guest post by jenny yang: could you be a tragic perfectionist overachiever? 13 tips to get happy, already!

Overachieving Dog Can Handle More Fetch Than Your Dog! (Image via wikiHow)

Aloha! I'm on vacation, taking a much-needed break from blogging for a bit. But it's all good, because I've enlisted the help of some great guest bloggers to keep things going around here. Here's writer, home/office organizer and stand-up comedian Jenny Yang on getting happier in an over-extended, over-perfecting, overachieving world.

I bought a house, gutted and renovated the kitchen and both bathrooms, moved two times, got a promotion, started a loving relationship, began performing standup comedy, quit my job of six years, started a home and office organizing business, created an audio podcast about making a living from your creative passion, worked through a lingering bout with depression, and turned thirty years old -- all in the last two years. What is my freakin' problem?!

I'll be honest. I originally wanted this headline to read, "How I Sorta Stopped Being a Tragic Asian American Model Minority Perfectionist Overachiever Suffering From a Quarterlife Crisis and Got Happier," but that didn't quite roll off the tongue, so it didn't make the cut. Why? 'Cause this headline had to be PERFECT!

At a young age I learned that my worth as a person is determined by how parents, teachers, the school system, and everyone else judged me. To have value meant I must prove I was better than others. This, I later learned, is not the way to win friends and influence people, or the path to happiness.

Hello. My name is Jenny and I'm a Tragic Perfectionist Overachiever.

Future "Tragic Perfectionist Overachiever" Jenny

It all started with my first arch nemesis, Walter. It was the second grade and Walter was the other Chinese kid with the perfect bowl cut. We were about even on being the first to finish math tests; getting a perfect score was expected and beside the point. The first to finish slammed down their pencil and threw a smug look at the other to declare victory. Rubbing the imaginary beard on my eight year-old, hairless chin, I speculated that Walter also had parents who thought memorizing multiplication tables before age six was not a form of child cruelty. Curses!

In college, when I learned about the term "Model Minority" and how it wasn't fair to stereotype all Asian Americans, I felt guilty. I realized, "Crap! I AM the source of that stereotype, you competitive, ambitious, technology-knowing, straight-A getting, hard math-solving, rice-eating, boba-drinking, root of all de-humanizing racial judgment evil!"

How Do You Know You Are A "Tragic Perfectionist Overachiever" or a TPO?

You know you're a TPO or "Tee-Poh" when:
  • You tend to share only the good news with others, especially your parents. Only the As and awards, people! Why would they want to hear about the bad stuff like Bs, bullies, and breakups?

  • You volunteer for work above and beyond what you or most people are required to do. Not just sometimes. ALL the time.

  • You are afraid that if you don't get things right or do things really well, others will think less of you.

  • You are ALWAYS getting sick when you finally take a vacation. ALWAYS.

  • You see soul-less teenage Asian American kids with their hovering, demanding parents and you want to save them like little kittens... each and every one of them... tell them there's a way out!!!
  • Oh, wait. I think that last one's just me.

    The Perfectionism: Get It Right Or Don't Even Try

    O Magazine contributor and life coach, Martha Beck, sums up the deep-seated and ridiculous-sounding belief of a perfectionist this way:
    If I try hard enough and I'm very careful and I follow all the rules, everything will go right and everyone will love me and I'll feel good all the time. [via O Magazine]
    Perfectionism doesn't really work. It paralyzes you and screws you up and often makes the task much harder than it has to be. A life of perfectionism dooms you to anxiety and depression because, duh! Silly, there IS no true perfection. And people's authentic love for you should not be conditional, or based on your ability to perform or "look good" (That is, if you don't live in the world of "The Situation" and the Jersey Shore). If it is, then stop hanging out with them.

    The sad part is this belief often leads to a rigid way of thinking and being in the world. Being overly concerned with following rules and conforming to status quo standards is an attitude that is the exact opposite of that which is needed for innovation and creativity in your life and in your work. (Ask Ira Glass of National Public Radio's wildly popular This American Life show. He has a great quote on how he had to sit with sucking before his art got good. See the full quote under the "Links" section here.)

    The Overachieving: A Deep Fear of Sucking

    I wrote the bulk of this blog post on the day it was due. Why? 'Cause as a Tragic Perfectionist Overachiever I can get so afraid of sucking I will sometimes marinate, research for days, then wait to the deadline to ensure the sufficient amount of adrenaline is coursing through my veins. The manufactured pressure pushes me past the boogey man gatekeeper of failure who taunts me with thoughts of sucking so hard I would shame me, my family and all of God's great creatures.

