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Dr. Zurita Ona (Dr. Z) is a licensed clinical psychologist who founded the East Bay Behavior Therapy Center where she runs an outpatient program integrating Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) and Exposure Response Prevention (ERP). She is experienced in working with children, adolescents and adults with OCD, trauma, anxiety and emotional regulation problems. Her work is dedicated to helping clients get “unstuck” and living the life they want to live. 

She is the author of several books, including her recent publication Acceptance and Commitment Skills for Perfectionism and High-Achieving Behaviors: Do Things Your Way, Be Yourself and Live a Purposeful Life. 

In this week’s episode, Sonya and Dr. Z tackled topics such as achievement, perfectionism, overworking, values and much more.

“I see when a person is prone to do things right and perfectly to pay attention to details. It’s important to ask yourself three questions. The first question is what’s my motivation here? Am I chasing an outcome or am I chasing the process? The second question will be, am I trying to approach something like gain recognition from someone or being seen by others or I’m trying to avoid being a failure and feel like I’m not good enough? And the third question is, how am I holding my standards? Am I holding on to them with white knuckles or I’m holding them softly and flexible? So I think those three questions are the beginning to check whether your perfectionistic actions are helping you to get closer to your values or pushing you farther away.”

– Dr. Zurita Ona

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Key Takeaways

  • Healthy high achievement
  • Perfectionistic actions
  • How we tie sense of accomplishment with sense of self
  • Perfectionism and seeking control
  • What to do when you are stuck
  • The optimal amount of hard work
  • Striving to be the best without comparison
  • Perfectionism and passion
  • Celebrating success
  • Controlling the controllables


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Sonya Looney: Hi, Patricia, welcome to the podcast.

Dr. Zurita Ona (Dr. Z): Thank you so much for having me, very much appreciate it.

Sonya: We were just talking about the high energy vibes, and just energy in general that we’re both bringing today. And I’m excited for the guests to feel it too.

Dr. Z: Yeah, I have been a big fan of your podcast. I’m excited to share our energies together in this episode.

Sonya: So today I’m really excited about our conversation. And I was also really interested in your book about perfectionism and high achievers, because I thought, wait a minute, I think this book is written for me. So can you first start with why you wrote this book?

Dr. Z: Yeah, thank you for asking that question. Well, the background of this story is that I am an immigrant. I am a woman. I have been in many circles in which I had to push myself to work harder and harder to get certain outcomes. And in my process of pursuing certain goals and certain accomplishments, there have been times in which I was lost, chasing an outcome, and chasing to be seen by others, even though I didn’t have control of those reactions. And in my work, I specialize on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. And I work exclusively with overthinkers and overachievers dealing with any form of fear based struggles. So in my work, I also hear from my clients, they struggle with pursuing perfection with high achievements with a striving and perfectionistic actions. So I think it was my personal experience, knowing how when you deeply care about something, of course you want to get things right and perfectly. it makes sense. And my clients relate to the mindset. However, the whole work, especially the last 20 years, tell us you should drop those standards, don’t work as hard as you need, just let it go. But the reality is that those messages can be extremely alienating when you deeply care about some stuff, and not so they don’t work. Because quite often high achievers, they are pursuing what is important to them with a lot of caring because it matters. So imagine that someone tells you, Sonya, don’t worry about the quality of your podcast, don’t worry about the microphone, or the audio, just let that go. How will that be for you?

Sonya: Someone actually said something like that to me around my newsletter. It was around when I had a newborn and I said, it’s really important to me that I stay consistent with this. And they said, oh, don’t worry, it’s not a big deal. But to me, it was.

Dr. Z: So you have direct experience as my clients and myself that when we deeply care about things, this message is about dropping our standards, they actually don’t match with what matters to us, with our values. It just happens that we have to find ways to pursue what matters to us with flexibility, to hold our values lively instead of holding them, right? So I’ve realized in my personal life, every time I students will diss me with being a workaholic, or working too much or I will hear from my clients that experience, I realized that it is important to avoid demonizing perfectionistic, high achieving actions, and to help people to accept themselves as they are with a promise to do things right and perfectly because they deeply care. And to teach them the skills to hold those that promise and those behaviors slightly instead of holding them as rules. So the book came from my personal experience and my work with clients. And know the standard literature has dichotomize perfectionist behavior as black and white, good or bad. But the reality is that there is a group of people that deeply care about doing things right and perfectly. And I think it’s important to have the skills and a mindset that can hold that with caring and with compassion. So that’s the story.

Sonya: Yeah, I think it’s really interesting whenever we think about striving and trying to achieve things, because we think about where is this coming from. And I know personally, I used to try to achieve things to prove that I was good, to prove that I was worthy, seeking external validation instead of from my values. And that’s something that I still struggle with, but not nearly like I used to. So in terms of striving and achieving and perfectionism, how do we number one realize where that’s coming from? And then number two, how do we strive from a healthy place without getting too overly indexed on this external validation piece?

