Are you a perfectionist? Hyper-critical of your performance at all times? Feeling like you could–and should–be doing more, and better, even when you’re past the point of exhaustion? Or do you feel like a failure when you miss a deadline or a lift…fall off track with your diet for a day or even a meal…when you don’t meet your own inflated expectations? Maybe, over time, you start to slow down, but not for the right reasons. You procrastinate because your anxiety about failing overcomes your motivation to start something. You’ve realized that perfection isn’t possible, but anything less seems unacceptable. So, you don’t write, or you skip the gym, or you eat something to spite yourself because you may as well go all in and fail now, on purpose. Maybe you can numb the sting of failure by convincing yourself that you weren’t even trying, anyway.
Well, me too. It’s embarrassing to admit, of course, but I know I’m not alone. I was once a doctoral candidate, after all, and we’re all like this. That’s why helpful mentors remind us that, “a good dissertation is a done dissertation.” It will never be perfect, and if you wait for that, it will never be done, either. I finished mine in five years, but I was never really able to overcome my perfectionism. In fact, it’s only gotten worse as I’ve taken on more administrative responsibilities in my academic career and real-world clients as a nutrition coach. Despite the fact that I was working every day this semester, I felt that I could never fully catch up. I was exceeding my limits without reaching my potential. I wasn’t even performing satisfactorily, let alone perfectly. It was discouraging, and my anxiety led me to withdraw from some of the things I really enjoyed, like reading, researching, blogging, sharing my thoughts with my audience, and even competing. A vicious cycle emerged in which I couldn’t meet my own expectations, so I stopped trying, thereby proving to myself that I wasn’t capable.
Living with a chronic disease is a bit like wearing a weighted vest all day. Sure, you can still do all of the things: you wake up, groom yourself, walk your dog, go to work, buy groceries, make dinner, maybe even hit the gym. But it’s all a little bit heavier, a little bit more tiring, when you’re wearing the vest. It may only weigh 10 lbs, but the fatigue accumulates and compounds like interest. You sleep with the weighted vest. You wake up, still wearing it, not quite having replenished your energy from the day before. Soon, 10 lbs feels like 50, but you’re still doing all of the things. This chronic disease could be fibromyalgia, or COPD, or anxiety, or depression. Maybe it’s more than one.
Depression is my weighted vest, and it’s filled with expectations. Expectations are dense. They take up no tangible space and yet they are unbearably heavy at times. No one else can even see them. If I were to describe them to my colleagues, I’m sure they’d wonder where I had read this extensive list, because they certainly aren’t actually in my job description. I checked, and at no point has any employer ever listed ‘perfection’. I’ve never expected any of my clients to comply perfectly with my recommendations. I’ve never expected any of my students to earn perfect marks on every assignment. Why do I expect this of myself?
Maybe you’re asking this, too. If you are, I’m sorry that I don’t have a clear answer. My only response would be the same mantra that my mentors provided in graduate school, and one that I need to rehearse more. “The best thing is a done thing.” A writing project, a gym session, a nutritious meal. Do the thing as best you can, and remove perfection from your personal job description.
If you’re not asking this, please tell me how you came upon the answer. Better yet, tell me how you never felt the need to ask in the first place.