Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in. – Leonard Cohen
Recently, I was the keynote speaker for the American Heart Association’s Go Red for Women luncheon. This was a big deal for me. The talk on the Power of Self-kindness was my first keynote and addressed over 250 women. My goals were two-fold: I wanted to inspire members of the audience to cultivate self-compassion and leave the stage lightly without the usual self-criticism monkey on my back.
The first part was relatively easy. Self-compassion coaching is a large part of the work I do empowering women at midlife. To prepare I reviewed research on self-compassion, rehearsed my butt off and had a few girlfriends watch my talk. The second goal: Refusing to let toxic self-judgments enter my consciousness was a bigger challenge because fostering self-compassion and ditching your inner critic takes practice and patience.
Like many midlife women, I’m a recovery perfectionist. It’s hard not to be because our culture values perfectionism. Parents and teachers push us to achieve narrowly defined excellence in school. The media points out our flaws and then sell us products from wrinkle creams and Spanx to magic bullet weight loss pills that promise a quick fix. Social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram make us feel like everyone, but us are leading perfect lives.
For decades I wanted everything in my life – my body, my work, my home, my marriage… to be flawless. The unreasonable demands I placed on myself were endless and left me feeling disparate and depressed. Plus, perfectionism fueled procrastination and fear of failure preventing me from making necessary changes like ending my failed marriage and getting a divorce.
Perfectionism started in childhood. I absorbed my parent’s perfectionist traits, and as the youngest I worked hard to win their love and attention. This entailed getting A’s, being quiet and well behaved and never failing. When I wasn’t good enough or felt like I was failing, rather than getting help, learning from my mistakes and trying harder I quit.
The inability to accept mistakes often sent me in the wrong direction. For example, during my freshman year in college I got a D on a chemistry test. Rather than talking to the professor and determining how to do better, I dropped the course and switched majors.
Perfectionism haunted me throughout the first half of adulthood. I wanted my life to resemble a glossy magazine – beautiful house, impeccable children, the perfect body, a successful marriage and a stellar career. From the outside I seemed to have it all, but my life was like a shiny apple that’s rotting from the inside out.
A Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and Certified Personal Trainer, I worked in a gym as a body transformation coach. My calendar screamed success! I was booked solid and had a long client waiting list. However, while I looked thin and fit, I was over exercising for six-pack abs and starving myself for a bikini ready summer body. In my spare time I was the mother of two and working on a PhD in psychology. Miserable, hungry and exhausted, my adrenal glands were burnt out and my thyroid wasn’t working properly. Life was a nightmare – a toxic accomplishment driven hamster wheel generating unhappiness. The need to be flawless and free from error was ruining my life.
During these dark days it never occurred to me to ditch perfectionism and its taskmaster, my inner-critic. I thought I needed her to motivate me and keep me inline. Plus, by beating myself up first I beat others to the chase and avoided the pain of being criticized. I didn’t realize that self-criticism actually undermines motivation and success.
A nasty character my inner-critic resembled Ursula, the villainous sea witch who tricks Ariel into swapping her beautiful voice for a pair of legs. Like Ariel, I traded my voice, authenticity and truth for perfectionism because I believed that if I did everything perfectly I’d be loved and my fears and insecurities would disappear. Yet beneath the chronic stress, persistent dissatisfaction and drive for success, I know that achieving perfection was impossible.
That inner critic was my biggest barrier to self-compassion. You can’t be kind to yourself and treat yourself like a good friend if Ursula is holding you in her octopus grip and sucking the life out of you.
My spirit was longing for unconditional love and a way to feel good about my body and my self. Fortunately, I met self-compassion pioneer Kristin Neff, who agreed to help me with my dissertation research on one condition: I had to take the Mindful Self-compassion training. The training followed by six years of practicing mindful self-compassion transformed my life and ended my struggles with depression and perfectionism.
If you are struggling with the pain of perfectionism self-compassion can help you too. Research shows that self-compassion weakens the relationship between maladaptive perfectionism (the type of perfectionism that involves toxic self-criticism) and depression in both adults and teens. That’s because being kind towards yourself helps you to accept your imperfections and flaws. Self-compassion changes your perspective. You realize that you are inherently valuable and being “perfect” becomes irrelevant.
What is Self-compassion?
The three elements of self-compassion: Self-kindness, common humanity and mindfulness change how you relate to yourself, and perfectionism has no place in that new relationship. Self-kindness eases the fear of failure and obliterates the need to be flawless. When you are kind to yourself you have less fear of failure because you know that if you make a mistake you can bounce back by supporting yourself.
Common humanity (the idea that we are all imperfect beings) enables you to accept your imperfections because you realize that everyone makes mistakes and fails. Mindfulness allows you to notice when you are beating yourself up and stressing yourself out with the same “I’m not good, pretty, smart…enough old story line.” When you notice negative self-talk you can pause, thank your inner critic for trying to help you and welcome your new self-compassionate voice.
There are numerous ways to start cultivating self-compassion. One way is to explore self-compassion through writing. Another is to engage in formal meditation practices designed to help you turn towards your self (you can access them HERE). A major way to practice is to notice when you are being self-critical, pause and tell yourself to focus on progress not perfection.
My self-compassion practice has allowed me to accept, rather than criticize or obliterate my flaws. Did I make a few mistakes during my talk? Probably, but I didn’t notice them. True to my intention, I stepped off the stage feeling great because I had a positive impact on hundreds of other women.
Overtime I’ve even come to love (okay accept) my inadequacies because they make me unique, and frankly there’s nothing I can do about many of them. They’re part of who I am. Imperfections mold and shape me, build character and help me to accept others as whole beings flaws and all. Yes, I’ve screwed up but I am enough and have nothing to prove.
The great thing about midlife is that you can take everything you’ve learned during the first part of your adult life and use all those lessons to make the second half happier and more satisfying. You can look back on your life, review your mistakes, forgive yourself and thank life for how it’s changed you. So you’ve been battered and scared so what you’re still standing, and you’re wiser and more beautiful.
There is an ancient Japanese philosophy called wabi-sabi which focuses on finding beauty in imperfections. Scratches, marks, cracks and mistakes in furniture and vases that occur through age and wear and tear are appreciated and viewed as beautiful. The cracks are often filled with gold and these flawed vessels are worth far more than their “perfect” cousins.
If you’re done with being hard on yourself, I encourage you to abandon “perfect” and adopt the art of wabi sabi. Let the relentless pursuit of perfection that leads to stress, anxiety and depression go. Recognize your beauty and radiance. Claim your wabi sabi – the art of the broken. Wrinkles, stretch marks, scars, grey hair aren’t ugly. They are magnificent markings that tell a story and define who you are.
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