Dr. Z: That’s a great question. When I think about perfectionism and high achieving I’m thinking about the outcome of different psychological processes. I think that perfectionistic actions are driven by a strong fear of making mistake, a strong fear of being a failure. Rules about how things supposed to be or how they’re supposed to be. And then a strong attachment to the sense of self defined by what accomplishments. So the combination of these psychological processes drives perfectionistic actions. Now, answering your question specifically, I see when a person is prone to do things right and perfectly to pay attention to details. It’s important to ask yourself three questions. The first question is what’s my motivation here? Am I chasing an outcome or am I chasing the process? The second question will be, am I trying to approach something like gain recognition from someone or being seen by others or I’m trying to avoid being a failure and feel like I’m not good enough? And the third question is, how am I holding my standards? Am I holding on to them with white knuckles or I’m holding them softly and flexible? So I think those three questions are the beginning to check whether your perfectionistic actions are helping you to get closer to your values or pushing you farther away. There are many areas in which perfectionistic actions can show up in the way that we’re running a podcast, in the way that we are parenting, in the way that we are relating to food or to our bodies, in the way that we’re approaching our friendships or romantic relationships. So every time that we find ourselves with this feeling that says you have to do more. It’s not enough. Watch out, you may make a mistake, watch out, you may not be a good friend, right now, we have to check what you’re chasing. Am I trying to approach something or avoid something? And how am I holding my standards? I think those key questions are going to help people to distinguish whether your perfectionistic actions are effective or ineffective in your life.

Sonya: Those three questions are really powerful, and also the fears that you mentioned – fear of mistakes of failures of rules. And you also mentioned defining of self based on accomplishments. And I think that in some ways, we are defined by that in our society, like people ask, oh, what do you do? I hate asking people, what do you do for work whenever I meet them, because I don’t want them to have to define themselves based on what they do, which is partially related to accomplishment. So talking about accomplishment and defining sense of self, how should we define sense of self, either without tying it to accomplishment, or gently tying it to accomplishment?

Dr. Z: Yeah, that’s such an important question, right? And there’s so many ways to answer it. I think I will start by sharing that it does make sense that when you… about something, and you get a particular outcome, you feel proud of yourself, right? I think there is a lot of intrinsic motivation when you’re prone to do things, right. And when you are a striver, right, and there is nothing wrong with that. What is important is to check if I only think of myself based on that dimension, if I’m thinking of Patricia oh, she’s an author and that’s all what I am, I think it’s important to imagine that it’s one act exercise. It’s a values-based exercise, in which you invite people to imagine what will your romantic partner, or what your child or what your best friend will say about you? If you’re celebrating your 80th birthday, like I will ask myself, Patricia, if your best friend will be in your party and you’re celebrating 80th birthday, what would you like them to say about you? What would you like them to say about how you live your life? And I think when we practice some values based exercises, or do some values based exercises, we’re gonna unpack a little bit. There are different areas in our life. And there are different ways of being that were not defined necessarily only by our accomplishments. I think sometimes if I was, our identity more like a canvas, right, what containers of different experiences were containers of different feelings, different emotions are not different stories about who we are. So in ACT terms, in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, we talk about the self in context. That is a self that is a part of us all the time doing talking like you and I are doing right now. There is a part of us that observes these experiences as if we’re watching our life in a movie. And there is a setting context that container under canvas of all these aspects of who we are. So I think it does make sense that we are going to be over identify ourselves with our accomplishments. There is nothing wrong with that. The challenge is that when we hold on to that identity as the only thing that define us, because then what happens when we’re going to reach an outcome that we’re chasing, which is a lot of times, things are going to go wrong. That’s just the game of life. Right? So let me take a step back and doing some value-based exercises, of perspective-taking exercises, help us to step back again and notice that we are containers and holders of these experiences. I think that we have lots of things that define us.

Sonya: Now, something that sort of stuck out to me when you were talking was talking about that mental time travel piece to your 80th birthday, and how you live your life. And when you think about what we were just talking about, if you’re achievement oriented, and only defining yourself based on your achievements at your 80th birthday, you would start talking about how you’ve achieved things in your life, what has this 80 year old person achieved, versus how this person has lived their life? And those are actually two separate things.

Dr. Z: I love that distinction you’re making because the how you have achieved I think we’ll speak about the process, right? Like, it will be really hard for me if my partner said, yeah, Patricia was very, very busy chasing to be seen by others, and chasing to be…So I will hope my partner will say Patricia was doing her best to live a fulfilling life and being caring with the people she loves, right? So I think when we look at our values, there are other exercises within ACT that we can, we can we can practice, it will give us a sense of what really matters to us, and who really we are right. We’re not these stories, we’re not our accomplishments, so we can enjoy them, but they don’t have to define us.

