“A man cannot be comfortable without his own approval.” – Mark Twain
Those of us above a certain age remember the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. As a child, I can remember being impressed when I saw the seal, thinking, “Ooh, that must be good!” People actually used to look for that seal and choose products that had it over those that didn’t. Turning 100 years old in 2009, it was and still is well known as a guarantee of quality.
Part of Good Housekeeping’s mission when it was established in 1885 was to “produce and perpetuate perfection as may be obtained in the household.” Although their intentions were good—to ensure that consumer products and foods were safe, reliable, and unadulterated—their readers began applying that perfectionism to their own lives. Magazines such as G.H. became arbiters for how people were “supposed” to live.
Today, in the second decade of the 21st century, the media is a powerful force for influencing not only our purchasing choices but also the thoughts we have about the world around us and even ourselves. Whether we are aware of it or not, most of us hold an invisible set of standards by which we evaluate everything that goes on in our lives, including our accomplishments, careers, lifestyles, families, companions, and how we come across to others.
Every time you say, “Oh, shoot, I should have…” or “If only I’d said…” or “Why did I…?”, you are applying these invisible standards to whatever you have or have not done. How does it feel when you talk that way to yourself? I don’t know about you, but I know that when I think that way about myself, I feel ashamed and disempowered.
I got a chance to experience this phenomenon last week. A friend of mine hosts a weekly segment on our community radio station, KEOS 89.1, called “Brazos Valley Health.” Because the guests she had lined up to speak on the show had bailed, she asked me to come on the show to talk about depression. I said, “Sure, sounds like fun!” I had only about 20 minutes to prepare and had no idea what I was going to say. Fortunately, my friend has been doing this show for a long time and is an expert interviewer; that, along with my experience in Toastmasters, made the hour-long interview go smoothly.
In spite of this rather considerable accomplishment, on the way home from the radio studio I got into a critical conversation with myself. It went something like this: “Darn it all, I forgot to mention supplements! And I didn’t talk about the statistics regarding depression and disability, how depression is the leading cause of disability in this country. People need to know that it costs more than $300 billion per year! And I really shouldn’t have said anything about the fatality rate, because I didn’t have the source for that stat with me. Boy, I really blew it! Maybe only a handful of people were listening. Let’s hope so!”
This diatribe continued for a couple more minutes, threatening to take me into a depressive tailspin. I finally saw what I was doing and said to myself, “Stop it, Patricia! That’s enough! The interview really was good. You gave valuable information to folks; you spoke clearly; you even brought in a little humor. It was good enough.” I visualized a rubber stamp that had a seal with these words etched into it: “The Good Enough Seal of Approval.” In my mind’s eye was a piece of paper with the words, “Interview at KEOS”; I took the imaginary stamp, inked it with imaginary ink, and stamped it on top of the words, giving it a final seal of approval.
When my critical mind started to harangue me again, I said to it, “Nope, sorry. This event has been approved. It’s over.” Amazingly, it worked! The impulse to criticize myself receded, and I was freed up to go on to the next thing on my schedule.
When you become more conscious of the unreasonable standards by which you evaluate others and yourself, they will lose their power over you and no longer contribute to your depression. Try the following simple exercise:
1) Think of a recent situation in which you had a conversation, completed a task, or had to follow through on a commitment. Write it in your journal.
2) How do you feel about how you did? What do you wish you had said or done differently?
3) Where do you think this negative self-talk came from?
4) Imagine that rubber stamp I described above; it says, “The Good Enough Seal of Approval.”
5) “Stamp” your journal with this imaginary seal. You could even take colored pencils, markers, or crayons and draw a seal on top of the sentences you wrote. Be sure and write, “Good Enough.”
6) You’re done! This situation has been approved, and you no longer have to think about it.
7) Write up your results in the Comment box, below.
(c) 2011 by Patricia R. Henschen, M.A.
For another take on the perils of perfectionism, see “Going Beyond Perfectionism.”