Happiness facilitator Petra Kolber has the key to a richer life.
Petra Kolber is a recovering perfectionist and she’s here to help everyone else who’s been holding themselves back because they don’t think they are ready. “Perfectionism is tricky. You think she’s your friend, there to protect you. But she doesn’t like you taking risks and so in turn keeps you living small,” Kolber explains.
Well into her career as a fitness expert, Kolber recognized that something was wrong. Class after class, workshop after workshop, women would approach her. She recounts, “They would point to a tiny part of their body and ask, ‘How do I get rid of this?’ All they saw is everything that they thought was wrong with them.” Kolber, a professional dancer-turned-fitness instructor, was baffled. “I knew that movement could—and should—be a catalyst to make people recognize how powerful they are. The problem was when these amazing women looked into the mirror, even though they had crushed their workouts, they felt crushed.”
The experience brought Kolber her first aha moment: “It’s all very well and good to talk to people about how to love their body, show up and be the best version of themselves but I realized that the challenge was not what people were ‘doing,’ it was what they were ‘thinking.’” For 20 years, she says, “I’d been worrying about the neck down, when what’s most important is what’s going on between the ears. What we present to the outside world is almost irrelevant. It is all about the inner conversations we have, that will determine our level of success and happiness.”
That recognition, coupled with her own experience of coping with the uncertainty of a cancer diagnosis, prompted Kolber to refine her coaching practice. She says, “You learn it to teach it; you live it to preach it.” So she went back to school to study positive psychology—which she describes as the study of how people flourish and thrive—and has combined the research from this work with her insights from more than 30 years as a dancer and movement expert.
Now, Kolber says, “I’m not here to change people’s workouts. I’m here to change why they work out.”
Build a strong happiness muscle
Many of us—despite our rational understanding—think that if lose the weight and get the shape we want, we’ll be happy. Of course, we know that’s not true. Happiness is just like a muscle: Use it or lose it.
From Kolber’s perspective, creating a flourishing life is just like interval training. A strong happiness muscle allows us to be at our best in both the good and the not-so-good moments. “’When my happiness is strong, viable and resilient, it allows me to enjoy the sweet moments without saying, ‘This is too good to be true.’ And in the not-so-good moments, it allows me to say, ‘This too shall pass.’
Cancer, relationships and many other life experiences taught Kolber two important things. First, she says, “You can’t dodge life. You can’t dodge grief. You can’t dodge challenge. You can’t dodge failure. You can’t dodge the not-so-great moments. You need to go through them to get to the other side and feel whole, optimistic and ready for your future.”
She readily acknowledges there have been days when she woke up and thought, “‘I am not sure how I am going to get through this.” The second thing Kolber learned is that on those types of days, she needed to ask for help. In doing so, she discovered something even more powerful than perfection: “When you learn to ask for help, you have given your friends the gift of being able to share your burdens as well as celebrate your successes.” She has also discovered that all of her greatest lessons came through times of challenge.
Perfection “plays small”
Perfection not only has the potential to keep us locked in a state of vague unhappiness, but it keeps us from living fully. Kolber says, “Think of all the things we don’t do, all the experiences we discount because they were not perfect. It wasn’t the perfect date. It’s not the perfect relationship. I don’t look perfect when I look in the mirror. I’m not the perfect age to go for this job. It is both exhausting and boring.”
Kolber realized that, over the years, perfection had governed many of her life decisions. “I turned down jobs and opportunities to be on camera because I felt like a fraud. I was actually saying no more than I was saying yes. Then I realized that if I waited for the perfect moment to show up, or to feel perfect before committing to a new project, I was never going to say yes because I can’t think of the last time a moment was perfect.”
Behind perfection is fear and anxiety. Fear of being found out for the fraud that we think we are. And this is what prompts us to try and dodge life; but Kolber invites us to make friends with our fear and to reconcile ourselves with the fact that our lives are never going to be perfect. That’s not easy when striving for perfection—reasonable or not—is a mindset reinforced by the highlight reels we see on everyone else’s Facebook or Instagram feed. Kolber adds, “To be ourselves in a world that is constantly telling us we should be different takes a huge amount of courage, but it is a heck of a lot more fun.”