Sonya: So when you were talking about perfectionism, one of the things that you mentioned was body image. And it made me think about disordered eating, and how potentially certain high achieving behaviors or perfectionist behaviors could be a grasp for control. So can you talk about whether perfectionism is a grasp for trying to control something? Because you have fear of uncertainty or fear of something that could happen?

Dr. Z: Yeah, yeah. Thank you for asking that question. I think there is a lot of writing that conceptualize perfectionistic actions and the striving actions as a form of control. I think first what I would like to do is normalize that response. When you deeply care about things, and you’re prone to get things and do things right and perfectly, it is scary when you don’t know how the outcome is going to go. It is scary that someone out of the blue, something changes, people change their mind, people change their behaviors. My clients, and I have experienced this myself, when you think about the fear of making mistakes is a very different type of feeling, the possibility that someone may see that you’re a fraud, or the possibility that someone may think that you’re not good enough, it’s petrifying, right. It’s a different type of feeling. So in those moments it is human to do everything you can to minimize that particular feeling to get rid of that feeling to suppress that feeling. So it’s human that part of us in those moments of stuckness, of course, when we’re trying to control everything, control the outcome, maybe control other people’s behaviors, maybe control what you think of me in this podcast. So I want to start by saying that it is human to respond with some controlling behaviors when we get stuck, because we deeply care. Not because we want to talk to people, but because we deeply care. So it’s human to jump into these places over control. So there is a lot of writings that have think of perfectionist that in that way, what I would like to do is one normalize and also add a piece of compassion, because in those moments, and I can tell you this personally, and also I have here this for my clients directly, it feels like a dilemma, it feels like you’re holding a dialectic, right? On the one hand, you are scared of letting it go of those standards and those controllers behaviors, because maybe you’re scared of the outcome. On the other hand of the dialectic, if you don’t do anything about it, it feels bad, feels uncomfortable. So it’s a catch 22. So I think these controlling responses are human. We can learn to handle them with compassion without judging ourselves. And we can also learn to respond to them in a more effective way by going back to our values. When we feel like controlling another person’s behaviors because they have disappoint us, because they have said the wrong thing or when I feel that I gained in three extra pounds up I didn’t want to gain, or because my child is doing something that reflects on my parenting style, right. And I may feel like control in those instances, I will invite people to acknowledge that it is hard. It’s a moment of stuckness. And it’s a moment when you want to ask yourself, what’s my value in this situation? How do I want to respond to this right now, versus judging ourselves? The only reason why it’s important for me to normalize these responses is because again, there is a lot of literature looking at high achievers as over controlling people. When we hold on to these labels, right, we forget to look at people as people interacting in a context, of people who are reaching a moment of stuckness. It’s easy to label behaviors, but I think it doesn’t help a person to get unstuck to box their behavior, right. So I think if we can really go back to the root of this, this over controlling behaviors are the outcome of feeling stuck, and feeling that you had two bad choices in front of you. If you don’t do anything, the outcome will be bad. If you let go of trying to control the outcome, you’re going to be anxious and scared. So knowledge and moment of stagnant is a much more compassionate way to understand this controlling responses that we all may engage with our lives at some point.

Sonya: This really sounds like a habit loop like Dr. Judd Brewer always talks about habit loops, and anxiety is a habit loop and the feeling stuck being a cue, and then the behavior, trying to control everything and noticing this habit loop can help you get unstuck from it. And it sounds like one of the bigger better offers, using his words is acceptance and compassion. But how can people practice this acceptance and this compassion piece? Because when you’re in the moment, and you’re almost triggered, or you’re feeling these strong emotions, to accept that it’s okay, and you don’t have to push the motions away, but to let them in? And then to choose how you respond. Because it sounds good when you say it, but I think for a lot of people, it’d be really hard to practice that in the moment.

Dr. Z: Yeah, no, absolutely, absolutely right, in those moments, would be like throwing by the window, any skill we have left, right. So thank you for asking that question. So what I will invite people when they encounter this moment of stuckness, one is that we have to, I think, tap into how it feels in your body. Our emotions, our feelings, start with sensations in our body. If we look at that, what internal experience we know who we’re getting triggered, if your heart is still beating fast, you have shortness of breath, or something had this urge to do more and more, right, you have to work extra hard and harder. So when you notice this internal cues, that is the cue that you are reaching a moment of stuckness and also a moment of choice. So the first thing to do is to ground yourself, there are different ways to ground yourself and use your body as a way to bring yourself back to the present. As a way to get out of the what ifs into the world as you may want to press your feet really hard against the floor, for example, you may want to wiggle your toes, you may want to step back a little bit and roll your shoulders back, you may want to take a deep breath intentionally. And you may want to check what you’re sensing in your body right now, it doesn’t have to be the perfect name, but you may want to say okay, there’s butterflies in my stomach. I have this urge kicking into more and more. And in those moments, you have a choice to make because those sensations are going to push you to do something to say something. And you may want to say you may want to also check what is important for me what really matters to me in this moment. How do I want to show up, ask about your values. And then ask yourself what will be the behavior that is consistent with this value in this moment. So that choice comes between doing whether sensation or the fear of making a mistake, or the fears of being a failure or push you to do or what your values ask you to do in that moment. Sometimes it is a choice to do nothing and to say I am going to wait for the next five minutes or to coach yourself to manage that emotion you can use acceptance prompts. In this moment, I am going to do the best I can to watch this emotion coming and going. I’m going to say how this emotion comes and goes without doing anything besides watching. I am going to imagine that this motion is like a wave in the ocean that has an ebb and flow. I am going to do the best I can to notice my thoughts are they are calming and calming without acting on them. So with do some self talk as a form of coaching ourselves. Notice that these acceptance pros or coaching statements are not about the outcome are not about set, it’s going to be good, everything is going to be fine. Because we don’t know. The coach and the statements, it’s about noticing our internal experience and observing for what it is. So those will be some micro skills to handle these moments of stuckness so we don’t go into this automatic pilot way of responding to our own triggers.

