Fitness star Petra Kolber’s obsessive perfectionism caused her anxiety and panic attacks – here are three ways she has learned to let go
I grew up in England in a small town, thirty minutes outside of Liverpool. I took pride in annoying both my parents by talking in the strongest Scouse accent I could muster, but after living in the States for more than three decades, I now sound more Australian than English, drive on the other side of the road and sometimes have to ask my sister to remind me what the British pronunciation is for aluminum. I am an English woman living in New York.
After traveling across the pond to live, and with my travel for work that has taken me from Denver to Dallas and Australia to Argentina, one thing I know for sure is that the longest distance we will ever travel is from our head to our heart. And it is my hope in our short time together, that I can help you shorten the distance.
I was in grammar school long before the days of the internet and social media. Yet, even before we were uploading, filtering and comparing our real life to everyone else’s filtered highlight reel, I still felt the pressure to fit in, be liked and not draw too much attention to myself.
However as much as I tried to fit in, there was one aspect of my life that always stood out, and that was my father.
One thing I know for sure is that the longest distance we will ever travel is from our head to our heart
My dad was handsome, charming, funny, a great golfer and a charismatic salesman. He looked like Don Draper from the show Mad Men but unfortunately, just like Don Draper he also had a drinking problem.
On top of loving his beer, my dad also loved bright clothes, and so you couldn’t help but notice him as he staggered back home from the local pub in his pink shirts, brightly colored knickerbockers, and his favorite golf cap.
I would often see him struggling to stay upright as he wove his way up the hill to our house. Each time I would witness this scene my heart would race, and my stomach would tighten as I believed in those moments that everyone else in our small town was also watching this very imperfect scene.
Living in a small town with a father who had a big personality became the perfect storm for my perfectionism to take root.
As I began to believe the false idea that everyone was judging my family, my identity began to be more and more tied to how I thought I was appearing to others. The more chaotic I felt my life was becoming on the inside, the more I felt the need to look perfect on the outside.
I traded in my dance shoes for sneakers and began my ten thousand hours to become a fitness professional
Fast forward a few years, and I began my career as a dancer, a profession where what you looked like was tightly related to your success in the industry. In this environment, my perfectionistic tendencies blossomed. Anorexia, bulimia, and low-grade anxiety were just a few of the side effects.
I was a good dancer, but never as perfect as I wanted to be. Finally, after several jobs, including a stint dancing on a cruise ship (that’s a whole other topic), I stepped off the high seas onto the dry land of Miami. I traded in my dance shoes for sneakers and began my ten thousand hours to become a fitness professional.
It was not too long before I became a highly sought after fitness expert. It was the mid-nineties, and my background in dance, coupled with my British accent helped propel my career quickly upward. I starred in VHS tapes (don’t judge) with the likes of George Foreman and Nancy Kerrigan.
I was signed by Reebok to be one of only three fitness athletes they sponsored. I starred in a fitness show on TV, and I was on the back of a Special K cereal box. I share this with you not to boast, but to let you know that with all of these meaningful accolades I always felt like a fraud. I was always waiting for the moment when I would be found out to be the imposter that I thought I was.
You see, I thought that to be the perfect fitness expert, meant that I needed to be perfect, and perfect in every way possible.
As my career began to soar, my dance with perfection began to strengthen and eventually manifested itself into chronic anxiety. This was another sign of just how imperfect I was, and so I tried to ignore it and push my feelings of inadequacy into a box. But what you don’t own, owns you and so over time, my anxiety grew into panic attacks.
What I began to realize is that no one can relate to perfect. We don’t connect through perfect, we connect through our cracks
As my panic attacks grew, my world began to shrink. I started turning down high profile television opportunities for the ‘fear’ of making a mistake. However my fear of living a life of ‘what if’ eventually became larger than the fear of trying to live the perfect lie and so I sought out help.
I spent seven-plus years in therapy dedicated to overcoming my anxiety, and I studied the best literature and research on the subject.
I completed a year-long positive psychology program led by author and Harvard University lecturer Tal Ben-Shahar, and I have tried and tested,many strategies in my laboratory of life. All of this work laid the foundation for my new book, The Perfection Detox: Tame Your Inner Critic, Live Bravely And Unleash Your Joy.
What I began to realize is that no one can relate to perfect. The very thing I thought people wanted from me was actually creating a vast chasm – as we don’t connect through perfect, we connect through our cracks.
And the more I began to speak publicly about my battle with perfection and the idea of not feeling “enough,” the more I realized that we are much more alike in our struggles than we are different.