She continues, “Fear can be an acronym for ‘forget everything and run,’ or it can be ‘face everything and rise.’ Fear is never going to go away, but how we decide to manage our fear will make all the difference.” When it comes to fear and perfectionism, Kolber says we can shift our mindset from being a perfectionist to being an excellence enthusiast. “An excellence enthusiast still wants to work hard, achieve success and go for their dreams, but from a place of joy and expansion. This revised mindset allows us to look forward with hope, curiosity, and wonder, and to look back to see how far we’ve come.”
Strive for excellence
When we strive for excellence instead of perfection, Kolber says it allows us to show up and say, “Yes, and I’ll figure it out” and yes to living fully. “If I’m going to wait for the perfect situation to unfold for me to start writing my book, to do the blog, to be a speaker it’s never going to happen.”
If saying “yes” before you’re ready seems counterintuitive, Kolber explains you’ll figure out the steps you need to take to get ready. She reframes asking for help—and even failing—as opportunities for excellence and to strengthen her relationships. “It’s being able to say, ‘I can’t do this all on my own, and I’m willing to give it a try.’ If things go well, we celebrate our success and enjoy the journey.”
And if things didn’t turn out as we had hoped, Kolber says, “Apply all the research from the imperfect moments, the failures, the bad dates, the jobs you didn’t get, the rejections—and learn from them.” She says there is data in the disasters and research in the rejections: “It all starts with awareness. It’s followed up with acceptance of who you are today versus, whom you think you should be. From that place of acceptance, you then apply action and do the work to live into your potential in the future.”
Detox from perfection
More recently, Kolber has been examining the poison of perfectionism—and she’s developed a detox methodology that is the basis for her forthcoming book, “The Perfection Detox.” In partnership with Da Capo Press, it will be available in bookstores, in spring, 2018. Her initial inspiration was a speaking engagement about how to crush your goals. With a passing reference to her anxiety, she heard the audience exhale.
She realized that she had touched a nerve with the participants, and that her focus had to change: “What I wanted more than anything was to connect with my audience, and what I thought people wanted from me was perfection so I never shared my struggles. But I was actually alienating the very people I wanted to motivate and inspire. No one can connect through perfection. We connect through our cracks.”
When, Kolber presented a TEDx talk called “The Perfection Detox,” friends and strangers—especially young women—reached out online and offline, sharing that they were struggling with perfection. They were equally stumped by the absence of any kind of guidance on how to drop it. Kolber recalls wondering, “As a recovering perfectionist, how do I [drop perfectionism] perfectly?”
So Kolber has created a 21-step protocol based on tenets of her own life, her positive psychology studies and the thousands of hours of coaching she has given. In her book she shares tools and strategies to help tame the inner critic; get rid of the negative noise; live bravely; and rescue joy from the clutches of perfectionism. The process complements work around happiness. “Perfectionism was something that’s made me miss so many magnificent moments. Yeah, I was having a good time, but was I truly experiencing them fully? No, because I was always too busy worrying about trying not to make a mistake.”
Kolber continues, “Not striving to be perfect does not mean you’re not going to be kicking ass, taking names, working to excel in your life.” But if you don’t reach your goal, or things don’t turn out the way you’d expected, Kolber says, “You never ever again tell yourself ‘I knew I should never have gone for that job; I wasn’t worthy. I wasn’t good enough.’” You get to continue wanting to be the best that you can be—and stay up late to get the presentation right, go the extra mile once in a while. But, says Kolber, “It doesn’t have to be perfect to be magnificent.”
Five Questions to Reset Perfection
Petra Kolber has one way to check her perfectionist tendencies and reaffirm what’s important. It begins with a gift: a moment of your attention. She says, “Someone said the greatest gift you can give someone is your undivided attention. Well, isn’t that true for myself? Time is priceless. It’s constantly ticking, and I just don’t want to waste my moments and my years and look back wondering why I spent so much time worrying about what isn’t, versus celebrating everything that is.”
Think about how you want to be remembered and what you consider a well-lived life. Do you want to be remembered for being perfect or for making a difference? Take a moment and answer Kolber’s five questions to remind yourself of what’s truly worthy of your energy and your time.
Ask yourself what you would be doing, whom you would surround yourself with, and what thoughts you would hold in your mind and heart:
1. If you had five years to live?
2. If you had three years to live?
3. If you had one year to live?
4. If you had one month to live?
5. If this were your last day on earth?
If you would like to be notified when Kolber’s book “The Perfection Detox” is released, please visit petrakolber.com/theperfectiondetox.
Photo credit: Mark Kuroda, kurodastudios.com
Hair and Make-up: Mia Delina Escobar