One morning, Dr. Elizabeth Lombardo was standing in her kitchen multi-tasking as many mothers do, quizzing her daughter on her spelling words while getting herself ready to be in New York City that day. “I had just gotten a call from the Today show the afternoon before asking me to come in and talk about happiness,” Elizabeth (as her clients refer to her) says. “I was making a list of what I had to do when my daughter spelled ‘unpleasant’ wrong. When she misspelled unpleasant, I became unpleasant.”
It was in this moment that Elizabeth realized that her perfectionist tendencies were causing her to overreact. “I became really anxious, thinking that she would miss that word on the test. I’ve always tried to hide my perfectionist tendencies from my girls, but who was I kidding?” Perfectionism is more than organizing your junk drawer. The way Elizabeth defines it, perfectionism is an all-or-nothing mentality: something is either perfect, or it is a failure; there is one “right” way and the rest are deemed “wrong.”
Elizabeth, a clinical psychologist in private practice, recently published Better Than Perfect, 7 Strategies to Crush Your Inner Critic and Create a Life You Love. “What I figured out is that perfectionism often gets in the way of our happiness. A perfectionist looks like a highly accomplished person on the outside, but they are struggling with judgment and self-criticism on the inside.”
In Better Than Perfect, Elizabeth offers step-by-step instructions for perfectionists trying to find balance and freedom. The book defines perfectionism in easy-to-understand terms, offers simple assessment tools, and shares case studies from Elizabeth’s clients to highlight the conditions she’s talking about. She also includes practical exercises and suggestions for behavioral changes, including seven ways to overcome perfectionism that range from choosing passion over perfection to remembering you’re more than what you do.
But Elizabeth cautions recovering perfectionists from throwing the baby out with the bath water. “It’s all about balance. You have to keep the ingredients of perfectionism that work for you,” she says. “I like to say that perfectionism is like a chocolate cake. You can have the finest organic eggs and sugar cane to make your cake. But then if you dump in a cup of dirt—no one is going to eat it. And that’s what perfectionism is. It has some good ingredients—striving for excellence, wanting to be successful, wanting other people to like you. Those are the good things. The dirt is the judgment. The ‘I’m not good enough.’”
A concept Elizabeth refers to often is called failing forward. “I tell my clients that mistakes are data. When you make a mistake, and we should let our children make them—and work through them. It’s data you can learn from.”
Better Than Perfect helps readers see that there is a way to live happy empowered lives where things aren’t actually perfect. “We think perfectionism is going to bring us happiness but it’s actually an obstacle to it. If you’re judging yourself, you’re likely judging your husband, your kids, your friends. If you start a diet in January and you eat a cookie, don’t consider the diet a failure. If you can’t workout for a full hour, take a walk around the block and feel good about it. Any step in the right direction is a positive one. Don’t give up so quickly.”
Better Than Perfect is available wherever books are sold. To contact Dr. Lombardo, visit her website at elizabethlombardo.com.
– Ann Marie Scheidler // Illustration by Kristen Ulve