Katherine Morgan Schafler, THE PERFECTIONIST'S GUIDE TO LOSING CONTROL: A Path to Peace and Power

Katherine Morgan Schafler, THE PERFECTIONIST'S GUIDE TO LOSING CONTROL: A Path to Peace and Power

Zibby interviews author, psychotherapist, and former Google on-site therapist Katherine Morgan Schafler about her rigorously researched, empathetic, and empowering new book The Perfectionist’s Guide to Losing Control: A Path to Peace and Power – a love letter to all ambitious, high-achieving women. Katherine describes the five types of perfectionism (classic, intense, Parisian, messy, and procrastinator), the actionable steps all perfectionists can take to build self-compassion, and how her career in psychotherapy has changed her life. She also talks candidly about the time she finally lost all control and how she came back better from it.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Katherine. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss The Perfectionist’s Guide to Losing Control: A Path to Peace and Power.

Katherine Morgan Schafler: Thank you for having me. I’m so excited to talk to you.

Zibby: Katherine, I have to tell you I was almost in tears reading the introduction to this book. I might cry now. I just feel like you have confirmed pieces of myself that I hadn’t been able to articulate this well. I’ve always jokingly referred to myself — I don’t even joke about it. I am a perfectionist. Like you point out in the book, I’ve had some sort of shame around that. I’m sorry I’m a perfectionist. To see it all spelled out and to not only have it sort of condoned, but celebrated and to have a whole roadmap to dealing with this one piece of my complicated personality so well, oh, my gosh, thank you. It’s just amazing.

Katherine: That’s so generous of you to say so. I think of perfectionism as a power. Any power has a dichotomous aspect to it. It can be constructive or destructive. We’re so over-indexed on the destructive part of perfectionism. We talk about it in our culture in such a bizarre way, from my perspective, like it’s this evil force that we need to eradicate from ourselves. Particularly, women are given this message. It’s such a gendered construct. I appreciate you using the word shame because there is a lot of shame, especially for ambitious women, which you might know something about. I’ve been seeing you everywhere lately, by the way, the bookstore. I’m reading My What If Year with my mom when it comes out. I’m excited. We’ve never actually read a book together. I’m starting to get immersed in the publishing world so much with my book coming out. I think that will be really fun. Anyway, I digress. I think ambitious women feel this sense of a need to hide or at least make palatable in some way, how much drive they have, how much they want. Saying “I want something” or “I want more” as a woman I think immediately feels like there’s a subtext of a lack of gratitude or appreciation or even possibly presence. There’s so much to the construct of perfectionist, perfectionism that we just get totally wrong. Totally wrong.

Zibby: In the book, you give a little quiz right up front of which type of perfectionist you are. I was a classic, but it was only by one. I was pretty evenly spread out among everything. Tell me about your study of perfectionism, all about these different types, what we should take away from — there are all these ways you try to change the thinking, which I love. Don’t think about it this way. Think about it this way. Those cognitive behavioral-type changes. Tell me more about it.

Katherine: I’m a perfectionist myself too, which shocked me to discover. I’ve always been drawn to the energy of the perfectionist. I looked into this whole topic because — I talk about it a little bit in the book. Just when my life was all coming together in this perfectly constructed way and my professional life was skyrocketing and I had just been married one year, all this stuff happened that made me lose control of my life. I got really sick. I lost a pregnancy. I had to go into chemotherapy without being able to freeze my eggs. I just felt like everything got taken away. I never realized how much I tried to control everything until I had that experience. It was so surprising to me. I was like, wait a minute. I tried my best to get an aerial perspective of, what is perfectionism? How can I be a perfectionist if I never know where my phone is? What’s going on? Then I realized and noticed all these patterns in my work. Five personality patterns emerged. I want to just lay the groundwork for the definition of perfectionism that I’m using because there is no clinical definition of perfectionist. It’s sort of the wild, wild west in the clinical and research landscape. We all agree in the research world that we’re in the infancy of understanding this concept. I was so frustrated because I didn’t have the language to anchor what I was seeing and noticing in myself and the people I worked with. That’s what I did with this book. I tried to offer some language to begin to anchor some of what I’m seeing.

