How do you honor yourself for the things you complete? A high five, a cup of tea, a party, a massage?
Like many perfectionists, I often celebrate my achievements by presenting myself with a mental list of how it could’ve been better, another one about the ways in which I fell short, and then I immediately begin driving myself toward the next thing. I have done this with everything from big things like work projects, to small things like housework, as long as I can remember.
If someone else treated me this way, I wouldn’t stand for it. I would leave, fire, divorce or unfriend them at the earliest opportunity. I would block their number, file them under ‘A’ for asshole. But we perfectionists treat ourselves this way all the time.
The concept of pushing yourself is deeply embedded in our culture. It’s what you do if you’re not a slacker. Most of the cultural messages we hear urge us to push, fight, drive, battle, muscle through, be harder on yourself than anyone else.
These are not helpful, healthy messages for the perfectionist. Pushing, we’ve got that down. We ‘should’ all over ourselves all the time, driving hard to get everything done, get everything right. We flog ourselves with criticism and loathing to do more, get finished, achieve this, fix that – and we cannot possibly rest, recover, or recreate until it is all done – except it’s never all done. There will still be dishes in the sink and email in our inbox on the day we die. Worse, we often start pushing and prodding those around us to do things we think should be done, and on our timeline, not theirs. It’s a short road to a lonely and exhausted life.
Decades of pushing myself had piled up by my early 40s, when I realized that my daily life had become an endless round of flogging myself through a series of unpleasant tasks in order to get to the next series of unpleasant tasks. Nearly everything I did was a should. All of my push energy was gone. I just couldn’t make myself do it (whatever the current it was) anymore.
I dimly understood that making a giant project out of overhauling my whole life in search of whatever I was missing, was not going to get me there this time. I didn’t have the energy for it anyway.
In Eckhart Tolle’s groundbreaking book, The Power of Now, he writes about the cyclical nature of everything, including ourselves. He reminds us that our physical and mental energies cannot always be at their peak. Low energy is a natural part of our cycle, and we must – must – allow ourselves these low points. If we don’t, not only do we short out our ability to recover, thrive, and create, we run the risk of making ourselves ill: “Many illnesses are created through fighting against the cycles of low energy, which are vital for regeneration.” When our bodies and spirits are pushed too often or too far past their limits, they will find a way to make us stop.
So I’ve started thinking small. I mean really, really small. If there is something I want to change or do, I break it into steps so small it feels easy to complete one. If I feel that push feeling, I know the step is too big and I go still smaller. I still use my to-do list, for sure. But the items on it look different. Instead of this:
- Plan Adrienne’s birthday party
- Do estate planning
…my list looks more like this:
- Ask Adri – cake flavor?
- Order birthday cake
- Stop at party supply place for favors and tableware
- Make waterpark reservations for Saturday 2/6
- Call the lawyer for an appointment
There are more individual items on my list, but looking at them doesn’t make my throat seize up. As an added bonus, I get to check off more items, faster – who doesn’t like that?!
I’ve also learned to short-circuit that shouldy little perfectionist inside me by asking “What would happen if…” whenever I try to do something in a different, more compassionate way. The inner perfectionist is a know-it-all, and the energy of wondering takes the wind right out of her sails.
What would happen if…
I sat down and rested and had a cup of tea, even if my chores aren’t finished?
I actually started taking my lunch break at work?
when Anthony says he’ll take care of something, I let it go?
I (dear God) let my family get up and go their own way on a weekend morning, without me choreographing the whole day for them?
“What would happen if” is a rhetorical question; I ‘m not looking for an answer, just a way to ground myself in the energy of curiosity, of experimentation. Still, I sometimes get answers anyway, and they are remarkably similar:
You’ll feel better.
You’ll feel better.
Nothing bad will happen, and you’ll feel better.
You might have some fun, and you’ll feel better.
Another question I’ve found helpful is “How am I feeling right now?” or variations on that theme, like “What’s going on inside me right now?” or, “What do I need right now?”
I know, I know – crazy! Perfectionists care about what needs doing; how the doer feels is not part of the equation. And now doesn’t matter, only some future point when we’ll have this done and can feel less ashamed.
Except it never is. And we never do.
Both the question, and the ‘right now’ are important for me.
Of course this is a work in progress. I still catch myself in my pushy old habits more often than I’d like, but it’s weirdly self-propelling; the more often I treat myself with compassion, the more it frees up bandwidth and the easier it is to treat myself with compassion. I haven’t asked my family (too scared!), but I’d bet I’m at least a little bit easier to be around.
And…I feel better.