Perfectionism is not something I would have labeled myself for the better part of my life. I enjoyed creativity and tended to see the world in varying shades of gray instead of black and white. I was not a typical “rule-follower” perfectionist.
My perfectionism almost cost me my health… but I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me rewind a bit.
Progression of Perfectionism and The Problems it Caused
I’m not exactly sure when the roots of my perfectionism started, but I know that I had some pretty deeply entrenched ones.
During those early years of school my perfectionism was probably helping me stay motivated to pay attention. I consistently did the work when my peers were enjoying other activities. (Summer worksheets to take home? Yes please! And done within 2 weeks…)
But as I grew older my these tendencies became a problem.
In high school my perfectionism manifested as anxiety.
College brought confusion and the occasional depression spell or bout of insomnia.
But graduate school was a slap in the face. (So much overwhelm!)
Eventually I had to learn that no matter how hard I worked on something it could always be better.
It was during this time that I had to either kill myself in the pursuit of perfection or adjust my focus. I chose to no longer had to aim for perfect, but for progress. I began to value my efforts towards an assignment and my personal and professional growth through the assignment more than the actual results (grades, teacher’s notes, etc).
Y’all, this was HUGE for me! But it wasn’t until a few years later that I started to piece together how my perfectionism had been sabotaging my health…
How Breaking My Perfectionism Tendencies Set Me Up to Finally Get Healthy
I have pretty much always been interested in health, science, how your body works, and such. I had tried several diets or workout routines but none of them would ever stick.
There were many reasons why and I don’t want to risk over-simplifying the problem here. But one of the reasons was my perfectionism.
I’m either doing everything right or I refuse to try. It’s probably easy to see how that’s not going to work, but when I was there in the moment I couldn’t see why this was a problem.
It’s how I had approached most other aspects of my life before this and it felt logical even though it wasn’t.
The Steps to Letting Go of Perfection
I can’t really point to a single point in time to say “oh, that’s when it happened – that’s when I gave up perfectionism!” Instead, it was a slow, long, tedious process.
While I didn’t have a roadmap to follow for this particular problem, I can certainly tell you some of the steps I took along the way that I feel were crucial to my success!
Never Underestimate the Power of a Small Win
I started with small wins. Things I knew i could improve in my life that would be contributing to my health that I could consistently follow.
For me, that starting point was pursuing a non-toxic lifestyle.
This goal felt doable because it had so many tiny little steps… replace my laundry detergent, replace my shampoo, replace my body wash, etc. that were literally a “wash, rinse, repeat” kind of healthy win in my life!
Also, by starting with pursuing a non-toxic lifestyle, I didn’t have to address my exercise habits (which were non-existent for the most part) or my food choices (which were kinda terrible, but I wasn’t prepared to start changing this yet!)
I could take those tiny steps towards a non-toxic lifestyle and incrementally improve my health and the health of my family without feeling like I had sacrificed anything to do it.
It felt easy, doable, repeatable and compelling to have a small win!
As I continued to make those small and incremental changes, I began to be curious about what incremental nutrition choices I could make.
One step at a time I found a healthy lifestyle that is so enjoyable and sustainable for my personality and preferences.
Finally, instead of my perfection driving me to a lifestyle full of self-restriction and discipline and misery, I was free to enjoy a healthy lifestyle that gives me permission to explore.
Just Show Up, Everyday
I don’t want to oversell this point because it’s not like you can just show up and suddenly have weight melt off of your body and you start to think really clearly and increase your strength and stability overnight.
But if you don’t “show up” consistently in regards to your health, you cannot make any real progress.
What Does Showing Up Look Like?
If you want to be a person who eats healthy foods, it means that you choose at least one or two foods at every meal to be your healthy choices.
If you want to be a person who exercises, it means that you do something active every day.
If you are like I was and feel that all of that is just too overwhelming to start with, perhaps you want to make one non-toxic living switch per week.
You can decide what exactly “showing up” looks like, but basically you are deciding to do at least a little bit each day of the things you know you should be doing to work towards your specific health goals.
Find a Way to Measure Your Progress… And Not Just the Scale!
Speaking of progress, let’s start measuring it! When you measure your progress you increase your chances of sticking with it longer term.
If you are a numbers person, it can be something tangible like recording how many days you do your healthy goal. If you are trying to lose weight you can track inches. If you are trying to be active, you can track your active time on something like a FitBit or other wearable fitness device.
If you aren’t as much a numbers person, you can also just take mental notes of all the changes you are seeing in your life –
- My clothes fit better
- My face looks thinner
- Oh look I found my clavicle bone!
- Why is my watch so loose?
- I still have energy at 2:30 in the afternoon
- I actually forgot my second cup of coffee because I didn’t feel like I needed it… weird!
When you begin to see how your slow and persistent progress is showing up as real changes in your body and in your experience of life, it energizes you to keep going!
Have at Least One Friend Who Supports Your Journey
Ideally your entire social network will support your progress. But let’s be real – many people will be jealous or even feel threatened when you start making changes.
You need at least one friend who supports you for the journey. This friend is needed for:
- Encouragement when you just have hard days
- Sanity when you slip back into the all-or-nothing mental state
- Remind you of your progress
- Help you laugh about your setbacks and struggles
Give Yourself Permission to Mess Up
This one is so important!
It gives you the freedom to say this whole wellness thing isn’t about perfection but progress, so I’m going to try until I fail, learn from it and try again.
In fact, you can even learn to celebrate failure if you can figure out how to “fail forward”. This means that if you can turn your mistake into a learning opportunity, it’s not wasted!
This “permission to mess up” allows you to begin internally valuing effort and a willingness to try when you aren’t sure you will succeed. (And you might just surprise yourself!)
Have a Plan for How to Get Back on Board When You Mess Up
When you have a plan for what to do if (and when) you fail, you aren’t as afraid of failing… because you know that messing up isn’t breaking anything permanently!
Your plan will look different for various areas of your life.
For me, I have some basic meals I run back to when my eating habits stray from healthy (often due to travel or busy seasons of survival).
I am developing routines for rebounding when life takes us out of our typical non-toxic lifestyle.
At the very least, set a time limit on how long you will allow yourself to fail before you jump in and try again.
For example, if you eat something loaded with sugar and chemicals, how long will you usually take before jumping back into a healthy eating pattern?
I have found that if I set this “rebound time” at a short time frame, I will learn to fail forward faster without derailing my efforts.
Quick Review of How to Break Through Perfectionism
Take one small step in the direction of your goals. Share what it is in the comments below so we can encourage each other!
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