Sonya: We talked about overworking a bit, I’m certainly prone to that, like in the framework of Valerie Young’s imposter syndrome, I am the expert. So I never know enough. And I have to keep working and working and working so I can keep proving myself. So how do you know what is the optimal amount of work? If you know that you’re prone towards this overworking behavior, but you know that you need to work at something to improve at it, how do you know where that where that line or that ranges?

Dr. Z: That’s a great question, Sonya, that is a fabulous question. Because I have been told by a lot of my students that they have workaholic tendencies. In fact, that joke with me, I always remember this, it’s one evening, years ago, when I was working in my practice, one of my students walks into my office and he say, Patricia, are you bringing your back to the office? And I remember I you know, I have a soft smiled, right? And then I laugh, my student tease me. But inside me there was also some sadness, I felt unseen. Because of course, I deeply cared about my work, and why should I measure how many hours I put into it. So over the years, over the years, I have learned to distinguish when I am getting lost into these overworking behaviors, and when they are revitalizing and engaging like and it’s healthy for me to do more. I think it’s spread in biopsychology is that there is you have to find this balance because between work life and your personal life, and there has been a bunch of people, bunch of organizational psychologists like Adam Grant that they have deconstructed this myth, what never quantify the 50-50 balance this perfect balance between different areas of our lives. What I encourage people and I have reading a lot in the book is that it is important to notice how in your life you travel in seasons, or you develop your own rhythms, our lives of different areas, our friendships, parenting, our career, personal health, recreation, funny stuff that we have to do. And given that we have a limited amount of time and a limited amount of hours, we’re often faced with these values conflict. And it’s like, okay, do I spend five hours writing on Sunday? Or do I go for a bike ride with my partner? Right? Two things are important, right? And when you want to do things right and perfectly, this feels like oh, my gosh, what do I do, it feels like a torture having to make a choice. So I think it is important also to give ourselves permission to make a choice, not an optimal choice. And when you choose something that matters to you, you’re also saying no to something that matters to you. I mean, you are going to give yourself permission to grieve that choice you have made. But when you make those choices, and your knowledge that they’re going to be imperfect, you’re also going to have the freedom to say in the next three months, I will prioritize let’s say, my friendships. And then in May, I will prioritize recreation, and fun time. And they will let’s say in September, I will pick up again with my career. So it’s given ourselves the permission to make a choice, not a perfect choice, that will help us to find a rhythm that is more context base, and is not rule base. The rule is always work harder and harder, and make sure that you are the best partner and you’re the best mom, you’re the best podcaster, you’re the best psychologist, right. And we try to do all these things in all areas of our life. So that is not a sustainable model, that given ourself permission to make a choice, to grieve some of the choices we make, is going to help us to find our rhythms. So I think it’s not that it’s not that simple or short response. But I think that we’re problem is to overwork. It’s important to check you know what’s happening in other areas of your life. And if you want to have a fulfilling life, that means that you’re going to put some energy and time in different areas of your life at different times, because it will be hard to do everything at once.

Sonya: I love that you talked about conflicting values, because you’re right that happens all the time. And especially if you love your work, which you do and I do. I actually love to work a 12-hour day, I think it’s so fun, but I have to hold myself back from doing that because I know that that’s not good for me over the long run. And just like what you said, I call it intentional imbalance with these rhythms, I choose to have that and I say, I’m going to be focused on, you know, this one area this for this month or this quarter or these weeks. And then the next time I’m going to be more focused on this type of thing. And you can even do that within your own work. People ask me, how do you wear so many hats and do so many different things? And it’s by doing that it’s not by doing everything well all the time, but it’s by prioritizing what are the things that are most important right now.