    It seems counter-intuitive. If you really want to do well, you may end up doing really badly or not as well as you could have if you didn't stress out about everything. The upside of being an overachiever? You can get very focused and immersed in your work and be highly productive for short periods of time. The downside? You can burn out. Left unchecked, overachieving personalities can set unrealistic goals, work crazy hours and cut corners to succeed at any cost. (See "How to Manage Overachievers" via the CBS Business Network)

    The Tragedy: Depression & The Quarter-Life Crisis

    Once your perfectionism and overachieving ways are set in motion in adolescence, expect to be barreling down the path to a solid "Quarter-life Crisis," say between age 25 and 35, with the anxiety, self-doubt and depression usually peaking around your 30th birthday. Trust me. I know. That's the "Tragic" part of the whole TPO thing.

    What's a "Quarter-Life Crisis"?
    Bearing all the hallmarks of the midlife crisis, this phenomenon - characterised by insecurities, disappointments, loneliness and depression - is hitting twenty- and thirtysomethings shortly after they enter the "real world", with educated professionals most likely to suffer. [via The Guardian]
    And according to a recently-released UK psychology study, who are more likely to experience this crisis? Young adult "overachievers" -- driven, type A personality, young professionals. The stereotypical Asian American yuppie dream, anyone? It seems like Asian Americans are just doomed to hitting that Quarter-Life Crisis. (Don't even get me started on the grim statistics showing that young adult Asian American women are the subgroup most likely to be depressed and commit suicide. Oh, right. Kristina Wong wrote a whole solo performance art show about it!)

    How Can You Be A High Performer and Be Happy?
    Excellence involves enjoying what you're doing, feeling good about what you've learned, and developing confidence. Perfection involves feeling bad about a 98 and always finding mistakes no matter how well you're doing. [Miriam Adderholdt, author of Perfectionism: What's Bad About Being Too Good? via Psychology Today]
    Undoing years of childhood overachievement requires a young adult lifetime (called your 20s) of discovering what really moves you from the inside out. Turns out, in addition to external successes, you can achieve another type of "success" that cannot be measured; It is all about experiencing joy and goodness from deep within and during every moment of the journey, especially when you can do what you love.

    Like they (the soothsayers, wisepeoples and Oprah) say, happiness IS an inside job.

    Are You Freaking Out About This, Yet?

    "But, Jenny! I've gotten so much good in life from my TPO-ness!" you might say. "I've got a career! A nice place to live! A useful brain forged through countless hours of hard work! People think I'm doing great! I don't want to seem ungrateful for all the wonderful benefits I've gained! And I don't want to risk it all if I don't do things right!"

    You can be high-performing and be happy. It crosses the line to unhealthy when you overly-worry or obsess about making mistakes and how that will make you appear less awesome than others thought you were. So, how do you do that?

    Before we move on to my roundup of tips, here's my proviso: I'm not a professional therapist. I've just been very engaged in my own process of growth, feeding my life with the help of trained counselors, and a slight obsessive-compulsion for all things personal development, creativity and self-help. (I confess: I am a ho for self-help books.)

    I've tried a wide variety of tips to get happy. Some are much harder for me to do than others. Many of these tips are drawn from fundamental principles in organizing spaces and managing time. Each idea helped me to varying degrees. Overall, just carving out the time for myself and attempting to engage in a different "way of being" has made me happier. These days, I'm less "Tragic Perfectionist Overachiever" and more "Recovering Overachiever."

    Here's a roundup of my favorite tips for getting happier in an over-extended, over-perfecting, overachieving world.

    1. Do something badly and feel good about it!
    Take that class! Try that hobby you've always wanted to! And deliberately NOT try to make it all awesome the first time out. Take that pressure off. I dove into stand-up comedy knowing I cannot be good the first time out and with my perfectionist ego kicking and screaming. It's not pleasant when you bomb with an audience, but it has given me the freedom from feeling like the world would end if things don't always go as planned. See. I just mispeled the word "misspelled." The world didn't end.

    2. Learn how to play well with others.
    Collaborate. Be a part of a team rather than always having to lead the charge. Get used to how it feels to not have that pressure on you all the time.

    3. Use the 80/20 rule to get yourself on track and off the hook.
    I believe in 80% order, and 20% chaos. I do not coach clients to strive for some Martha Stewart Home promised land where everything is always clean and tastefully labeled with fairy dust. Then, what is "good enough" when things don't have to be perfect? Use the 80/20 rule, a key principle in the field of home/office organizing and the philosophy behind my home and office organizing service. You usually only use or need 20% of your stuff to handle most of your life's needs. Also, 20% effort in the most high-impact areas can achieve most of the results for a project. This means you learn to TRULY prioritize. Not EVERYTHING is important to do RIGHT NOW. Use the same rule to get the big picture. What is that most important and impactful thing?

