I hate going to dinner at my friend Fiona’s place because of the food. To start, we’ll have mozzarella, fresh basil, vine-ripened tomatoes, chargrilled vegetables, olive oil, and warm ciabatta.
The next course may be a pork belly with roast potato, and pear puree, served with steamed vegies, and to finish, a chocolate and caramel tart with lashings of buttery caramel sauce and ice-cream. All this served with fine wines to match each course.
I can guarantee that she has spent hours, if not days, preparing this three-course meal, which would rival the country’s top restaurants. This, in addition to raising two small children, working full-time, while doing extensive further training in new techniques in her field, cultivating a lovely garden, exercising regularly, eating well, being there for friends when they need her, and probably quite a few other things that I haven’t thought of.
SO WHAT’S THE PROBLEM? ISN’T IT WITH ME?
Well, maybe. But Fiona fits the bill for superwoman – juggling multiple roles and excelling in many, if not all, of them. You could argue that this is not a problem for her if she’s feeling like she copes effectively with the many tasks she has to do each day.
However, there are many reports from other friends that Fiona continually takes on new responsibilities, and is often seen rushing around, looking stressed, and at regular intervals, appears to be at risk of burning out. The other possible problem is that people around Fiona may feel obligated to keep up with her standards. Fiona’s superpowers mean that others need them as well. Do you know anyone like Fiona? Or maybe you recognise these behaviours in yourself?
The term ‘superwoman syndrome’ is bandied about the popular psychology literature to refer to people who tend to juggle multiple roles and feel compelled to do extremely well at all of them. The term was first used by Marjorie Hansen Shaevitz, in her book The Superwoman Syndrome (Warner Books, 1984).
The notion was first recognised after the feminist movement in the 1970s-1980s, which saw women moving from life at home raising children to also pursuing careers, without a reduction in the efficiency of either.
Another friend’s take on what it means to be superwoman was as follows: “As women, it’s very much in our training to want to be ‘super’ at everything we do. Whether that’s one thing, like being a stay-at-home mum, or being many things at once through combining roles, we are generally our harshest critics.
It can be hard to live up to some ‘super’ prototype we have created for ourselves, which can lead to all sorts of poor outcomes. And yes, sometimes good ones. Of course, these aspirations are based on expectations both self-imposed and society-imposed.”
IS ‘HAVING IT ALL’ A MYTH?
This question always stirs up heated discussions. There are usually two camps: those who believe that we have been sold a lie by society, and that trying to have it all can only cause stress, overwork, unrelenting demands and self-criticism as women constantly play catch-up among the various roles in their lives; and those who continue to believe that if they had better time management, more willpower, and more discipline then they would finally get to achieve everything they want.
The notion we can have it all (fabulous relationships, a clean house, disciplined children, a fulfilling job) is extremely seductive, especially to women who are used to being high achievers in their fields. But one of the consequences of trying to have it all is getting trapped in a cycle of perfectionism.
THE LINK TO PERFECTIONISM
Perfectionism has been defined as
1) constant striving for extremely high standards;
2) judging one’s self-worth based largely on one’s ability to achieve these high standards;
3) experiencing negative consequences of setting such standards (which may include feeling stressed and overwhelmed, or experiencing decreased satisfaction with life and relationships), yet continuing to reach for them despite the huge personal cost.
According to research in the field of cognitive behaviour therapy, there are helpful and unhelpful aspects of perfectionism. We’ll focus on unhealthy perfectionism because healthy perfectionism is unlikely to lead to problems. A good resource book that distinguishes between the two types is Tal Ben-Shahar’s The Pursuit of Perfect (McGraw Hill, 2009).
Unhealthy perfectionism (leading to superwoman syndrome) has a number of interrelated elements. The underlying belief is that you’re only worthwhile or valuable if you constantly achieve high standards. This can come from early life experiences, where achievement is valued by the family of origin’s culture, and you don’t get the sense that you’re okay, just as you are. This means that your self-esteem is based on only one thing: your ability to achieve. When there is such a narrow focus as the basis of self-esteem, people tend to develop perfectionist ways of thinking (e.g. “I must do things perfectly, I must not fail. If something is worth doing, it’s worth doing right”) and become hypersensitive to any mistakes that they might make. Their behaviour is also affected, and people may procrastinate to avoid the chance of failure.