Sonya: I love this intentional imbalance. And if it’s okay, can I ask a little bit more? I know for myself, because I am super passionate about what I do like you, I may enjoy your 12-15 hours of work, right? It’s my passion, I will be super excited with that. But I know it’s not sustainable, right. My body feels it, my mind feels it. So I have committed to myself and have promised myself to not overdo things. Sometimes you’ll have to give myself permission to overdo things because it happens. But in general, over the years, I have told myself, okay, that there has X number of hours. And in this month, I’m focusing on these three values of my life. And  literally every month I’m tracking how I’m doing, how I’m living my values. And if, let’s say like at 5pm, when I want to pause and take a break to go to the gym, and I have this urge Patricia, it’s just one more email. It’s just one more email, it will be like one second. And I’m like, ah, you know that feeling. So in those moments, I know I remind myself, yeah, well are you commit into while you’re committing? And when I engage in moving physically? Right, I think that helped me to go to my next. But that is something that I have prayed over the years. How do you manage the tiny services? Just one more email? Just one more interview, just one more call, knowing that if we keep doing that we’re going to have the 1215 hours? Because it’s never just one more email, right? Because then with the other one too, you know, this one is easy, right? And then we look at the clock three hours passed by. How do you handle that?

Sonya: I’m smiling, because I don’t think there’s ever a time where you have that 100% perfect. I think like what you said, noticing the behavior, because I do that all the time. And I’m a professional athlete, I need to train. But I often am so excited about my other work that an hour goes by and I haven’t gotten on my bike yet. And I get frustrated that I haven’t gotten on my bike yet. But for me, it was more about learning about the theory of well-being from Marty Seligman and learning that it’s not just about achievement, and about this work and engagement piece, like those are parts of the theory of well-being. But there’s relationships and there’s other pieces in life that make you feel more fulfilled, and also learning that the positive emotions associated with happiness, those come from lots of different areas. And by diversifying that, then I’m going to be even better at my work, even if I spend less time doing it.

Dr. Z: I’m so glad that you bring that up. And one of my favorite chapters in the book was talking about how we’re wired for distraction. Our brains are not designed to keep going on and on and on. So another microskill for me, and I encourage people to try this, is to schedule you reset times in my calendar every three months that actually reset times. And during the day, I literally have that reader like reset time to disconnect, right to simply disconnect from whatever I’m doing and distract myself. You can distract yourself with music, going for a short hike, going for a short walk, watching YouTubes of people that you like, but I think we have to acknowledge that in order to have a fulfilling life and to protect our well-being, we have to just make sure and put our brain to distract. By nature is going to go on there. So to me has been very helpful to build that in my schedule to hard reset times to just chill and let myself to disconnect a little bit.

Sonya: Something that you said earlier made me think – you said talking about the best podcast or the best athlete like the word best, when best is sort of an evaluation based on maybe not even your own evaluation. Maybe the best is like Apple podcast chart or whatever the thing is, and I think that best can become decoupled from process. And a lot of times you can have a process and still not “be the best” because you can’t control if you’re the best relative to somebody else. So from a high achieving and perfectionist behavior, how do you wrestle with doing your best having process, but without comparison?

Dr. Z: Well, I have a little story for you to answer that. So during COVID, all the gyms got closed, and that was very stressful for me because I exercise to keep my body healthy and to clear my mind, right? If I don’t exercise, I will be a walking mess. I need to exercise. And I try to go for a run, but then my knees were hurting. And then after maybe four or five months, one bike in a store got open. So I quickly drove and I got myself a bike. And that’s why I started biking. It has been a lifesaver, I can tell you that. I can tell you, I absolutely love to go for a bike ride like every Sunday and up there in the mountains. I am not as tough as you are. But I absolutely enjoy it. So it’s something that I completely know this, by the way, how it changed my mood, right? Even though sometimes I was maybe feeling tired that I could go, I could ride my bike over the month, and it was so refreshing. It’s such a sense of experience. You know, the smells, the sounds, what you see. And then finally, the body and the bike, right? But of course, of course, because the mind does its own mind thing when I was riding my bike, and I was like maybe having shortness of breath, having all these disturbing thoughts, can I do this, I’m not going to make bla bla bla bla. And then there was this group of bikers riding next to me, so easily, and my mind will say, I never will be like them, there’s no way I’m going to ride my bike like them. And then I will look a little bit above in the mountain. And then you will see this, other bikers, the mind will compare, in any situation we are in whether you are parenting your child, whether you’re writing a book, whether you’re doing an interview, let’s acknowledge our mind as a content generating machine, of course, it’s going to compare. Now, the challenge is when we hold on to those comparisons as our metric to measure ourselves, right? Like if my mind says, oh my goodness, Sonya, she’s a professional biker, I have to ride my bike like her. I can be inspired by you, right. But if I hold on to that as a rule, and may not acknowledge my context, my body constitution, the type of bike, I have the type of earning which I’m riding my bike. So I think a acknowledging the mind will compare is the first step to just make room for our mind to its own minding. But then noticing what you’re holding on to those comparisons that attributes. And how do we know we’re holding another circle? Because we’re perceiving that there is one single way to do things, right, that one behavior matches the rule there. Versus check, what’s my context right now in this given moment? What is doable to me without losing myself? I think that it says, what can I do that is consistent with my values without losing myself is important, because we make push ourself to do hundreds of things, and then go to bed, tired, exhausted, wake up cranky and we don’t go to the gym, we don’t hang out with our friends. So I think acknowledging the comparison thoughts, checking your values, checking what’s doable for you, in your given context, without losing yourself. I think that is one way of handling that. We can do what matters, without holding on to those comparison frames as rules for ourselves. Because our context, every person context, is going to be different, there is never the same. And there is so much that happens in our life that requires with things that happen in our life, versus trying to do the same step over another, that’s when we get stuck.

