I’ve always had perfectionist tendencies. As a child I would start the same drawing over and over again until I was satisfied. In middle school, when completing a writing assignment, white out was my dearest friend. In high school I practiced my gymnastics routines over and over until they were as close to perfect as possible. When I graduated from college and started out in the teaching world I would stay in my classroom until 8:00pm in order to create beautiful (but unnecessary) bulletin boards to display my students’ work.
When I became chronically ill several years ago I had to let these tendencies go. I was barely functioning, so attempting perfection wasn’t even remotely an option. And there was a freedom in knowing that I couldn’t try to be perfect. What sweet relief from that self-imposed pressure. Now that I’m getting healthier my perfectionism is once again rearing its ugly head. And it turns up in random areas of my life. I know better than to attempt perfection as a parent or partner. But I continued to be swayed by the pull of perfectionism when it comes to goals I set for myself.
I have always loved sweets, but as much as I enjoy that sugar rush I know that sugar is not my friend. It weakens my immune system, contributes to irritability and causes breakouts. I’ve tried several times to release sugar’s hold on me. I focus on consuming plenty of protein and healthy fats during the day, not letting my blood sugar get too low, and making sure I am busy in the late afternoon and evening (when I tend to have cravings). I’ve noticed that having a visual reminder of my goals helps me to stay on track, so I’ve tacked a Post-It note to my bathroom wall with tally marks for each day that I’ve consumed little or no sugar. It helps…until I give in to a sugar craving. Then I feel like a failure. I beat myself up. And I convince myself that the progress I’ve made counts for nothing and that I have to start over from scratch. I rip my Post-It from the wall and put up a new one. A blank slate. A fresh start. I don’t want to have to look at a constant reminder of my failings each day. Over the past few weeks I’ve taped up fresh Post-Its at least three times. The first time I lasted a few days before indulging. The second time I made it eight days before I caved. The most recent Post-It displayed eleven proud tally marks before Harlan and I were feeling celebratory this past Saturday night and I found myself grabbing some non-dairy ice cream out of the freezer. I was about to rip my third Post-It off the bathroom wall when I stopped. I asked myself, “Am I failing at loosening sugar’s grip on me if I indulge occasionally? Do I really have to start over?” And I was surprised to hear a voice inside of me answer, “No.” Would my quality of life be that much better if I never ever let another molecule of sugar pass through my lips? Is it possible for me to have a more intuitive relationship with my body? Can I be more forgiving of myself when I “slip up”? Can I allow balance into my life in this area, as I have been able to do in so many other areas? Maybe doing the best I can in my commitment to having a more nuanced relationship with sugar is good enough.
Didn’t my illness teach me, in no uncertain terms, that life is about the journey, not the destination? That my setbacks are essential to my evolution? That they’re not things to be swept under the rug or to erase from my memories but are in fact moments to be celebrated? They push me to examine my choices. They move me closer to the expression of my full potential. As much as I might wish things to be otherwise there is never growth without challenge. My perfectionism wants me to hide my mistakes. But if I can’t see the mistakes I will never learn from them. I have decided that I am done with punishing myself for being human. No more self-flagellating when I choose (consciously or not) to indulge. So I left my Post-It up on the wall. After the eleven proud tally marks I drew a winky face in the space where my twelfth tally would have gone. And then I continued with my tallies. I have 4 more already! The wink reminds me that one step back is always part of the journey. It reminds me that I’m doing OK. Life doesn’t have to be so fraught with intensity and self-criticism. I can take a step back (or two or three) and still keep going. After all, isn’t that what I’ve been practicing for the past four years?