Somewhere in my journey into adulthood, I became a perfectionist. I’m not completely sure when this transition took place, but it was somewhere post-college when all things felt a little hectic and out of my control. Just about every part of my life was in limbo (as it often is for people at that stage) and my reaction to that unpredictable middle ground was to try to get a handle on the pieces of it that could be wrangled into going the way I wanted them to go.
Of course, this doesn’t always work out due to
- Human error, including my own. And,
- Other factors that I couldn’t possibly see coming.
Somewhere along the lines of living as a perfectionist, I started to get worried. Why weren’t things working out the way I intended them to? Why did so many situations go awry despite my best efforts? Why did other people not want to cooperate with my (often overbearing) expectations?
I found myself becoming more and more inflexible. Less able to roll with the punches. And it wasn’t working out at all. This was not the person I wanted to be, but suddenly, nonetheless, it was the person I was.
I realized that my worldview on deftly handling my life’s adversities and always being pre-prepared was somewhat self-imposed. I’d been more free before, hadn’t I? I’d been different, more carefree. So why couldn’t I go back?
I found myself bad at any kind of true recreation, like sitting still or relaxing even when I really needed it. My perfectionist ways had kept me moving constantly and parts of me, both mentally and physically, were starting to feel worn. But I kept going. I pushed through mental exhaustion and at times, even physical pain.
Then suddenly, I stopped.
If you’re about to congratulate me for cutting myself some much-needed slack, let me stop you there: I injured my shoulder and so the stopping was involuntary. It wasn’t a serious injury by any means. It was basically case of un-ironic overuse. I’d been running around like a crazy person trying to keep up with all my idealistic expectations of the cool/fit/healthy-eater/employed/friend/sister/wife person I was in my mind. Until one day, a familiar pinch in my right shoulder, one that I’d felt several times before, persisted in a way it never previously had. I did all of the stuff you’re supposed to do: rotate between heat and ice, stretch, take it easy(ish). But it would not quit. It reminded me every time I moved the wrong way, or at all. I couldn’t even feel relief at night, as it often hurt the worst when I would lay down to sleep.
Finally, after two weeks of trying to coax the pain away, my husband suggested I see someone about it. A chiropractor, at the very least. Feeling overwhelmed with other things, I decided that outsourcing this solution might be best. I just wanted to feel normal again - you know, so I could continue to overdo it.
I made an appointment for the following morning and immediately considered canceling when I woke up. I didn’t have time.
I don’t know if it’s a mental shift that I haven’t quite completed yet, but for me I’ve always internally framed the idea of self-care as … indulgent. A bonus. An extra thing you get to do if you have time, but not before everything else gets done first. This, coupled with my new-ish perfectionist personality, meant that self-care had pretty much morphed into a nonexistent part of my life.
As the chiropractor examined my movements to uncover the root of the problem, she noted how tense I was, not just in my pained shoulder, but all over.
“Really?” I said. “I really only feel it here,” patting my right shoulder blade for emphasis. As soon as I said it, I knew how silly it sounded. Of course tension in one area is going to lead to tension in another. It’s all connected. Isn’t that how life works?
After she helped to realign my problem areas (and applied some seriously testing Graston technique - ouch), we had a conversation about how this may have happened. I gave her an outline of my daily habits as well as my current life (crazy-busy, in a word). Without her having to gently point out the obvious, I confessed that I was probably doing too much.
She nodded. “Probably,” she said.
It’s funny how we’re willing to change a bad habit when someone else gives us permission to do so. I can’t admit to be fully reformed or suddenly devil-may-care about my days and my planning and my life. But I rested my shoulder (really) until it got better. And I’ve been practicing some necessary stretches in order to avoid the problem recurring. And I’ve been relaxing my neck, when I realize it’s so tensed up that my shoulders are practically touching my ears.
My need to be perfect and work hard often makes me feel like I’m working towards something. I know this is partially true, but I also know that giving all you’ve got to the grind of your life can make you miss the actual life part of your life. It can be the very thing that stops us from moving forward. I’m so often juggling the person that I want the world to see with the person I'm still becoming that I don't actually get to be in the world, participating in it, living in it, reveling in it. And this is sad. It's like I realized I was doing all this work to gently skirt the perimeters of real experience without actually getting to have them. It would be like a long distance runner training every day without ever entering the marathon.
So what stops us? What is the difference between being "busy" and actually diving in to life? A plethora of things, no doubt, that often all boils down to one: fear. When we're actually in it, the image we're busy maintaining (and perfecting) isn't as sturdy. I can’t be perfect when I’m in motion and being tested by circumstances I can’t predict. And do you know what happens when some of the runners actually enter the marathon? They drop out at mile 21. They sustain injuries. They feel weakened. They quit.
When we're actually out there living, it's not perfect anymore. Sometimes, in tiny sparks and waves, but mostly? It's a mess. It's a mess of being alive. And sometimes that hurts, but sometimes it's wonderful. Sometimes you push through to the end of that particular race, the satisfying snap of the finish line tape as you cross that final mile. Other times you end up on the side of the road, huffing and heaving and wondering how you got here.
Every moment isn't for diving in. There's a unique agility in knowing the difference, in discerning which ones are for you and which ones are not, when it's time to keep going and when it's time to stand still. It's okay to be still. But it's also okay to go for it and pick up the pieces after. Don't let your life be a preparation for an hour that never comes. Live in the moments that are yours. Run the race when you're ready. Sit others out. Do your best. Forgive yourself when it doesn’t go as planned. And jump, jump, jump.
Helen Williams is a Colorado transplant who is passionate about vegan/vegetarian cooking, writing and sarcasm. She strives, every day, to be less sorry. When she's not in the kitchen or working on her new company Best One Yet (a vegan ice cream Vespa, coming soon to Longmont/Boulder, CO!) you can find her reading, getting outside as much as possible or trying to pet your dog.
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