Sonya: Yeah, and our context changes as our life changes, like having children was a big shift in context for myself. And I think that a lot of times when people compare themselves to a previous version of themselves, potentially, they can get stuck as well, because maybe your inputs are now different, or your expectations are different, or even the weighting of your values have changed.

Dr. Z: Yeah, yeah. Yeah. Thank you for bringing that up. I think that’s another metric that we had, you know, I was able to do this in the past, 20 years ago, I should be able to do it now. When we think about body image, for example, how common is that people will say, oh, but my body looked like this then. I want it to look the same. Right. And we started overdoing things. You’re engaging in restrictive diets that make us feel tired and we don’t think clearly later on. I think this is important to hold our comparison thoughts as part of our mind and also to acknowledge that it is hard, sometimes things are hard. Letting go of the past of the things that we’re able to do in the past is not easy. But continue to push ourselves to do something without knowledge in our context, I think it’s much harder and adds much more suffering into our life. I remember when I started writing, that’s another story of comparison thoughts. So the first book that I wrote, I co-authored it with my mentor and his best friend. We were at a psychology conference, and we’re having dinner. And my mentor very kindly looked at me and says, I want to invite you to co-write this book with me. And I’m still a graduate student, maybe my second, third year, an immigrant with the accent, you hear today. And I start crying. And I remember saying, I can’t you know, there’s no, you know, it’s not my first language, I cannot do this. And he said, I think you’re ready. And I say, I can’t, very quickly holding on to our role, right? I quickly limit myself. And then four weeks later, I was knocking in his office door, then I say, okay, let’s do it. That was the first book that I wrote, I co-authored with my mentor and his friend. And I can tell you that my mind was, again, comparing myself with the writing. They have written at least five, 10 books by then; it was my first book. So the process was very different. But I remember also that I was very scared. I’m very anxious about how my writing will be and what will they think. And I will try to tell myself, just keep going. Sometimes we want to powering through things, because we think this effective thing to do. The challenge is the powering through things takes a lot of mental energy. So I think compassionate responses, being kind on ourselves, notice comparison thoughts in some way free us to make our next move in a more effective way.

Sonya: I wanted to talk about perfectionism as it relates to obsessive and harmonious passion. I think that that’s a super interesting place to go. And people might not even know what those two types of passion are. Can you talk about perfectionism, and these two types of passion?

Dr. Z: That’s a really quick concept, right? When I think about harmonious passion, I will invite you to chime in with me, I am thinking about this maybe mindset of doing well. In congruence with our values, that also find the rhythm to get things done. And that we also put a lot of, perhaps, waste effort into doing these activities. I think that either requires that we are in tune with our body experience, with our values. But we also are in this attunement in a soft way with what our environment. So I think that will help us to have more like a fulfilling life and a fulfilling day. But I’m curious how you think about harmonious passions.

Sonya: Yeah, I mean, I think that harmonious passion is doing the activity for the sake of the activity itself, without totally losing yourself, but without being constricted by it. Because I think that you can become obsessed with the thing that you’re working towards, even if you love it. And you start detaching from the original reasons why you started doing it in the first place. And the overworking piece can relate to that of, okay, I gotta write this perfect book, it has to be a best seller. And like, the reason why you started writing the book in the first place was because you were passionate and an expert in an area that you wanted to share information, but it becomes less about sharing that information and more about this outcome thing that you’re trying to grasp to prove yourself or to hang your worth onto.

Dr. Z: Hmm, I think that’s a beautiful, I think, description. When I was riding the bike, this is a thing a real life example. Of course, my mind was comparing a lot of comparison thoughts. But also we focus sometimes on the right tool, the right map, the right technique, right. That’s another way that we limit ourselves, we need to have the right microphone and this and that. And everything shifted for me when I started listening to what my legs were feeling when I was pedaling, because I will feel when I had to press a little bit harder than I knew that it was time to change the gear. So I think to your point on your question, harmonious passions requiring more attunement with our internal process, and to have self inquiring, right, what’s really driving this? Because the mind will always be there chasing an outcome, chasing, you know, to be seen in a particular way, avoiding failure. So I think it’s important to just really tap into that and adjust our behavior accordingly.

