To be the perfect woman

Recently I read an interview with a business woman who said that the best thing she ever did for herself was to let go of perfectionism. She was right. Self-oriented perfectionism can be debilitating. As a recovering perfectionist, I know this well.

Wikipedia describes the condition as ‘a personality trait characterised by a person’s striving for flawlessness and setting high performance standards, accompanied by critical self-evaluations and concerns regarding others’ evaluations.’ According to Psychology Today, it’s ‘a fast and enduring track to unhappiness.’ Constant self-doubt and criticism can hold you back in your career. It kills joy and self-esteem. But it’s also at the root of depression, suicide, eating disorders, anxiety, insomnia and more.

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I spent half a life time searching out the psychological reasons why I perceived myself to be imperfect. I certainly found lots of them ;). I dug deeper and deeper, and one by one healed the issues that came up. On the way I accumulated many skills and healing methods, which I now use to help others. I did end up a lot happier, but still felt flawed. This sounds weird, but it isn’t: a whole body of research shows that women are much more likely than men to put the bar unreasonably high for themselves. Once I understood this, I started looking into the question of why we, women have -if you permit- this defect.

I made a surprising discovery: it all starts with our biology. Modern techniques like brain imagery have shown beyond doubt that women have a bigger, more active pre-frontal cortex than men. This region of the brain is involved in planning, judging, impulse control, conscientiousness, and more. Deep inside lies the anterior cingulate cortex, which recognises errors, or shortfalls and their magnitude, and then decides how to best respond. This area is what keeps us safe.

This cortex becomes very active when its owner has to choose between competing possible responses, or when the cost of error is high, in which case it may trigger a feeling of anxiety. Electrodes in this region have been shown to curb depression. In other words: reducing its activity prevents overwhelming negative emotions. (Disclaimer: I don’t advise you to stick rods in your brain, but I will share with you some more easily achieved tips.)

Add to this the fact that women produce a third less serotonin -the body’s own tranquilliser- than men, and it’s not hard to see why women on the whole feel more worried, conflicted and restless than men. And when the anterior cingulate cortex gets overactive, we produce even less serotonin. Dopamine, which gives us the feeling of satisfaction, stays away too. That explains why you’re never happy with the result of what you do, or with the way you look, and so on.

Understanding the bodily mechanics of perfectionism, and that women are predisposed to it, helped me a great deal. I realised that it actually was not about me being imperfect, but just feeling imperfect because of some hormonal cocktail that was overheating a part of my brain. I immediately started feeling better about myself. Still, I wanted to be able to control this mechanism, so my next challenge was to find out how I could calm this cortex down.

My journey had taught me early on that the Romans were right: mens sana in corpore sano, (a healthy mind in a healthy body), or in other words, that body and mind influence one another. Modern science supports this idea: ”…self-induced changes in mood can influence serotonin synthesis. This raises the possibility that the interaction between serotonin synthesis and mood may be 2-way, with serotonin influencing mood and mood influencing serotonin,” writes the Journal of Psychiatry and Neuroscience.

Actively changing your thoughts does indeed help, but I, and many of my clients, find that it’s not always so simple to lift yourself up when you’re down.

Photo by Amy Reed on Unsplash

And then I made another discovery. While studying the Human Micro-biome with Dr. Rob Knight, of Colorado University I had learned that the vast majority of hormones and neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine are produced not by our brain, but by the micro-organisms that live in our gut. Since these organisms feed on what we eat, it made sense to me that changing one’s diet might affect which of them are dominant, and possibly what neurotransmitters they produce. That this was indeed the case, I experienced during my training with Dr. Eric Berg, in the hormonal imbalances that feed weight gain.

Berg makes the case that refined carbohydrates (white rice, flour and sugar products) are responsible for many of our discomforts, from excess weight to high blood pressure and diabetes. When I stopped eating these carbohydrates, I not only went down two sizes in clothes and felt more energetic, but all of a sudden I also realised that the negative voice in my head had gone. Just like that! Nobody was pointing out all my shortcomings any more.

At first I couldn’t believe it, so I tested my finding by eating bread, pasta and cake again. And sure enough, after a couple of days I started feeling irritable and noticed the critical, disapproving voice was back in my head. After about a week, I started feeling sluggish and my trousers started being tight. I eliminated the carbs from my diet, and indeed, after some days my energy levels went up, my mood improved, and I started liking myself again. Now it was much easier to actively change my thoughts and bring about a mood change.

In a next post I will write more specifically about what to eat in order to feel great, but here are my tips:

1. Be aware that perfectionism is rooted in our biology, and that it doesn’t mean you’re imperfect. It’s just a feeling that you can change.

2. Resolving your psychological issues helps a great deal, but even without that you can start controlling how you feel by changing your diet.

3. Be aware that what some call ‘comfort’ foods (refined carbohydrates, which often give the consumer a short ‘high’) actually feed your inner critic. You’d do better thinking of them as ‘discomfort’ foods. Avoiding them can make that inner critic take a back seat.

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