5 Tips to Get the Stress Out

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Start Getting Over It

When I reverse the equation, of course, I admit that Haywood's right. I'd be perfectly happy -- make that thrilled, exultant! -- to be invited at the last minute to a friend's house for takeout, even if the house were a wreck, the hostess had flat hair and there was nary a tulip in sight. So why can't I imagine that others would feel the same way? Why do I turn potentially fun and rewarding activities into more stress?

Why? Let me count the pathologies:

First, there's "Martha Stewart Syndrome." If we believe that perfection is the norm, then we also believe we're alone in our shame whenever we fall short. "I put all this pressure on myself because I need to maintain the charade that I can do it all," says Anna Gray Hart, a preschool teacher in Houston. "I can work, be the perfect wife and mother, keep a spotless house and cook a killer meal from recipes I know by heart, and I can do it all with a cheery disposition. In reality, I'm desperately looking for recipes online, exiling my children from the house, borrowing ingredients from my neighbor, and vacuuming up the last bit of dog hair even as the guests arrive -- all to 'prove' I'm superhuman."

Then there's that good-girl bugaboo, responsibility, observes Susan Wagner, a Web site manager in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. When her first child was a baby and it was Wagner's turn to host the playgroup, she'd clean the house from top to bottom, prepare two meals (one for the kids and the other for the moms), and make dessert from scratch, "all so six toddlers could drag toys all over the house and leave cracker crumbs in the sofa," she says. Planning parties, outings, and vacations is still our job, even if we have the full-time salaried versions, too. And as we surely know by now -- cue your own mother's voice here -- any job worth doing is worth doing right. "We don't want to fail," says Wagner, "so we overcompensate."

Or we're so defeatist we can't imagine that fun can exist without stress. "I keep hearing about how stress relieving scrapbooking is," says Christine Ives, a patient representative at a Morrison, Colorado, medical practice who'd like to join her friends in this hobby. "Knowing me, though, I'd always have a half-finished project hanging over my head, and I'd spend way too much money on supplies."

And what psychological profile of the modern American woman would be complete without guilt? "My nails are always a mess, but I just can't bring myself to spend $25 on a manicure," says Miller Callen, an at-home Nashville mom of three. "Any pleasure I'd get from it would be canceled out by how bad I'd feel about the extravagance."

Often there's a heaping helping of skewed priorities as well, says Claire Michaels Wheeler, MD, PhD, author of 10 Simple Solutions to Stress. We love our family and friends and want to make them happy, she says, but "we often lose sight of what's really going to please them." Will your friends actually care if your guacamole isn't homemade? No, but that doesn't stop us from thinking it needs to be.

Finally, there's plain old competition -- even when there's exactly one contender in the contest. For her daughter's fifth-birthday party earlier this year, Maribelle Lewis, a medical technologist in Elmwood Park, New Jersey, prepared a kids' meal of chicken strips, hot dogs, and pizza, as well as an adult menu that included both white and yellow rice, chicken, shredded beef, potato salad, tossed salad, corn on the cob, lasagna, and meatballs. "I'm known for great kids' parties, so each year I feel like I have to top last year's," Lewis admits.

It's not clear why women, far more than men, get so caught up in the idea that fun is a competitive sport, but Dr. Wheeler has a theory: Girls have been told since the '60s that they can have it all -- a loving marriage, well-adjusted children, meaningful work -- but no one ever warns them how hard it's going to be. Consequently, says Dr. Wheeler, "we have unrealistic expectations of ourselves as mothers, wives, and career women because our culture has agreed that we should excel at all of them." So we spend our time and energy trying to reach this unattainable goal and don't give ourselves permission to just blow it all off and have a good time. But it's possible to do just that with five simple ways to take the stress out of de-stressing.

Continued on page 3:  Tip 1: "Done" Is Better Than "Perfect"


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