Dr. Martha Stamper, Psy.D. Licensed Psychologist

Perfect is not perfect
Posted On February - 10 - 2011

In today’s stressful society, we are often pushed to do our best. With the economic uncertainty the country is experiencing, now more than ever, this advice seems like a good way to maximize our chances for success. Following this philosophy, however, does not always lead to better, or even good results if it is taken too far. The fact is: our best is not perfect. We cannot be the best at any given activity, at least for any extended length of time. If perfection becomes the standard, the shame of feeling less than adequate can paralyze effort, freeze initiative, and ruin satisfaction with realistic success. Less than perfect performance does not mean our efforts are meaningless.

The urge for perfection can be driven by anxiety. A sense of control tends to sooth anxious feelings. As anxiety pushes on the strategy of control, perfection can end up being the standard. But not everything can be under our control. No amount of effort, even perfect effort, can make that happen. As a result, rather than having a soothing effect, the goal of perfection can end up increasing the very anxiety it was initially trying to resolve.

The expectation for perfection can be used as an excuse. If only perfection is an acceptable outcome, most human accomplishments would not have been attempted. Why try if the outcome is likely to be a failure? The fact is that progress is meaningful, even if it is rarely perfect. We can learn something in the process of trying, even when we don’t succeed.

The urge for perfection can serve to avoid a meaningful realistic development of identity. A standard of perfection avoids the necessity of incorporating normal human frailties, flaws, and limitations. To truly know ourselves, we need to recognize our limitations, even as we work to minimize their negative effects.

The goal of perfection can interfere with learning important information. If we expect perfection from others, we interfere with learning and accepting who they really are. When we insist on personal perfection, we fail to embrace our own humanity. With a standard of perfection, we can diminish appreciation for the valiant efforts that need to be recognized and nurtured for progress to be supported.

The problem is not trying to do our best, but in not being tolerant of what our best is today. The goal of avoiding making mistakes may not be as useful as the goal of recognizing when mistakes are make. Sometimes our efforts are better spent correcting our errors than trying to avoid them.

Posted On November - 23 - 2010

As the daylight hours shorten, many people experience a change of mood. Some are excited about their upcoming holiday plans, with their chance to connect with love ones. For others however, this time is associated with a sense of melancholy. Sometimes the cause for this is biological, perhaps as an evolutionary advantage, some people regularly withdraw in the winter months and then are re-energized in the Spring. Often full spectrum light therapy can help with this problem.

For others, the problem with the holidays is more complicated. The holidays, being a time to celebrate connections, is also a reminder of relationships lost.  In the traditions is captured a snapshot of holidays and lives of years past. While these memories can be treasured, they can also remind us of what is missed, as well as expectations and promises that went unfulfilled. Sometimes it might just feel wrong to celebrate and allow happiness in light of a reminder of a loss. Rather than inspire, social pressure to celebrate can feel like an impossible goal.

Pushing away the memories, as covenant as that sounds, denies us of our past, of part of our identity. Getting lost in that past denies us our present.  In this way, the holidays, with all their traditions, creates the opportunity for reflection which challenges us, once again, to find a balance between the past and the present.  Regardless of who we once were, what resources we once had, what social connections we once depended on, we are challenged to put those experiences in perspective to reinvent who we now are, and want to become.

During the holidays it is easy to fall into resentment of those that we might feel are blocking us from attainment of that holiday perfection. Pushing away the people in our lives does not always solve our problems if our expectations are unrealistic. It is much harder to find a way to find room in our lives people as they are, rather than how we wish they were. Taking responsibility for ourselves while resisting the urge to take on responsibility for others can be difficult.

Through this process however, we can begin to set our course for next who we now would like to become, whether that means changing our behavior, developing new connections, or resolving issues with others and redefining a connection.

Perhaps all we can really wish for is that the holidays be a celebration of life –  in all its complexity.

Posted On August - 9 - 2010

In our society today, anxiety is common. While we have all sorts of technological devices to help us, and entertain us, finding satisfaction with life can seem harder than ever to achieve.

Part of the problem is biological. Our system was built for a much slower time. The fight or flight response (heart beating, palms sweating, rapid breathing or feeling frozen in place) helped our ancestor’s survive lions, tigers, and bears. This response is not as helpful with traffic jams and office deadlines but sadly our system does not necessarily know the difference.  When our biology tries to help out, it can be confusing and many of us look around for a cause that seems more appropriate to the response. The fear is real: the cause may not be.

Part of the problem is that the obvious solution tends to make the problem worse. It seems logical to avoid uncomfortable emotions when possible. This ends up, however, reinforcing the very response you wanted to avoid. Sure, there is a short term calming from leaving the stress, that’s a powerful reinforcement. The calming avoiding provides makes it seem as if you have made the right decision. Staying in that situation seems like it would have definitely resulted in all those terrible consequences you were imagining.  The problem was that you never took the time to find it out. There are some truly dangerous  situations out there, but if most everyone you know is not as worried as you are about the situation it is possible your anxiety is simply the emotion reinforced by your own behavior.

That’s where therapy comes in. A careful examination of the circumstance, by an objective observer, helps determine what fears are real. When anxiety is not necessary, a psychologist helps clients face those fears, teaching the stress-management and coping skills needed.