Sonya: Yeah, I think that a lot of times, and I’m guilty of doing this myself, we demonize wanting to have a specific outcome or achieve certain recognition. But as humans, we want that. I mean, that’s just part of being a human being. So having the right relationship with those things and how that impacts your behavior, that’s something that I think about a lot.

Dr. Z: And that’s the key question, Sonya, right. It’s having a relationship that can be nurtured and can be grow in a way that we can live our values, be who we want to be without losing ourselves. It’s easy to minimize perfectionistic actions as healthy or unhealthy, adaptable, maladaptive, or good and bad. And certainly there is a lot of writings with those terms in pop psychology, and also in academic writings. But the reality is that I think having more flexible views that really help people to accept the promise to do things right and perfectly, are much more liberating, and actually reduce the pain that we attach ourselves.

Sonya: I was thinking a little bit about this book, it’s called, From Strength to Strength, by Arthur Brooks. And I just thought that was such a cool book about different types of crystallized intelligence. And I’m forgetting the name of the intelligence for younger people. So in the book, there’s a story about this woman who was a high achieving executive. And it was displayed as two conflicting things of a desire to be special versus a desire to be happy. And this woman realized that her behaviors and her overworking was because she really had a strong desire to be special in other people’s eyes. And that was coming at the expense of her happiness. But she realized she was doing this but she still chose that her desire to be special over the desire to be happy was more important. And that’s something that I think about a lot because a lot of strivers, a lot of achievers, a lot of pushers, we want to be special, we want to feel relevant. It can be for the sake of the activity itself, because we’re passionate about a topic. But you still want to have that that specialness. And if you don’t get the specialness that you think you deserve, then you might not feel happy. So being aware of these two conflicting desires can be really challenging and knowing how to have the right relationship with those.

Dr. Z: I think it’s very tricky. You’re tapping into a very, I think, important dilemma, right? And there are so many ways to respond to that. But what I do appreciate, I haven’t read the book, but I do appreciate of the story that you mentioned of this person that has to choose between the desire to be happy or the desire to be a special is a knowledge in that there is no right choice here. Right? And she was very authentic with herself. Right? I think often we hold on to stories to keep doing what we’re doing. And we lie to ourselves. Not intentionally, but we hold on to stories that protect us from our truth. Because facing that truth may make us feel ashamed or will mean that we’re going to be rejected by others. So you just describe a person that I’m sure a lot of people will have said choose to be happy, but she chose what was authentic for her in the moment. And sometimes we make choices in life that may not be the best ones, may not be the ideal ones. But as long as they are choices that we’re making, knowing what we’re getting into, I think that that’s life. No life is going to be lived in a perfect way. And I think we learn from that. And then there is always going to be a next hopefully for a lot of us. Right. But the authenticity of that dilemma, I think it’s important, because a lot of high achievers, I’m sure they have they have heard messages – no, no, just choose to be hard to choose the other thing is hard. It is hard when people feel that if you make the choice, you’re wasting your potential, or you’re not going to live. So you want to live, right. So I think making a choice with authenticity, and knowing what you’re choosing and what it means to you. I think that’s a different process as well.

Sonya: Something else that I wrote down, and I think I got this from your book, but it might have come from somewhere else is I wrote down the inability to celebrate success. And that’s something that I struggle with. I’ll work hard towards something and I’ll reach a milestone or something is successful, but I’m just like, eh whatever, on to the next. And I’m wondering if this inability to celebrate success comes from this high achieving mindset and also maybe tied to that “when then” thinking that you talk about in your book.

Dr. Z: Yeah, yeah, that’s a great question. Here’s what I can tell you is based on the work I have done with my clients, and also my personal experience, when we think about people who are prone to duplicate about what they do, they get reinforced intrinsically by doing things right and perfectly. It’s really how you feel about yourself when you’re participating in a particular project or activity. So I think that also comes with something that of humility, that you’re not doing it for others, you want to have perhaps impact in other people’s life. But fundamentally, you’re doing the right thing, because it feels good to you, because it’s consistent with your values. The challenge with that sometimes is we don’t give our self to say how it feels, how was the process? What did I learn from it, and we quickly may go into the next. So I think a lot of different models of well-being have talked about this a skill of savoring experiences, right? Which to me comes with self-reflecting and have a like a post mortem a little bit after you have completed a project or you have reached a particular outcome, or you have reached a milestone, right. And making room for experience of that comes for you after that. I know, for me for example, after every single book I have put out there, there is a sadness that comes because I’m not reading all the papers for that particular topic. Because I’m not chasing, I’m not torturing my friends, this makes sense. What do you think about this metaphor, right? I’m not sending random text to people are not sitting in front of the computer, right. So there is this this sadness that comes because I am done with a creative project. There is also the excitement and the fun part. But learning to make room for that, right savoring the experience, that comes with all types of failings, I think this important part of our process to keep growing and doing what matters. I think rushing and going to the next, sure we are prone to do that, perhaps. But it doesn’t mean that it’s going to be effective to keep going on and on and on.

