response. They smiled knowingly and nodded.
They smiled because they could relate to my imperfection. They had walked into the laundry room and forgotten why they went in there to begin with. They had run into a friend in the grocery store and drawn a blank on her name. They had locked themselves out of the house or gone to work wearing one black shoe on and one blue shoe. (O.K., maybe only some of us have done that last one)
By acknowledging my memory lapse, I was basically saying to them, “I’m perfectly imperfect and I know you understand.” And they did.