Thursday, January 2, 2014

How Low Can You Go?

Ah, the beginning of the new year, the season of starting fresh, setting new goals, and getting bombarded by weight-loss advertisements everywhere you look.

It's a magical time of hopeful self-loathing.

I believe that continually asking, "What can I do today to make my life better/healthier/happier/more balanced?" is about the most impactful act of kindness I can bestow on myself, and in turn, those with whom I interact. I also think that "big change seasons" such as the new year require some caution, particularly if you are like me, and you suffer from the most trying of imperfections: perfectionism.

Need to feel bad about your accomplishments? Here's perfectionism! Want more than you or those around you could ever physically/emotionally/spiritually provide? Perfectionism can help you with that. Want the satisfaction of knowing that, unless something is done exactly right, it isn't worth doing at all? Perfectionism is the perfect pursuit.

As a perfectionist in recovery, I have had one New Year's resolution every year since around the age of twenty-seven in order to heal myself: LOWER THE BAR. 

Yes, I want to be healthier—you might, too. Yes, I want to make more fiscally responsible decisions—you and I can both work on budgets this year, and be more secure for it. Yes, I want to set some ambitious goals and take the many tiny steps necessary to achieve them through out my year—I hope you have some of these things in mind, too.

What I don't want to do, though, is get paralyzed by expectations, or horrified by performance. For example, in terms of my health, I can meet with my nutritionist, go to the gym more, and do my best. At the same time, I cannot engage in a diet where I simultaneously eliminate five categories of food and require myself to go the the gym six days a week. That bar is too high, and it will only serve to make me more miserable once I drop the ball.

I know some people may read this and think, "Gosh, Kori, expect something of yourself! Take care of yourself! You can do big, amazing things in a year if you set goals and work hard!"

Yeah, I get it. I've been setting the bar low for so many years now, even an international limbo champion could not snake her way under it. Does this mean that I don't want to do better? Be better? Try harder?

I can only reply with this: if there was a meeting of perfectionists-anonymous, I don't think my testimony would be that of someone who, after abandoning the hope that things could always be "just so," decided she was just going to sit around and do nothing. Lowering the bar has helped me to move to a new city with my husband, support him through a PhD program, get a masters degree, take important risks, find meaningful work, get over the trauma of a difficult birth, develop empathy, raise my daughter, make new friends, strengthen my long-term friendships, and care for my marriage, ALL WHILE BEING MUCH HAPPIER.

In other words, it works.

For me, it always seems to come down to this: Expect Less = Get More.

My inner perfectionist fighting to get into my decision-making and run the show can't understand that kind of math—she tells me that unless I get it all exactly right, I can't be happy. The perfectionist always insists that the equation should be:

Expect Everything(Doing it Exactly Right x Never Making a Mistake) + Demanding the Same of Others = The Greatest Life Ever.

What can I say? My inner perfectionist has destructive delusions of grandeur. At my best, I tell her very sweetly to go lie down, and let her know I'll call her when I really need her, like when I'm frosting a cake, or trying to fold fitted sheets. At my worst, she runs amok for bit, making me tense and terse, until the irritated or hurt faces of my family members remind me that I need to get Polly Perfectionist out of the driver's seat. It's sad to recognize that, even as I hurt myself with perfectionism, I rarely take back the reigns until I know I've affected someone else, which hurts even more. The shame of this could certainly spark the creation of a perfectionist-based goal of never, ever letting it happen again, but I'll keep the bar set low, do my best, and take the time to recognize when and how it is getting better.

No matter how many times I am told by the computer/television/radio that I could look/be/feel/live like a different person in 365 days if I simply start buying/doing/believing in a product/service/activity, I will make no grandiose self-improvement plans to mark the beginning of 2014. As a recovering perfectionist, I will use this time, as always, as a reminder to limbo into each new year, with the bar ever lower (and happier)...and lower (and happier)...and lower (and happier)...knowing that I don't have to understand the inner workings of the "Expect Less = Get More" equation for everything to add up. At my limbo party, I have more fun stepping right over the bar, head high and shoulders back.