Are You a Marcia or a Jan?

Marcia, Marcia, Marcia! Even if you weren’t a big “Brady Bunch” fan, you probably remember the constant rivalry between the beautiful, high achieving Marcia and her awkward, neglected younger sister Jan. Art imitates life, and there are examples all over the real world of children who are held to vastly different and impossible standards by their parents. I truly know a woman whose parents nicknamed her Perfect Patty at a very young age. She had a younger sister, Isabelle, and explicit and implied comparisons were always there. As you may imagine, this arrangement didn’t work very well for either woman as a child, and it continues to impact them as adults.Patty always felt tremendous pressure to excel at everything—school, behavior, sports. She feared that her parents would be extremely disappointed if she didn’t live up to her nickname. And of course she didn’t, because nobody can always be perfect. So Patty always believed that she wasn’t good enough in any way. On the other hand, Inadequate Isabelle (fortunately, her parents didn’t actually call her that), felt that she was born disappointing, since she wasn’t the perfect one. She believed that her parents didn’t think that she was smart, funny, pretty or talented, so she learned not to believe those things about herself either. Both sisters progressed through their childhoods with very low self-esteem, seeing themselves as not good enough and not trying hard enough. They were also almost constantly stressed out by being unable to meet the (unrealistic) standards imposed on them.With the best intentions, many parents inadvertently impose unreachable standards on their children. They may set impossibly high requirements for grades or other achievements. Or they may, by their own examples, clearly convey that the family expectations are to work as hard as necessary to always be on top. Many schools echo these expectations, starting as early as elementary school, and sometimes reaching deafening levels by high school or college. Over time, many children and teens internalize these standards, demanding of themselves nothing less than straight A’s and varsity sports and starring roles in school plays. If these aren’t achieved, they may beat themselves up inside with messages of inadequacy and self-hatred.And then these teens become adults, potentially carrying these perfectionist expectations into the next phase of life. Sound familiar? Are you a Marcia or a Jan? A Perfect Patty or an Inadequate Isabelle? Do you think that you should be at the top professionally, financially, personally, physically? Or, do you think that you will never be anywhere near the top because you’re never good enough to begin with? These beliefs about yourself are likely to make you feel terrible and extremely stressed, as you constantly try to reach an unattainable level in every realm of your life.While some stress can be positive, encouraging motivation, productivity and higher energy levels, too much stress at any age is very destructive. Besides making you upset and anxious, it impacts healthy behaviors. It’s very difficult to maintain good self-care with adequate sleep, good nutrition and exercise, and healthy relationships if you’re consumed by stress. It’s also difficult to manage stress if you’re tired, sedentary and isolated. So it’s important to interrupt the cycle or, even better, avoid creating it in the first place. If you feel constantly under pressure to achieve, you can learn to stress less with relaxation techniques, learning to re-examine your reactions to events in your life, and maybe changing certain situations that amplify feelings of inadequacy. (I’ve written about these issues in detail at BluebirdPages.com.)Meanwhile, think about the standards you’ve set for yourself, and consider whether they’re realistic and appropriate for you and your life. The good news about getting older is that you are an adult with more emotional independence, and you get to re-evaluate the things you learned when you were younger, and set your own expectations for yourself. It’s great to set goals and strive to achieve them, but they need to actually be reasonably attainable. And if you’ve been thinking of yourself as Perfect Patty or Inadequate Isabelle, it’s time to find a new nickname.QUIZ: How Can You Be More Satisfied With Your Life?

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