People might then notice they are procrastinating, then become quite self-critical because they haven’t met the standards they set. They look around and find others who seem to be achieving what they are not. This can lead to intense emotion that can feel overwhelming (low/anxious mood), which then leads to further self-criticism and comparison with others. The other thing that tends to happen with perfectionism is that even if the goal is reached the person dismisses or minimises it, and then proceeds to set an even higher goal.
The things that superwomen typically fear will make them lose their super-powers include:
• failure in any form.
• being exposed to having weaknesses and showing vulnerability.
• not measuring up to her responsibilities in her own or others’ eyes.
• saying no to requests from others (because they fear rejection: remember they are only worthwhile if they are achieving things, so saying no is not an option).
• delegating some tasks to others (this may activate the belief “I am failing if I delegate”).
ARE THERE WAYS TO TAKE OFF YOUR CAPE?
Thankfully, yes. There are a number of evidence-based strategies from various therapies that can help.
1 One place to start, used by Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), is identifying your values. Your values are the things that are most important to you and are what you stand for in life. Another way of thinking about this is what personal qualities you want people to talk about at your funeral. Two great books to help you in this regard are The Happiness Trap (Constable & Robinson, 2008) and The Confidence Gap (Constable & Robinson, $24) by Russ Harris. You can download free resources from the website thehappinesstrap.com/free_resources to help you do this. Not many people want others to comment at their funeral on how they were always rushing and trying to be perfect; rather, they want people to focus on things like how they modelled healthy behaviour for their children, and were fully engaged in whatever they were doing.
One of the distinctions drawn by Harris is the difference between values and goals. If you live by your values (let’s say one value is contribution: to contribute or make a positive difference to myself and/or others) and you set up a business helping children learn maths, even if the business fails financially, there is more than one criterion on which to judge its success, i.e. were you able to make a contribution to the children you did see? If you are solely focused on a goal of ‘create a sustainable business’, then you haven’t met that goal, and might tend to label yourself as a failure. One of the main aims of ACT is to develop psychological flexibility, i.e. be able to catch yourself reacting to experiences, taking a step back and then re-engaging in effective action.
2 Cognitive behaviour therapy would focus on understanding and modifying the beliefs that drive perfectionist behaviour. It would ask questions such as: “Is it true you’re only worthwhile or valuable if you constantly achieve high standards?”; “What would your friends say, if they heard you say that?”; “What would they point to in your life that also gives you value?”; “Does that mean time spent that is unstructured (not achieving anything) with your partner, friends or children is a waste of time?”
It would also point to evidence that if you reduce the number of pleasurable activities you do each day in favour of things that are about achievement, you are at higher risk of feeling depressed. All of us need a sense of satisfaction in our days, but we also need to do things that give us pleasure.
3 There has been some interesting research in the field of positive psychology that may be extrapolated to help shed light on the superwoman syndrome. A study by US psychologist Barry Schwartz, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, compared the wellbeing of ‘maximisers’ (people who seek the very best choice available from a variety of choices) with those who were ‘satisficers’ (people who chose an option that passes their threshold of acceptability, i.e. a ‘good enough’ approach).
Maximisers were found to be significantly less happy, more depressed, had lower self-esteem and were more likely to experience regret than satisficers. In related studies also by Schwartz and colleagues, maximisers compared themselves to others (called upward social comparison, because they compare themselves to someone better off), proving to themselves that they hadn’t reached an optimal outcome.
WHAT THEN IS THE CURE?
It’s okay to be superwoman at times when the situation calls for it but the ability to take off the cape and live your life to a ‘good enough’ standard is important, too. Now, I’m off to prepare a three-course feast because Fiona and her family are coming to dinner.