‘Perfect’ is only a word until you attach an expectation to it
Whether you struggle with perfectionism, a lack in confidence or feel a gap between where you are and where you want to be, I invite you to consider the following question, ‘when you think about the need to be perfect and do everything just right, does it bring you joy or does it suck the joy out of you?’
On the days your doubt demons have a hold on you, use the building blocks below as stepping-stones back towards the truth of you.
The person you were before you believed that you needed to be different to be worthy of value, successful or relevant. I break these building blocks down into micro steps in my new book, but this is a great place to start the work of reclaiming your best life by taming your inner critic, living bravely and unleashing your joy.
1. Tame your inner critic
Our brains’ default is the negative, it is called the negativity bias, and it is what kept our ancestors alive, and it is why you are here reading this article today. Yet when our negative chatter goes unnoticed, it will wreak havoc with our health and happiness.
Researchers at the Laboratory of Neuro Imaging at the University of Southern California have determined that we have about 70,000 thoughts per day or approximately 48.6 thoughts per minute.
And a whopping 95 percent of the thoughts you’ll have today will be the same as those you had yesterday. The real challenge is in the fact that 80% of those thoughts will be negative. (Some people say that these kinds of stats are impossible to prove, but I suspect there’s a lot of truth to these figures.)
The first step is to notice the negative noise and then find a way to stop the downward spiral.
Research out of Rutgers University is showing that mindfulness and physical activity, also known as MAP training, can have a positive effect on negative thoughts.
For a quick fix during your day and in those moments when you feel yourself moving into a negative headspace, simply S.T.O.P.
Take a walk.
Observe your surroundings.
Pick a positive thought.
The first two actions get you moving, the third pulls you into the present, and the last step makes sure you are filling the gap with positive reinforcement.
A change of scenery can be just the trick to disrupt your thoughts and change your mind. If you don’t have time to take a walk, tap your feet. Anything that gets you up and your body moving will work.
2. Shoot your focus and be brave
Your brain does not like a vacuum, and so as you move out the negative, we need to place a positive thought in its place. This next phase is celebrating all that you are, instead of focusing on who you think you should be.
One of the vital detox steps in this section is to take a time out from social media
To live bravely means to take risks, to say yes before you think you are ready and to reframe your definition of perfection.
One of the vital detox steps in this section is to take a time out from social media, for as for as long as we are comparing ourselves to the images we see on our smartphones, it will be impossible to focus on the good.
Feel free to customize your approach to detoxing from social media, but make an effort to do so—and pay attention to how phone-free periods make you feel.
Begin with an hour a day, then try a few hours every now and then and see if you can then build up to one day a week without checking your social media feed.
3. Become a benefit seeker
This last phase is about anchoring yourself in the positive and creating sustainable happiness habits that you can use anytime to unleash your joy.
When we seek the good in our lives, the good will rise up to meet us.
Being a benefit seeker will not only elevate your joy, it will also raise your health and well being. Many studies have revealed the mental and physical benefits we experience when we choose to focus on the good, especially when it comes to lowering our stress, anxiety, and levels of depression.
The simple act of spending just a few minutes to seek and reflect on three things you are looking forward to will begin to prime your brain to be in the state of benefit seek-ing. Begin from the moment you wake up.
4. Try loving the day before it even starts
As you get out of bed, think of three things you are looking forward to during the day, then write them down, and post them somewhere you can see them as a reminder.
Remember that our mind does not like inconsistency between thoughts and external reality and will always try to align them. Appreciate the good and the good will appreciate.
When you start your day from a positive mindset, you will subconsciously direct your actions to align with your intent, and your day is likely to consist of more positive moments than negative.
4. Go on, dream
One parting thought before I go. I’m not sure if things are different now, but when I was growing up in England, it was frowned upon to have dreams and goals. I would often hear comments like, ‘Who do you think you are to strive for a goal that big?’ or ‘Wouldn’t you rather be a big fish in a small pond?’ or my favorite reminder, ‘Don’t get too big for your britches.”
Today is the perfect day to drop the weight of perfection and soar into your best life.
To be able to do the work that only you can do and create a life of meaning and purpose has nothing to do with trying to be better than anyone else. We need to know and celebrate our strengths as when we work from a place of who we are versus the faulty foundation of everything we think we are not, we are able to stand tall without puffing up and without false humility.
More importantly, when we work from our strengths, we get to shine our light on others and help them shine too.
What I want you to remember is that even though the world is trying to convince you otherwise, that you are enough – in fact, you are way more than enough – you are incredible. The media is always going to sell to your insecurities, now is the time to buy into your strengths.
Today is the perfect day to drop the weight of perfection and soar into your best life. This has nothing to do with changing who you are and everything to do with becoming more of who you are.
Never forget that the world would rather have your imperfect voice than your perfect silence.