Sonya: Yeah, something that you said there that I found really helpful was a way to celebrate success, because that was something that I used to think about, well you go out to dinner to celebrate this thing, or you go do this thing. These are how people celebrate. But to me, those felt inauthentic. And you just said, looking back at the thing that you accomplished, and in my mind, I started thinking about the ways that you’ve grown or the things that you’ve learned. That’s a great way to celebrate success without having to do something that might feel forced, like going out to dinner or doing something big, drinking a bottle of wine or whatever the thing is.

Dr. Z: Thank you for saying that. I find like sometimes after some projects, there is a celebration time. But I find that much more trivializing for me to really pause and check what the project meant to me how it feels, whether it’s done, that I complete it, that make room for the feelings that come right uncomfortable and uncomfortable ones to check in what have I learned, what have I learned about myself? I think those moments of self-inquiry are really just celebrate what you have, what you have pursued for hours and hours versus doing the traditional things.

Sonya: I do health and wellness coaching and also mental performance coaching. And a big part of that is actually helping people celebrate their small successes, but also summarizing how far they’ve come in a period of time. And it’s always amazing to see how far people have come and to take the time to actually let using your words to savor that. And most of us don’t make time for that, we don’t make time to write about the things that went well or to talk to somebody about the things that we’ve accomplished or that we’ve learned in a time period. And yeah, that’s something that, I think maybe that’s why people like the new year, they like looking back at the year because maybe that is their time to celebrate their successes.

Dr. Z: Yeah, yeah. You see, the challenge with doing only the New Year time, I think that it’s a one time thing. But what I do believe is having that as part of our regular day to day life. Things that had been very helpful to me, and I’m sure you have the tips here as well, I started my quarterly schedule is to keep track of it, living my values, that other thing that for me has to be booking my calendar, right. It’s like a sign out of your life. I keep track of how I’m living my values on a monthly basis. Nothing fancy in my whiteboard in my office, I basically have three areas of my life that were important to me. And I’m checking week by week whether I’m getting closer to the values or I’m getting farther away. So that self reflection is for me weekly. And then quarterly I check what am I putting my time? What am I doing this engagement capitalizing versus the things about draining energy, the things about that are taking me closer to the values and taking farther away. So I think having that built into our schedule will allow us to really pause more. That’s just going along with a hussle culture that we live these days to do more and more and have more and more.

Sonya: Yeah, when you say the word audit, I feel a negative like thought because you think about the IRS auditing you. Through it, I think it’s important, it is important to be objective and try to look for ways that you can improve and be better. But I do think it’s important to look at the things that went well. And I think that we tend to focus on all the things that didn’t go well, or on all the things that were lacking, instead of all the things that we do have.

Dr. Z: That’s another thing that our brain will do. Right? We have negative bias, right? They need to anticipate what could go wrong? Am I going to die? Is there going to be food, how the weather looks. And then need they also needed to keep track of what went wrong? So we are walking these days in the information era with a brain that is prone to focusing what could go wrong, right. But I think to your point, learning to hold all the layers of reality coexist in which order is also what is going to help us to have a fulfilling life.

Sonya: Do you have time for one last topic? So it was around can you always hear control the controllables and this was a question that was asked me on my podcast or I was on somebody else’s podcast a while ago and I said yes, control the controllables but if you have a white knuckle death grip on those controllables you also have to learn how to let go a little bit and I think this kind of ties into what you were saying at the very beginning of the podcast about flexibility around these things. So where is the zone of controlling the controllables but also not controlling them too tightly?

Dr. Z: Yeah, to me, it all goes back and I’m using that lenses to answer your question. To me it all goes back to check if I’m holding into my thoughts or my emotions with what not like this… I’m making a fistright now. And when you’re making a fist you will know this how you’re putting pressure on your hands how your fingers feel right from holding like this, I’m extending an open my hand right now. In life many times when we hold things with white knuckles, making a fist again, it takes a lot of energy and effort. But flexibility means walking in life and holding your thoughts and emotions as you’re opening your heart you will have much more movement to choose. So I think it makes sense sometimes controlling the controllables but always checking am I holding them too rigidly or flexible. How do we know that by checking our experience right. Am I getting the stress if there is a variation of this if things go wrong or am I you know giving myself permission to accept that even I’m doing my best some things will be literally out of my control. So I think checking that internal experience is helpful.

Sonya: Well thanks so much for coming on the podcast that time absolutely flew by I couldn’t believe how quickly when I looked at the clock work. Where can people find your work and find more and your podcast too?

Dr. Z: Thank you what and thank you for all the questions that were very juicy questions. I absolutely love them all of them. And I do have a website is and the podcast is called Playing It Safe. It’s I talk a lot about fear-based struggles and how to navigate in effective playing it safe moves like rumination and overthinking catastrophizing doubting. That’s my cup of tea of course.

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