    For example, I have about 20% of my space as a holding pattern for stuff that needs some action taken, like put away, sorted, trashed or donated. This 20% "chaos space" is in my home office is for mail and documents, in my bedroom for clothes and laundry and in my living room for gifts, returns, and to do items.

    4. Set a time limit on your work.
    Parkinson's law says that work will expand to fill the time you give it.

    5. Learn to say, "No."
    Stop over-scheduling. Like roots of a plant, you need to give your activities some space and breathing room if you are to grow and flourish. If you have the choice and you don't love it, don't do it. Maintaining relationships by checking in and socializing is critical, but if you find yourself getting drawn to your couch and sighing as you get yourself together to go to another event social or otherwise, perhaps you can you just say no?

    6. Learn to listen to your inner voice. Get in touch with how your body feels.
    Not like that, dirty mind. Really knowing how your emotions rest within your body. We are usually so mindful of making choices based on what we think others think is right. Um. How about making decisions that arise from your own internal process and judgment?

    7. Try journaling, meditation or other relaxation exercises.
    As a go-go personality, you probably have had people suggest meditation to you once before. (Perhaps even a puff of marijuana. I digress.) Don't worry about aspiring to achieve the IDEA of meditation the first time around. Just give yourself "nothing" time to sit with your thoughts. It will be inevitable that some emotions you've been repressing will bubble up. Just you see. Journaling my unedited thoughts, guided muscle relaxation and deep breathing work has helped me, as well, especially because they give you something specific and physical to focus on. Most beginners' meditation suggests you "let go of your thoughts." What IS THAT exactly, anyway? Too abstract for most tangible results-oriented overachiever types.

    8. Find close, supportive friends who want to be there for you on this journey.
    Cut out any soul-suckers, Debbie Downers, and lopsided relationships. We don't have time for that anymore. We're fixin' to get healthy and happy.

    9. Make a bucket list. Learn to take a frickin' break.
    Make a running list of stuff that brings you joy. Think about things you loved as a kid. Then, do it. Daily, weekly, monthly, seasonally, annually. Make taking breaks a fun part of what motivates you. See how much of this "fun" stuff you can actually fit in your schedule. Make it a game to see how much other stuff you can get out of your time so you can check more fun off your list, without overscheduling, that is. When you get creative, stick with it even if it sucks. Just show up consistently. Creativity starts with small and consistent steps and the humility to suck each and every day. Just ask Ira Glass.

    10. Create even a little space to "play." Find places where it's safe to fail.
    Put yourself in a learning environment where fresh ideas can grow legs to stand on rather than get taken out at the knees for not being perfect. Overachieving is an addiction. Find healthier, more sustained "highs." A high from getting that latest trophy, grade, accomplishment fades. And what are you left with? That empty abyss. So how do you enjoy the ride? Learning and trying your best but not being overly concerned with the results? Now THAT's another way to live. It's also how you discover you deepest passions, but allowing yourself to play, experiment and make connections with new things and ideas.

    11. Get selfish. (See "Learn to say no.")
    Okay. Not in the typical and usually negative sense. Once you know what brings you joy, and the right amount of that to help you deal with the stresses of life, guard that joy time with your life. Because your life truly does depend on it. We tend to overdo things, and then burn out. Let's break that cycle, or at least minimize the highs and lows.

    12. Shut up that annoying inner critic.
    If you were talking to yourself like you were your own friend, what would you say to comfort yourself? Cognitive restructuring has been such a useful tool used by my counselors and even trainers for my professional work. Talk back to the negative hyper-critical chatter that runs in your head. Question the rationality of the messages you hear and find some real evidence in your life that invalidates those critical thoughts. Then find some more affirming replacement thoughts to think about and say them to yourself. Stuart Smalley had it right; It does work to say "I'm good enough, I'm smart enough, and doggone it, people like me."

    13. Make a list or collage of all your awesomeness, big and small.
    We often forget what we HAVE accomplished and done well in the middle of all that self-critical thinking. Show off a little bit and arm yourself with ammunition to fight back that inner critic.

    Jenny Yang is a writer, home/office organizer and stand-up comedian. She coaches and organizes creatives, businesses and entrepreneurs for healthy, productive and inspired living at ORGANIZED. By Jenny, and podcasts about the art, business & soul of living your creative passion at The CreativeLife podcast with Jenny Yang.

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