It was their first prenatal class. Jennifer was 20 weeks pregnant, and she and her husband were happy for the chance to hang out with other couples who were newly pregnant. After all, none of their friends had children yet, and they were ready to share their experience with others.
But, as they waited for the class to start, Jennifer looked around at the other couples in the small classroom. She saw beautiful, pregnant women in beautiful clothes. She saw happy, intimate couples. She saw couples who had it all together. And suddenly, she felt very small. She felt frustrated that she had gained weight. She felt irritable with her husband for not understanding her needs and supporting her better. And from somewhere deep inside, the thought came that she wouldn’t be as good of a mother as the others.
In short, she felt that she didn’t measure up to the other women in the class. They were more and better…and she was less and inadequate.
Perfectionism: Enemy of the Pregnant Woman
Jennifer showed many of the signs of perfectionism. Throughout her life, she had set unattainably high standards for herself, and then struggled with cycles of disappointment and frustration when she didn’t meet them.
She was her own worst critic – relentlessly criticizing herself for her lack of measuring up. She constantly felt inadequate. She felt that if she didn’t work hard or perform well, others simply wouldn’t think she was a decent person. The worst part was that nothing she did was ever “good enough.” And under this kind of constant pressure, she felt frustrated, resentful…and chronically stressed.
The Problem with Perfectionism
People who struggle with perfectionism generally say that “it’s how they’ve always been.” That’s because it’s an ingrained part of our personality. In other words, perfectionism is like a lens that we look through when we view the world, one that colours our feelings, thoughts, and actions.
It’s true that perfectionism (when kept in check) can be a good thing in that it can lead us to strive to be the best we can be. But for perfectionistic people, this striving takes on a different look. Yes – the person strives to be the best they can be. The problem is that the bar is set so high that it is unreachable. Then, they become unforgivingly hard on themselves for not achieving the goal, or for being who they want to be. This leads to frustration, stress, resentment, anger, and harsh self-criticism – all of which can make them more vulnerable to anxiety and depression.
This personal perfectionism often goes hand in hand with “social” perfectionism, in which the person sees others as being harsh and unrelenting in their expectations. Perfectionists see others as unpleasable, only releasing their approval if they are perfect in every way.
In other words, perfectionists get it from both ends – inside and, from their perspective, outside as well.
The problem with perfectionism is that it isn’t a very psychologically healthy way to live. Yes, women who are perfectionists are more prone to depression and anxiety in pregnancy. And, it is linked to postpartum depression as well. But, even without it leading to full-blown depression or anxiety, many perfectionists feel a great deal of stress….a great deal of the time. They also feel more negative emotions – frustration, irritability, anger. It’s not a great way to live.
Perfectionism in Pregnancy….and Beyond
Because perfectionism is a personality trait, women come into pregnancy with it already finely tuned. And pregnancy offers many “extra opportunities” for perfectionism to bubble to the surface – from the way women look, the clothes they wear, the baby equipment they buy, their relationship with their partner, and how their pregnancy experience in general compares to others.
I don’t think it gets easier once the baby is born. In fact, I believe the pressure on perfectionists gets even more intense. After all, there is no shortage of advice to new mothers and perfectionists are prone to feeling imperfect, inadequate, and judged.
Is There Hope?
Yes! Perfectionists CAN be emotionally health in pregnancy and beyond. The first step is recognizing that you see this tendency in yourself. This first blog gives a taste of what perfectionism is and how it isn’t an emotionally healthy way to live.
In the next part of this series on perfectionism, I’ll cover how to check yourself for perfectionism and how you can temper it so that it doesn’t rob you of your joy in pregnancy and after your baby is born. Part of good emotional health in pregnancy and beyond is understanding what perfectionism looks like, and how to manage it.