When push comes to shove

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.

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MTHFR: it’s a mother…

In the spring of the year I turned 44, I was sitting in the waiting room of my doctor’s office for my annual physical, filling out an updated medical history. I hit this question:

Method of birth control: ___________________

I could not think of the word for that surgery your husband has that makes it so you don’t have any more babies. Wracked my brain. Nothing. Filled out the rest of the form and came back to that blank. Nothing.

Fifteen minutes later, sitting on the exam table in my paper gown, I blurted “vasectomy!” to the empty room.

This had become an increasing source of frustration for me. For years I’d been having less and less energy, more and more fatigue; I put it down to working fulltime while parenting a young child. But then came brain fog, depressed mood, and lack of concentration. My edge was long gone, and now it seemed even words were deserting me, when they had always been reliable friends. I was so tired on weeknights it was all I could do to make dinner before I washed up on the couch. On weekends, I did not have enough energy to clean and grocery shop on the same day.

All of this spilled out during my conversation with my primary care doctor, along with some tears. “And don’t tell me to exercise, eat right and take vitamins. I’ve been doing that shit for years. It’s not helping. This is not normal. I’m 44, not 84.”

After a careful look at my medical history, where a history of multiple miscarriages caught her eye, she asked if anyone had tested me for a genetic mutation called MTHFR. Not only had I never been tested, I had never heard of it.

The doctor explained it was a genetic anomaly that caused an impaired ability to process folate, a B vitamin, and some amino acids. Taking folic acid (the synthetic form of folate) was not helpful for people with this mutation, because they were not able to process, or ‘methylate’ it. Folate impacts energy, mood and cognition, and the MTHFR mutation could also be a precursor to the heart disease, blood clots and autoimmune disorders that were rampant in my family tree. I had the test.

When the results came back, I learned I was homozygous for the MTHFR mutation – meaning I had two faulty copies of the gene, one from each parent. The treatment was simple: daily doses of prescription L-methylfolate, the only kind of folate I could absorb.

Change did not happen overnight; I did not wake up the morning after my first dose feeling like a new woman. But change was steady, and by about the six month mark, things were very different. My words came back, and with them, my ability to concentrate. Little by little, I could do more in the evenings and on weekends. The amino acids I had been taking now worked much better. I was a more patient mom – my fuse was longer, I had more bandwidth.

As I researched MTHFR I was dismayed to find that most of the information available about it on the web is put out there by naturopaths, “functional medicine” doctors, or by people who are not health professionals at all. I’m not mad at naturopaths; I like to address health issues naturally whenever possible. But I like to see a research base, too; I want the science – and that’s what I wasn’t seeing. Much of the information I could find on MTHFR included recommendations without science to back them up. In my mind, anytime the words “coffee enema” appear, it’s a red flag that whatever’s going on here has left science far behind.

I found this incredibly frustrating; when much of the information out there is questionable, it has the effect of de-legitimizing a very real condition. A few medical skeptic websites are even ‘debunking’ the MTHFR mutation as pseudoscience, similar to the way fibromyalgia was treated years ago. (I’m not even sure how that works – it seems to me a mutated gene is pretty black and white.)

My primary care doctor (who is an MD, for whatever that’s worth) seemed to intuitively understand that MTHFR could have a wide range of symptoms and consequences – but most other doctors I’ve tried to talk to about it, do not. If they’ve even heard of it, I’ve been met with surprise and sometimes skepticism when I say I had symptoms, and that those symptoms abated once I began treatment. And I am surprised in turn, because that just seems like common sense: if I’ve been missing a nutrient my entire life, my body wouldn’t function optimally without it. And if that nutrient is replaced, I will then function better. I guess ‘common sense’ is an elective in med school.

A relatively simple explanation of MTHFR and how it’s treated, created by credentialed health providers, can be found at Austin Family Medicine.

One unexpected side-effect of learning all of this is a newfound appreciation and compassion for my body. She’s achieved some mighty things – reaching my fourth decade in relative good health, and growing and delivering a fine and healthy baby chief among them – all with one hand tied behind her back, nutritionally speaking. Who knows what’s in store, now that she has what she needs.