I fully admit to my need to have control over everything and to do everything perfectly always. And I admit that both of those things are impossible. And I further admit that those tendencies are annoying to the people closest to me. But I submit that no one suffers more because of that behavior than I do.
Any of you nodding along now? Anyone comfortable raising their hand and admitting that they’re part of the perfectionist club too? It’s okay. I swear. This is a safe space for all of us to get real about who we are and the ways in which the qualities that make us awesome at one facet of life, hold us back in others.
And that’s the deal with perfectionism, or any other “ism” we could name, right? There are great advantages to almost all ways of being, or else we would quit behaving that way.
I’m a huge football fan and I often think about how we celebrate the aggressiveness of these guys on the field, but then shake our heads when they exhibit it after games or in-between plays. That’s the dichotomy–what makes people cheer for them on the field is often the very thing that people criticize them for off of it. (Just to be clear, I’m not excusing violent or criminal behavior here when I say aggression.)
But I am saying that compartmentalizing is hard. It’s not always as simple as telling yourself the game is over, so now flip that internal switch. The struggle always is to moderate our behavior in the situations in which it’s not advantageous.
My perfectionism has historically been rewarded. No boss has criticized me for putting in extra hours or effort to make sure a project was well thought out and lacking in mistakes. Ever. No professor ever graded one of my papers in college and wrote a note telling me not to put so much work into the next one. Ever.
But remember when I told you that no one is made more miserable by my behavior than I am? Well, my health and fitness efforts are a perfect example of where that perfectionism is draining and counterproductive. How, you ask?
I didn’t stick to my calendar of workouts this week, so I’ve failed.
Or how about…
I have to do the beginner modification of this exercise, so I’ve failed.
Or this oldie, but goodie…
This exercise really hurts my knee, but if I skip it then I haven’t really done the workout the way I was supposed to and I’ve failed.
By that definition, perfect is doing every exercise at it’s most challenging level and never missing a workout ever. That sounds crazy when I say it and when I write it. But that’s the messaging I fight off on a daily basis. Fortunately I have facts and common sense in my arsenal.
If you have ever thought that missing a week or a month or a year of working out meant that you were a failure and why bother trying again, please, please, please hear this.
If you miss a workout, whether it’s for a day or a year, just start again tomorrow. You haven’t failed at anything. Nothing is over. Call it a rest day (or year) and move on.
If you take it easy in your workout today, that’s fine. You’ll have other days where you push yourself harder. You will.
And pushing yourself past the point of pain is a terrible idea. There’s no quicker way to ensure you miss a whole bunch of workouts than by injuring a part of your body you need in order to move.
When I start to think one of those perfection-or-nothing kinds of thoughts, I remind myself of all of those things I just said. And I remind myself how many workouts I would have to miss in order to lose all of the strength I’ve gained–how long it would take to actually “ruin” my efforts. (Hint: it would take a while.) And I make myself begin and end my workout by saying something I’m grateful for about my body and about exercise.
And it helps. It doesn’t fix it and it doesn’t always prevent me from berating myself for not living up to my own expectations. Because physical exercise is a mental exercise for me in patience and in letting go of that need for perfection in all things. I have to practice it. Over and over again. Some days it comes easier than others.
I’d like to say practice makes perfect…but it won’t.