The five types are the classic — this type of perfectionist — each has their pros and cons — highly reliable, adds structure to any situation, can always figure it out. They do what they say they’re going to do when they say they’re going to do it in the way they said they would do it. On the con side, sometimes they can be so immersed in the busyness of their structure and plan that they can lose sight of why they’re doing the things that they’re doing. Sometimes interpersonally, they can be taken for granted because people just expect them to always do it, whatever that is. Their style of working or connecting may not necessarily engender a sense of collaboration or things that create connection. Then there’s the intense perfectionist. This is somebody who’s like — you want something done? Give it to an intense perfectionist. There’s razor-sharp focus on achieving the outcome. It’s great. At the same time, sometimes that focus on the outcome can be so myopic that you get to the outcome in this really destructive way. You hurt yourself and people around you to achieve what you’re trying to achieve. At the end, it’s kind of like, sure, you got what you wanted, but nobody’s happy. Everybody’s miserable. It’s that kind of thing. Then there’s the procrastinator perfectionist. This perfectionist wants the conditions to be perfect before they start. These people are so good at preparing. They’re so good at understanding a 360 angle on everything. They are not impulsive. These are steady thinkers. Yet they have so much anxiety around the beginning of something. They just can’t execute when their perfectionism isn’t being managed.

On the counterpart to that, there’s the messy perfectionists. These perfectionists are start-happy. They love starting a million things, cast a hugely wide net, are superstar idea generators. When they meet the tedium of the middle of the process — they’re like, I’m going to start a business about this. It’s going to be named this. This is how my color palate on my Instagram page is going to be. Then it’s like, what do you mean I have to file a PLLC? I don’t want to do that. When they encounter the not perfect, not romanticized parts of a process, they just back away. If you’re not managing that type of perfectionism, you’re saying yes to everything and committing to nothing. It’s like playing Jenga. It’s built to fall. It’s really disheartening when it falls because I think you can internalize those messages. Nobody takes me seriously. I just can’t get my stuff together. All of that. None of that it true. It’s just that you need boundaries around your perfectionism. Then the last one is Parisian perfectionists. This kind of perfectionism is really interesting because it plays out interpersonally. This is when you want to be perfectly liked. You also want to perfectly like other people. You want an ideal connection. You want that connection maybe at work or with your kids. You want to be the perfect mom. Whatever perfect means to you.

That’s what’s really interesting about perfectionism. It’s highly individualized. When I say perfect, I don’t mean the culturally sanctioned idea of perfect. It’s really nuanced. That’s where it can get tricky. It means, of course, it’s okay to get frustrated if you’re a mom, but the time you get frustrated and the reason you get frustrated and how long you get frustrated and the intensity of your frustration, there’s all a map for that in your head. You can’t be disproportionally frustrated for some little thing that your kid did, for example. That’s when we get into the trickiness of really being able to identify what’s happening, which is that you have a perfect image of what being a mom is. It’s not someone who never gets mad, but it’s really specific. You may or may not be aware of that. Same with employees. Same with partnerships. Same with all those things. Whenever you deviate from this image that you have, if you’re not managing your perfectionism, you respond to that deviation with punishment. If people don’t get anything else from this book, I want them to hear that punishment is dumb. It’s not a strategy. It doesn’t work. It not only doesn’t work, it makes everything worse.

Zibby: Thank you.

Katherine: We punish ourselves so much. Punishment is very different than discipline. Punishment is different. I spell this out in The Perfectionist’s Guide to Losing Control. Punishment’s different than taking personal accountability or rehabilitation or allowing natural consequences to unfold. All punishment is is laying pain on top of whatever’s there. It’s a lazy thing to do. It’s what most people do when they don’t know what else to do because they want to feel responsible or be accountable. The grand plan is to be really hard on yourself in order to whip yourself into shape. You actually just lodge yourself in shame and stuck-ness when you do that.

Zibby: Wow, very interesting. Let’s say someone’s listening. All of a sudden, they’re like, this is me. Although, I have to say, after you ran through the types, I’m not even sure which one I am because there are bits and pieces of me in every single category. What do we do with this? I know you outlined a lot of this in the book and ways to live with this better and use it to our advantage and all of that. I’m a listener. I’m a perfectionist. Obviously, I’m running out and buying your book, The Perfectionist’s Guide to Losing Control. Then what?

