I thought I had this lock-down thing nailed.
I had a schedule planned for my 2 young boys, fresh veggies neatly chopped and put into Tupperware for easy-to-grab snacks, educational worksheets printed off, and fun activities set out.
The spare bedroom was clean, and set up to serve as an office for my husband and I for the next 30 days.
Everything was going surprisingly well — until it wasn’t.
On about the third day of lock-down, I was standing in the kitchen, seized by anxiety.
Toys were everywhere. We’d run out of food for lunch, and the kids were whining. There were crumbs on the counter and all over the floor from snacks. I had emails to write and phone calls to make. My husband was on an important call in the office.
Life was starting to get out of control, and I couldn’t keep up.
Since the Coronavirus became widespread in the US, and communities began to “shelter in place,” there’s been a lot of talk about the lock-downs being a perfect opportunity for self-development, and quality family time.
Parents everywhere are posting photos of their schedules on Instagram, their children sitting happily in front of their schoolwork, doing science experiments, planting gardens and blowing bubbles outside.
I’m not knocking parents for sharing happy photos — they’re proud of their children and truly enjoying the family time. Kids are amazingly resilient, and we’re seeing their creativity unfold with new-found free time.
But what we aren’t seeing is the dark side of quarantine. The marital fights. The loneliness. The guilt that comes from feeling overwhelmed with your children’s needs and just wanting to escape. The desperate need for distraction from the waves of fear about getting the virus.
When I stood frozen in the kitchen that day, I knew there was something i’d need to learn during this quarantine — and it wasn’t how to be a better home school teacher or house-keeper, it was how to accept imperfection.
The following 3 tips are what’s been helpful to me in doing that, as I approach my 4th week of lock-down.
#1. Acknowledge Negativity Bias
During my anxious moment in the kitchen, everything felt impossibly imperfect and wrong. But even worse than everything going on around me was my own feeling of defectiveness for being so negative and ungrateful.
After all, my family was safe and well and virus-free. My husband and I still have our jobs when so many have lost them. Sure, my kids are whining now, but only after playing quietly for over 3 hours. The windows are open and the weather is warm and breezy. Underlying all the other anxiety, was the belief that I must be a terrible, ungrateful and entitled person for not being able to appreciate the positive aspects of our situation.
But there’s a good reason why I zeroed in on everything negative in my environment — our brains evolved to do that.
Human brains evolved with what’s called a negativity bias, which simply means we’re wired to react more strongly to negative stimuli than to positive.
It’s nature’s way of keeping our species alive — by keeping us alert to possible danger.
Since humans no longer face the threat of being eaten by wild animals, we find lesser things threatening: social embarrassment, losing our jobs, etc.
This is why, during my anxious moment in kitchen, I noticed and focused on:
- The crumbs all over the floor and counters
- The cluttered areas of my house
- My kids momentary whining
- My own out-of-shape body and slovenly appearance
- My fearful thoughts
- Uncomfortable physical sensations
Instead of focusing on:
- The fact that my family is safe
- My kids have played quietly for over 3 hours and are just now whining
- The weather is warm and breezy
- My husband and I both still have jobs
Your brain is a natural perfectionist, and just knowing this helps bring some perspective to the situation.
Unfortunately, negativity bias is a part of our physiology, and you can’t just get rid of it, even if you wanted to. But what you can do is take a breath, and acknowledge:
“My negativity bias is working well!”
There’s nothing wrong with you for feeling this way, and your brain is trying to keep you safe. Thanks, brain!
You might be thinking, okay, so there’s nothing wrong with me for being negative, and that takes a bit of the edge off. But what about everything else that’s going wrong?
Noticing negativity bias gives you the opportunity to deliberately shift your perspective on the situation, and make your best effort to cultivate gratitude.
I say make your best effort, because gratitude can be tricky. Forcing yourself to try to feel gratitude when you’re overwhelmed with fear or feeling depressed can make you feel even more defective. You can wind up circling back to the thought: Wow, I’ve got all these good things going for me but all I’m still feeling negative. Something must be wrong with me.
If you’re still feeling anxious and negative, that’s okay. The aim here is to become aware that negativity bias is here and functioning just as it should, but that there are always things that are going right that are going unnoticed.
Acknowledging negativity bias is like cracking a window and letting a little fresh air into the room that was closed off and feeling suffocating. It doesn’t have to overhaul your whole outlook, but it can give you a little room to breathe.
#2. Unhook from Unhelpful Thoughts
We can’t have a conversation about perfectionism without talking about it’s hallmark: harshly judgmental thoughts about yourself and your environment.
While I was anxious in the kitchen, negative, fearful thoughts and judgements were flooding in:
“The house is a mess, i’m not cleaning well enough”
“The kids are watching weird Youtube videos again, they’re rotting their brains!”
“I haven’t been working out or planning my meals — i’m a lazy bum!”
These ideas weren’t up for debate — I believed them as unequivocal truth, and each one added to the tightness in my chest and the knots in my stomach.
When you’re anxious, it’s easy to become completely “hijacked” by your thoughts — meaning they’ve dominated your consciousness and you can’t see around them. You believe them and may even act on them by performing fear-based and compulsive behaviors, or lashing out in anger.
