More than fifteen years ago, while I was in the early days of my recovery from an eating disorder, my therapist constantly reminded me to be gentle with myself. She saw the dangers of my striving and criticism, and she lovingly and desperately tried to help me release them.
When I told her I ate a muffin for the first time in years, she rejoiced. Yet all I could see was the fear I felt before, during and after, and the fact that I almost didn’t do it. I couldn’t celebrate the victory, because I was distracted by what I could have done better. I was trapped in a cycle of demanding complete and utter perfection from start to finish for any task. In my mind, doing anything less than perfectly made me foolish and weak. Until I did it “perfectly”, I was sure it would not be good enough.
While I am recovered from my eating disorder, I still struggle with anxiety and perfectionistic tendencies and continue to work with a therapist regularly. I need an outside voice to help me see clearly and bring perspective and hope into my life. For whatever reason, my mind has always been more easily entangled with shortcomings and what is wrong in any given situation over recognizing the good. I am tempted to call myself a realist, but if I am honest, I think I am more of a perfectionist.
The perfectionistic mentality is a dangerous one. If I never have enough money, attention, affection, recognition, or achievements under my belt, I will forget to be grateful for the gifts that I have been given. I will cling so tightly to my distorted and disordered desires and the fear of not having or being good enough, that I will only be able to see the things that I lack. My eyes will be squeezed shut so tightly, that I will miss seeing the lavish provision and gifts that I have been given.
I am beginning to understand more and more that to demand perfection of myself and my circumstances on this earth is not only futile, it is fruitless. So I’ve identified three ways to quiet my perfectionism to better my own mental health.
Remembering that perfect is the enemy of good.
Often the pursuit of perfection keeps us trapped in exhausting shame cycles where we feel like we aren’t good enough. When I refuse to settle for anything less than perfection, I keep my life small and manageable. I don’t take risks, try new things, or let myself be a beginner at anything. As a result, in the past I have missed out on so much joy and growth. Breakthrough begins to happen when we step out of our comfort zones and become willing to make mistakes along the way.
Focusing on giving thanks in all things
I now see that gratitude quells criticism and perfectionism. It can seem counterintuitive to practice gratitude for the blessings amidst the hard and painful steps of change. Gratitude does not belittle the challenges we go through or the hurt we experience, yet it does help propel us forward each step of the way toward wholeness. We can be thankful for each blessing or piece of progress in our life, no matter how small. The discipline of focusing on all of the blessings in my life and building up a muscle of gratitude has been instrumental in my own mental health journey.
Accepting that there is something wrong with everything
This may sound pessimistic, but hear me out. We live in a beautiful yet broken and flawed world. Circumstances are rarely if ever perfect, and neither are humans. If I am striving to make myself and others behave or react perfectly, I will be utterly exhausted and disappointed. By remembering that there is in fact something wrong with everything, we can allow ourselves to have the gift of presence in our current imperfect realities. We can acknowledge the good and the hard.
Peace comes when we let go of our demand for perfection and loosen our grip. I now truly believe that grace, gratitude and baby steps will take us further and make our lives richer than perfectionism ever will.
Little victories and imperfect baby steps are exactly the thing that brought me to where I am today - fully free from my eating disorder and helping others recover from there’s through my work with Rock Recovery. Take it from me, giving yourself grace on the journey to healing is not only okay, it’s the surest way to become the best version of yourself.