Katherine: I think you’re hearing a little bit of you sprinkled in all these personality profiles because perfectionism is really context-dependent and fluid. I think we all had this experience when we just went home for the holidays. You’re a different person if you go home to your family. I don’t know about anyone else, but I tend to regress into my fourteen-year-old self. I get into really classic perfectionist-y kind of ways because there’s something soothing about that to me. Some people can be a messy perfectionist at dating. They love going on the first, second, third date. Oh, my gosh, it’s so great. Then you’re on the fourth date. The person says something or does something that really puts you off. You feel like the whole thing is off. You call it all off. This shows up in a lot of different contexts. I would say the number-one thing that you can use as a tool to help you cultivate the power of your perfectionism is self-compassion. I dedicated a whole chapter to self-compassion because it’s one of those words that we just toss around. Nobody really knows what it means or what it looks like. We think of it in this productive way. Self-compassion is just being super nice to yourself, really, really sweet. That’s not what self-compassion is.

Self-compassion is a three-step resiliency-building skill. It’s a skill that you need if you want to progress and grow. You can’t really move if you don’t engage in self-compassion. The best you can hope for is stagnation. Maybe I could just go through those three steps and spell those out. This is from Dr. Kristin Neff’s framework of self-compassion. The first step is mindfulness. Again, another word, what does that even mean? She extracts her definition of mindfulness from Buddhist thinking. She means — let’s say you experience disappointment. The goal is not to say, how can I not feel disappointed anymore? A better question is, what else do I also feel? If you learn to turn your head just one degree to the right and see that you might also feel relieved that at least now you know whatever it is that you just found out that made you feel disappointed — maybe you’re curious about this other thing that you forgot about because you’d been so immersed in whatever it is that’s making you feel disappointed. Maybe you feel sensual or excited or playful or tired or whatever. Just beginning to see that there are lots of colors in your emotional landscape. Disappointment’s not the only thing you’re experiencing. I think that’s why people feel so stuck in those moments, is because we let one emotion just eclipse us like a tidal wave. Mindfulness is one.

Common humanity is another. There’s millions and billions of people who have had your exact problem. It doesn’t feel that way when we are having the problem, particularly around problems that are taboo for our culture, like sexual abuse, for example. It feels like this is such an uncommon thing. No one can ever relate to me. Nobody could understand this. I describe common humanity as, imagine someone picked you up like one of those claw grabber machines at an arcade and plunked you down in a room full of fifty people who are telling their story of having the exact same problem that you have. You don’t have to talk. You don’t have to do anything. You just have to sit there and listen. Immediately, that’s curative. Nothing’s even happening except that you’re realizing, oh, I’m not alone. We tell people “You’re not alone” all the time. People tell us. I think we all register that intellectually. For me, when I’m in those moments, unless I’m hearing someone’s story, which is why storytelling and books are so powerful, you just don’t emotionally register it. That’s common humanity.

Then the third component of self-compassion is kindness. Kindness looks like recognizing that you’re in pain, and that’s hard. Sometimes we kind of dance around — I feel disappointed. This sucks. I’m having a really hard morning. We’re using all these euphemisms, in some ways, to detract from acknowledging, I am hurting. This is painful. This person, friendship, relationship really hurt me. If you can acknowledge that you’re in pain and then just do one kind thing for yourself — not problem-solving. You’re not trying to fix anything. You’re just saying, are you cold? Can I get you a sweater? Do you need some tea? Do you want to sit down? You want to just watch a show and relax for a minute? This is a lot. That’s one tool that I present in the book of the tool of self-compassion. It’s much more sophisticated than I think it’s advertised in our culture. I’m really excited about people beginning to understand what that means and what it looks like because you can access it at any time. Even if you just do one of those things, that’s good. Self-compassion is this salve to punishment. The opposite of punishment is self-compassion.

Zibby: Amazing resources. When you talked about the hard time in your life, can you tell us a little bit more about that and how it affected your need for control or just how you got through it emotionally?

Katherine: One thing that’s really oddly sad about that time is that — this is what made me realize, wow, I’m really operating from a mindset of control instead of a mindset of power. I was really calm during that time. It was peaceful to me because I was like, oh, the bad thing that I was always sure was going to happen is happening now. The shoe has dropped. Now nothing else bad can happen, which doesn’t logically make any sense. It made me realize how much I was moving through my daily life just trying to stave off some impending disaster and trying to control all the stuff that I had so that I wouldn’t ever lose it, or on the converse, trying to control all the stuff that I felt close to getting so that I could finally have it. I was just operating for the outcome instead of living in my daily life. When I got sick, because I had this false emotionally charged logic of, this is the bad thing, nothing else bad could happen — thankfully, it didn’t, but it could have. I was in such a place of peace and power, which is the subtitle of the book, finding peace and power. When you let go of trying to control — I had no control. I couldn’t do anything about losing my pregnancy. I couldn’t do anything about being one year into my marriage and feeling like, oh, god, I don’t know if we can have kids now. I don’t know if my partner still wants to be married to me. I don’t know if I’m worthy of being his partner now because this isn’t what he signed up for. All the themes that I delve into in the book, it was a crash course in all of that, in addition to the thousands and thousands of hours I’ve clocked as a psychotherapist listening to people be really honest about their lives.