I acted on my thoughts that day by snapping at my kids for watching TV, and compulsively cleaning, even though it interfered with more important plans.
Psychologists who practice Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) with their clients call this feeling of being hijacked by your thoughts, “cognitive fusion,” because you are fused with your thoughts.
They developed a method for unhooking from your unhelpful thoughts, called “cognitive de-fusion.”
Cognitive defusion is simply recognizing that thoughts are happening, and acknowledging that they aren’t necessarily true.
This creates space between you as a conscious being, and the internal language your brain is producing (thoughts), which may or may not be helpful. It also ensures that your thoughts do not have to control your behavior.
When you notice unhelpful, distressing thoughts, you can defuse from them by reframing them with different language. For example:
“I’m a lazy bum” becomes “I notice I’m having the thought that I’m a lazy bum.”
This language helps you remember that thinking is taking place, and that not all thoughts are true, or need to be acted on.
Psychologist Steven Hayes describes cognitive defusion as the ability to look at your thoughts rather than from your thoughts.
Some other helpful defusion exercises:
- Picturing your thoughts written on leaves floating down a stream while you stand on a bridge and watch them
- Imagining your thoughts appearing on a movie screen while you sit in the audience
- Thanking your brain for it’s input, then consciously disobeying its suggestions (for example, choosing to leave dirty dishes in the sink, even when your brain says “These are disgusting and you need to take care of it NOW.”
#3. Activate Self Compassion
When was the last time you actually considered how hard it is to be you? Most of us easily feel compassion for others, but consider ourselves uniquely deficient and deserving of criticism.
If I could sum up my feelings in the kitchen that day into one sentence, it would be: I’m not doing enough.
My perfectionistic thoughts told me the lockdown is providing extra time to plan these things out, and yet I was still failing to get it all done.
But, as usual, I wasn’t taking into account everything I was going through and trying to manage at the time, including:
- My fear and anxiety about catching a potentially deadly virus during the global pandemic that’s happening NOW.
- Having to explain to my young children why they cannot go to school, or go anywhere at all for the coming weeks
- Planning and scheduling activities for 2 young boys to stay busy for 8 full hours while my husband and I continue to work full-time from home
- Making sure i’m still performing at my job, making phone calls, sending emails and having zoom conferences while sharing a tiny office with my husband
- Trying to grocery shop and keep food stocked while trying to avoid exposure
- Worrying about the future of our jobs and income
Because of my negativity bias, I only saw my deficiencies and was completely blind to all the obstacles I was contending with, both internal and external.
We are all just human beings, and trying to do the best we can in our individual situations, and we all deserve more credit for what we’re doing well, and more grace for perceived “shortcomings.”
This is where self-compassion comes in.
Practicing self-compassion means simply noticing when we’re suffering and offering ourselves kindness and grace.
One of the best exercises I’ve found for practicing self-compassion is called RAIN, created by psychologist and Buddhist meditation teacher Tara Brach.
Each letter in the word RAIN stands for a step in the process:
R- Stands for recognize — meaning recognizing that in this moment, you’re experiencing suffering. Feelings of fear, anxiety, irritation or other distress is your cue to take a time out, take a few breaths, and pay attention to your experience. You can say to yourself “Fear is here.” or “I’m feeling agitation right now.”
A- Stands for allow — to not judge or push away your experience and to open up and allow it to be there without resistance. It’s helpful to whisper to yourself, “This belongs.”
I- Is for investigate — Not to be confused with becoming entangled with your thoughts, to investigate means to drop your attention down into your body, and investigate where your feelings are manifesting in your body. Is your chest tight? Throat closing up? Stomach in knots? Draw your attention toward those areas, and breathe into them.
N- Nurture — Once you’ve located where pain or tightness exist in your body, place a hand over that area and offer yourself kindness and compassion.
It’s during the nurturing part of the practice that I like to really connect with my intention — my honest effort to do the best I can at all times.
The wisdom of your good intentions may be hiding under fear of failure, anger over your circumstances or feelings of helplessness and frustration, but once you peel back those layers, you’ll find the truth of your own goodness.
As I placed my hand over my tightened chest that day, I realized underneath all of those worried and frustrated thoughts was a genuine desire to be a good mother and wife, a good citizen and employee. I could clearly understand why I was striving so hard for perfection, and felt compassion for myself unfolding.
When you practice nurturing, you can think or whisper comforting phrases that express your understanding and compassion for your suffering, such as:
“This is so hard. I’m really dealing with a lot right now.”
“I care about this pain and suffering.”
It’s time to admit it: lock-down is tough. There’s a lot of opportunities to learn and grow through this experience, but growth is stifled when we hold our messy, vulnerable and human selves against a rigid standard of perfection.
Our brains will always be wired to magnify all the little things that “go wrong” in our lives, but the good news is we can become conscious of this process and choose to actively embrace imperfection.
When you notice and unhook from helpful thoughts, you gain the freedom to choose your actions rather than allow your thoughts to control your mood and behavior.
When you take the time to pause and offer kindness when you feel distressed, you connect with the truth of your good intentions.
You might not come out of this lock-down with 6-pack abs, a clean and organized house, or kids ready to compete in an academic decathlon. But you might come out of it with something even more meaningful:
The willingness to embrace your life for what it is: messy, imperfect, and beautiful.