My dad once told me that I like to make life hard for myself. He said this years ago when I first switched from being vegetarian to vegan. At the time, I took it as an insult. Now, I realize three things:
- I have always, in some way, tried to increase the challenges in my life.
- My parents, directly and indirectly, taught me to be this way.
- Some challenges are more worthwhile than others.
In retrospect, instead of getting offended, there are two things I could have said. First, “Takes one to know one, dad!” True, but not exactly helpful. Second, “Yes, I’m willing to go through hardships to get what I want, and I like that about myself.” I’m still waiting for a chance to pull that one out.
My parents taught me to work hard and aim for perfection. I realized, some years ago, that this attitude was destroying my relationship with myself. I was trying so hard to be perfect, but I was just human. I was working so hard to be someone I could never be.
But this attitude did serve me in certain situations. It helped me get good grades in school. It helped me excel at math. It made me good at cleaning. (Why sweep a floor once when you can sweep it four times?)
There’s a certain gear that I shift into when I am working as hard as I can, when I’m being “a perfectionist.” I become attentive to minute, seemingly insignificant details. I shift my focus only onto the task at hand and ignore everything else. I care more about achieving the best possible outcome than about the exhaustion in my mind and body.
When I first made self-love a priority, I sought to tackle perfectionism, throttle it, annihilate it. I thought this was a terrible personality flaw, and I blamed my parents for all those times they forced me to study into the late hours of the night. All those times I had to reclean the toilet until it was sparkling. All those times I had to rewrite my homework until it was flawless.
I believed that self-love was about acceptance. I worked on accepting my makeupless face, my stretch marks, my cellulite, my cold sores (instead of always trying to fix them). I worked on accepting all the awkward things I’d ever said and done (instead of staying up all night worrying about them). I worked on accepting the versions of me that lived in other people’s heads (especially when those versions were unflattering).
But in those days, I never tried to work on accepting my perfectionism. I just thought of it as an inconvenience, a nuisance, a chronic illness. It was something I had to purge. Why accept something that was making me miserable?
So I battled with what some call the “inner critic.” I tried to get it to leave me alone. It didn’t. Not only did it not leave me alone, but it actually got stronger. The more I tried to ignore the imperfections in myself, in others, in reality, the louder it would scream.
I was waging a war within myself. I still had a lot to learn about acceptance.
I remember one day when I was feeling particularly self-critical, I sat down to edit a piece of writing. I remember finding the misplaced commas with a kind of sick pleasure. That nitpicking, overanalytical part of me finally had something productive to do.
I began to realize that this part of me wasn’t actually useless. It wasn’t toxic. It was just misdirected. Of course, pointing out the imperfections on my body isn’t helpful, but what about finding imperfections in a book or a blog post I’m working on?
Of course, nitpicking over what I had said in a social situation is draining, but what about nitpicking over the fonts and spacing in a document?
I realized that the issue with my perfectionism was that I was seeking a place called “perfection.” I wanted to get to the end, the finish line where everything would be perfect forevermore. That hasn’t happened and never will. Perfectionism as a noun didn’t help.
But what about perfectionism as a verb, as the act of perfecting something the best I can while knowing that it will never be perfect? Isn’t this what every great artist, musician, writer, inventor, and businessperson in the history of humankind has done?
Instead of wrestling with my perfectionist thoughts, I began to channel them. Editing, I’ve found, is an incredible outlet for criticism. Writers always talk about writing during waves of inspiration. Well, I’ve learned to edit during waves of criticism.
Last spring, I remember returning from the grocery store one day, my mind buzzing with thoughts about the way I had spoken to someone the day before. I stopped walking, closed my eyes, and firmly thought to myself, “If you’re going to go on a critical tangent, then why don’t you think about how to merge chapter 6 and chapter 10 because that’s actually important and worth thinking about it.”
My mind went blank, shocked by the sudden discipline. After a while, it started churning again, this time with thoughts about my book. I didn’t figure out how to merge those chapters that day, but I did some solid thinking about it. I felt a potent sense of self-mastery.
Another surprising outlet for me has been taking on physical challenges. When I first started running long distances, I felt that same self-mastery. As a kid, my fitness level was abysmal. Training my body to endure, to perform—this made me feel a sense over power of myself that I had never felt while putting on makeup or dieting.
When I was trying to look a certain way, I felt powerless because I couldn’t make myself look how I wanted. When I started exploring my body’s abilities—shifting into a focused state where I was willing to do whatever it took to do my best—that, I could do. And it felt amazing.
Over the past year, I’ve found another passion: trekking. I’ve always loved hiking, but trekking is something else. Treks have a destination in mind, a purpose. My analytical mind loves that. Trekking challenges me to stay present while pursuing a solid goal.
Recently, I did the Salkantay trek to Machu Picchu in Peru. Early on the second day, our group ascended a steep slope to reach 4630m in altitude. The lack of oxygen was noticeable. The sun was beating down on my sweaty neck. I just looked down at my feet and went a step at a time. Not too fast, not too slow, not staring at the top. Each step was a challenge, and each step was an accomplishment. In those minutes, nothing else existed and nothing else mattered. It was just me and the mountain. Me conquering the mountain by conquering myself.
The feeling at the top was indescribable, but it was familiar. It was the same feeling I’ve gotten after struggling with a math problem for hours, after cleaning a floor on my hands and knees ten times, after blotting out the last blemish on my face with thick concealer, after rereading my book for the hundredth time and not finding any major errors, after constructing an elaborate lie to cover up another lie and seeing that someone had bought it.
There are so many ways to feel accomplished about conquering something difficult. And you know, none of them are inherently “bad.” For a makeup artist, it’s helpful to feel a desire to create the perfect mask and feel a sense of accomplishment after creating it. For an improv actor, constructing false versions of reality on the spot is a challenge worth pursuing.
For those of us who feel compelled to, as my dad says, make life hard for ourselves, the question isn’t whether we will encounter obstacles and challenges in our lives. We will. The question is whether or not we will consciously choose those obstacles and challenges. Will they serve us or hinder us?
So I’ve dropped all the unhelpful labels: perfectionist, overachiever, overthinker, type A, control-freak, stickler. When I saw myself and others this way, I overlooked the incredible opportunities contained in these tendencies.
This also applies to the opposite way of being: lazy, irresponsible, careless, type B, absent-minded, air-headed. Some people tend toward these patterns, and there’s nothing “bad” about that. There are also potent gifts in being the kind of person who is quick to accept reality as it is without always trying to change it.
I think happiness is a process of balancing these extremes within ourselves, not in trying to eradicate one and replace it with the other. And balance begins with recognizing how lucky we are to have expertise in one extreme and cultivating curiosity about exploring the other side.
We are never doing the “wrong thing.” We’re just sometimes doing half the job.
There’s something so liberating about accepting our tendencies while we work on building new patterns. Maybe accepting reality will always be harder for me than trying to change it. Maybe I will always feel an urge to control things I cannot. I’m okay with that.
Some people find it difficult to make changes, while I can make changes at the snap of my fingers. That’s something worthwhile. And I find it difficult to stop and take a break when I need one, while other people do this effortlessly. That’s something worthwhile too. We all have our gifts, and we all have our projects.
So, yes, I suppose I do like to make life hard for myself. And not only do I accept this fact, but I also genuinely love this part of me. I wouldn’t be who I am without it.
So maybe what I really should have said to my dad was, “Thanks.”