I’m always like, why isn’t everyone a psychotherapist? When you hear people all day long being really honest about what’s going on and how they feel about it, you can’t not be changed by that. Being a therapist is also this mini crash course in growth because that’s what it means to really listen. Listening is not taking in information and being able to dictate it back. Listening is being able to be changed by what the other person is saying. My clients have changed me in the most indelible, beautiful ways. The curriculum of my life has also helped with that, as it has with everybody. Nothing’s unique about my story, really. We all go through periods where we free fall. We just lose control. The things that we thought we were so sure about are gone. They’re glitching. Something weird is happening. That’s not going to be the last time that happens in my life. That’s the nature of life. I don’t need it to be the last time that that happens. I really always thought I knew how to anchor myself in power, but that was the moment I had to prove it to myself. After that moment, I was like, great, now I have to write a book. Obviously, writing this book is the best thing I’ve ever done, hardest thing I’ve ever done. I wasn’t expecting to. I had to contain all that stuff that just came together. I hate to say it was such a gift because I don’t want to wrap a bow on it. I don’t want other people to hear me and feel the expectation to wrap a bow on whatever hard thing they’re going through. That’s the seed of the book, is that moment in time for me.

Zibby: What ended up happening with your husband?

Katherine: We’re still together. One night, I said to myself, I’m just going to give him an out to this marriage. I’m not going to do it when I’m sad. I’m going to do it when we’re both in a good place and we’re happy and connected. I’m just going to tell him something to the extent of, I love you. I want you to be happy. I know you want kids. I don’t know what’s going to happen. I know you didn’t sign up for this. We’re one year in. It’s okay. I did do that. He just laughed at me in the most wonderful way. He was like, “I didn’t marry you so that we could have kids. I married you so that we could be together. There are lots of ways to bring kids into our lives. If we can’t figure out any of them –” You know what he told me? I don’t know if he’s going to be mad at me for saying this or not. He was like, “We could just blow all our money on dumb shit, and nobody can be mad at us because we’ll be so sad.” I was like, “Okay, that sounds good to me.”

Zibby: Oh, my god, I love it. That’s good. I’m glad he has a sense of humor. That’s awesome.

Katherine: I needed some comic relief in that moment, for sure.

Zibby: It’s so great. You’re still seeing private clients? You’re open?

Katherine: I’m not at the moment. I took time out of my practice to write this book. Now that I know how to write a book, I have another one that I want to write, of course. A perfectionist’s work is never done. I’m excited for that. I’m just letting this whole process take me to wherever it’s going to take me.

Zibby: I love that. That’s an anti-perfectionist thing, isn’t it, just letting things go, or not?

Katherine: I think it’s the adaptative perfectionist.

Zibby: Katherine, again, this book, I’m going to spend a lot more time with this book. I’m going to keep it next to my bed. I’m going to give a copy to my husband. I’m going to be like, understand me a little bit better now, if you will. Thank you. It was really great. You’re a great writer. I’m excited for the next one.

Katherine: Thank you so much. Congratulations on everything that you are doing. I can’t wait to see everything unfold. In the next month, your first book on your imprint’s coming out. The store’s opening. You’re everywhere.

Zibby: I’m sorry, it must be annoying.

Katherine: No, I love it. I love it. You’re exactly the kind of person I talk about in the book, the person who’s not afraid to be out there and be doing what they want to do and taking real pleasure in their lives. I love seeing people out in the world living in that way. It’s a great example and model.

Zibby: Glad I can be of use. Thank you so much. Now that I know that we’re so close, we’ll have to get together, or next event I have or something.

Katherine: For sure. Absolutely. Take care. Thank you.

Zibby: Thanks so much. Buh-bye.

Katherine: Bye.

Katherine Morgan Schafler, THE PERFECTIONIST'S GUIDE TO LOSING CONTROL: A Path to Peace and Power

THE PERFECTIONIST’S GUIDE TO LOSING CONTROL: A Path to Peace and Power by Katherine Morgan Schafler

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