Two years ago this January, I took my first class in Duke Integrative Medicine’s health coaching program.

Since then, I’ve coached many fellow coaches and individuals, and something I’ve pulled out of those conversations is that one of the keys to sustainable change is your relationship with yourself. If you are constantly putting yourself last, beating yourself up, or pushing yourself to achieve something that truly is not attainable, it makes behavior change and meeting your goals so much harder. Or, you may reach the goal you’re chasing but put yourself in a position that’s incredibly difficult to maintain long-term because it’s too extreme.

So, I want to spend February focusing my content on self love, and how it affects our ability to reach our goals or change behaviors. The first topic I want to talk about is perfectionism and the perfectionist mindset. This is something I struggle with a lot personally, so I’m excited to dig into what I’ve learned (and what I’m still learning) with y’all. Funny enough, this was just supposed to be an Instagram post, but true to my verbose form I had a lot more to say about this than should be in an Instagram caption. So, here we are.

We all know what perfectionism is: striving for flawlessness (or the appearance of it). And it can wreak havoc on your opinion of yourself because you are always reaching for an unattainable standard. It can push you to an all or nothing mindset – “If I don’t do this perfectly, there’s no point in doing it at all” – or make you feel like a failure because you’re never achieving the ideal result in your mind. It can cause anxiety and even prevent you from starting to work on your goal. It can keep you from ever feeling satisfied. And when you’re trying to make a change, these things can be a major impediment.

But, let’s try this on for size: none of my clients do things perfectly – literally none – and they are still seeing progress. 

I know for some this statement can be hard to align with reaching your goals. For many people, myself included, the imperfections can make you feel like you’re losing control and you’ll never get where you want to be. My first piece of advice to you is this: make space for the gray areas, because that is where long-term progress lives. Read that one more time. Why did I say that? Because the “gray areas” are often where balance is. For example, pizza every night is probably not the best way to eat, but that does not mean that pizza is always off limits. Learning balance and what it means in your life is where you will find sustainable change. And perfectionism and balance are often at odds with each other. Perfectionism likes black and white: pizza is not ok and I can’t eat it and still reach my goals. Balance likes gray: I can have a slice of pizza on the weekend and still meet my goals.

Where this gets hard is retraining your brain away from this perfectionist mentality. You are not a failure because you didn’t do something perfectly. I know this is a difficult mindset to get out of – I fight it daily. Here is what I’ve found helpful:

Lower the bar. A perfectionist’s worst nightmare. Did you cringe or think “what?!” when you read that? I have thought the same thing, too. But part of the struggle with perfectionism is we create such huge goals for ourselves that we feel dwarfed by them and what it will take to accomplish them, leaving us overwhelmed from the start. And then once we do start, if every step isn’t perfect we get frustrated. There are two ways I try to fight this. The first is to lean on the SMART framework (especially the “A”, which stands for “attainable), which helps me set up my goals in a manageable way. The second is to break my goals down into tiny steps (by tiny I mean if your goal is to start exercising, start with 10 minutes a day). This makes the things that need to be done to meet your goals feel so much more achievable and helps you better see how they will fit into your existing routine. 

Start adding the phrase “and that’s ok” when you find your inner critic showing up. One of the biggest things we perfectionists fight is ourselves and our instinct to be overly self-critical. I wish I could remember where I read about the idea to start adding the phrase “and that’s ok” to the end of sentences when my inner critic is out of control, but it has really helped my mindset. When I catch myself thinking, “ugh, you skipped your workout today” or “yikes, you overate at dinner”, I add “and that’s ok” to the end of it. This helps me put things in perspective and stops the self criticism almost immediately so I can get back on track without endlessly chastising myself or feeling like I need to overcompensate in some way.

Consider the big picture. When you think about the end result you’re trying to achieve, what will be the most important pieces in getting there? When you catch yourself going down the perfection rabbit hole, pause and ask “what impact will doing this perfectly have on my end goal? Will it materially impact my ability to achieve it?”. Now, this does not mean every time you want to skip your workout or have that post-work cigarette you should say to yourself, “well, this won’t materially impact meeting my goal”, because over time those things will add up. The point I’m trying to make here is, with every goal there will be pieces that are more important than others to achieving the end result, so try to understand what those things are, focus on them, and let the rest go. A.K.A. “don’t sweat the small stuff” or “choose your battles”.

Remind yourself of the progress you’ve already made. Or if it’s a new goal, think about times in the past when you’ve been successful. Perfectionism can send us into some really negative spaces to the point that we feel like we are never making progress, but that is simply untrue. There is always a small (or big) win, or something to be proud of yourself for. Sometimes, that’s just finally admitting to yourself that you need a change. Sometimes, it’s nailing your action plans for the day. And sometimes, it’s realizing that you didn’t perfectly accomplish your goal, but you’re really happy with where you are – and that’s (more than) ok! <- See what I did there 🙂 ?

There is a quote from John Steinbeck’s book East of Eden that I love: “Now that you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good”. If you take nothing else away from this post, remember this. Perfection is not attainable – it’s just not. If you’re striving for it, I’m sorry but you are fighting a losing battle. Because our perfectionist brains are like Lucy with the football: every time you think you might be getting close to achieving perfection, that b*tch is going to snatch the football away. When you remove the idea that you can’t be healthy and happy without being perfect, you will be surprised how much happier and healthier you become. When you give yourself the grace mentally to just be good – work toward your goals, learn from your setbacks, and keep moving forward even as things shift – you can get out of your own way and make progress. And that’s what we want long-term: progress, not perfection.

As always, sending you lots of happy, healthy vibes!

MB