Contemporary society instills us with the compelling need to compete and to excel.
To be faster, stronger, smarter, nicer-looking, better than those around us.
To win. Sometimes at all costs.
It’s far too easy, therefore, to fall into the trap of only doing things that set us up for a reasonable chance of success.
But if we spend all of our time on activities or pursuits we’re naturally good at, it usually means we’re not taking risks, we’re not stretching ourselves.
We spend our lives in an automatic, often subconscious, mode of competition.
We’re perpetually comparing ourselves to those around us rather than creating goals for ourselves that enrich and enhance our own lives, fulfill our own souls.
It's exhausting. And it’s detrimental to our mental health.
Let’s not discount the pleasure and freedom that result from letting ourselves experience and enjoy activities in which we simply don’t excel (and probably never will).
The role of perfectionism
“There is no way to genuinely, powerfully, truly love yourself while crafting a mask of perfection.” — Vironika Tugaleva
I’m the oldest child in my family and it’s a commonly-held belief that most firstborns are prone to perfectionism.
I’ve maintained a not-so-elegant tightrope walk, my entire life. I've been the over-achiever, wanting everything to be “just so”, and I've been the person who will give up in a heartbeat (or not try at all) because it will never in a million universes be good enough.
After decades of pursuing perfection, running was the first thing I ever did, at least regularly and willingly, that I was actually horrid at.
And I adored it.
As a child, I loathed anything athletic. Remember that terrible rope they made many of us climb in elementary school gym class? It seemed to extend to the sky, and those sadists expected us, as six-year-olds, to reach the top. Afraid of heights, I was the kid who just hung at the bottom and cried.
As a teenager diagnosed with fibromyalgia, I was told I “couldn’t” run. I remember asking sarcastically, “Well, what am I expected to do if someone’s chasing me?”
When I did start running, shortly after my 40th birthday, I was so ridiculously slow it verged on comical. And after decades of trying to be the best at everything I did, my low expectations of myself felt like a luxury.
Honestly, I never got much faster. My former smoker’s lungs screamed at me every step of the way. And while I most definitely could run in spite of the fibro, I found that long, powerful strides created too much impact and therefore caused lingering pain.
I’m simply not built, not wired, to be a runner.
But I shuffled along in spite of that, through 5Ks, 10Ks, trail races, and half marathons. I loved the endorphins and the way running helped manage my chronic fibro pain and my mental health. My rebellious side delighted in the fact that I was doing something I’d been told I couldn’t, or at least shouldn’t do.
Sometimes people would ask me, after learning I’d been in a race, whether I had won. It was so very telling — even as we hand out participation medals like candy, we still have an incredibly hard time recognizing real achievement if it isn’t disguised as a win.
Somehow, because I wasn’t supposed to be a runner anyway, it didn’t matter to me that I was doing it badly, or even that I was worse at it than most people.
I was learning to take comparison off the table. And that was eye-opening.
A few years later, I had to stop distance running after injuring myself in a 28K trail race and subsequently being diagnosed with an eating disorder where I used extreme exercise as a purge of choice.
I spent almost a year in a deep depression, though I barely knew it at the time. Strange as it seems, I had learned to define myself by my accomplishments in an activity I did poorly (at least by societal standards).
The debilitating effect of “I can’t”
Doing things badly can be an enormous part of healing, especially for perfectionists trying to reform, because it shuts down the words “I can’t”.
How often do you find yourself starting a sentence, whether aloud or in your own mind, with those two devastating words?
During my dark times, the words “I can’t” had gradually become my standard response to just about anything. Depression is devious like that.
You don’t even realize how deeply it is tunneling into your brain, how much it is changing you until it’s too late, and the patterns it has etched must be completely rewritten.
I can’t write because I’m not good enough and I don’t have anything important to say.
I can’t make that phone call because I’ll blabber like an idiot.
I can’t go out tonight because I look like crap and everyone will stare at me.
I can’t take that dance class because I’ll look like a moron.
I can’t clean the house because I won’t do it right.
I can’t take that risk because I might fail.
I can’t try that new thing because I probably won’t be good enough.
I looked in the mirror one day and had no idea who I’d become.
Changing the language
Taking “can’t” out of the equation is infinitely important.
We can learn to substitute different phrases when we feel our brains, or our voices, turning to the ever-comfortable torpor of “I can’t”.
“I’m not sure about…”
“Let me try…”
“That’s a little bit intimidating, but let’s see what I can do…”
“That might not work for me, but what about this instead?”
“It’s ok that I don’t do this perfectly.”
Or just acknowledging that we are in control of our destinies and have the right to make a decision: “I simply don’t want to.”
The power of our word choices should never be discounted.
That simple shift in perspective has allowed me to be willing to do things badly again. To try things that scare me.
I started writing again, after a 20-year hiatus, and despite having a fairly insane work and life schedule, I've published hundreds of articles over the past two years.
While I have some faith in my general ability as a writer, I know there’s a lot of room for improvement, and my inner perfectionist tends to scream silently when I hit the “publish” button.
I went waaaaay out of my comfort zone and took some dance classes.
I still try to avoid glimpsing myself in the studio mirror, and when the instructor recommended photographing or videoing myself attempting different moves, so I could see my progress over time, I looked at her like she’d suddenly sprouted tentacles.
That’s ok too.
These activities stretch me, challenge me, and make me a bit uneasy. That’s both positive and invigorating. It is, however, unrealistic to think I’ll feel, well, comfortable all the time.
I am a rusty writer. I am not a graceful dancer. I am not content with my body.
But I want to write. I want to be stronger. And I want to learn how to move confidently in the body I have today. So I will continue to find ways to support those goals.
We might never be "good" at certain things, and that’s 100% ok
At this point, I can’t imagine I’ll ever be able to do certain dance moves without twisting my face into a grimace, which is not really the desired effect!
But I don’t expect to be good. I expect to be stronger. And more confident.
I hope to further hone my writing skills. I studied journalism, albeit many years ago, so I have different expectations for myself in that area.
But that doesn’t mean I have to make a living as a writer, or that I need umpteen followers to feel that the activity itself is worthwhile.
As we learn that it’s ok to do things badly, we can also start to redefine success.
Does it make us happy? Are we learning something? Are we challenging ourselves?
Are we better people for doing it?
That sounds like a win to me.
“Define success on your own terms, achieve it by your own rules, and build a life you’re proud to live.” — Anne Sweeny