I was cogitating the other day (as introverts are wont to do) on the poison that is perfectionism. More specifically, I was reflecting on my own struggles with the beast and attempting to outline (as type-As are wont to do) the actions that had been most helpful in taming it. While I absolutely still battle perfectionism – sometimes hourly – I am a far cry from the girl that I used to be. One of the most crucial things in this process has been learning to stop taking things personally. That includes both criticism and praise.
For most of my life, I was extremely sensitive to criticism. If anything about my performance or person was pointed out as being less than perfect, I spiraled into an inward catastrophe. (Of course, none of this was supposed to be evident on the outside…appearances had to be kept up perfectly, you know.) It was not until I realized that criticism has no bearing on my inherent worth or my identity that I learned to not only accept it like emotional flagellation as penance for my fallibility, but to use it for improvement. Only when I could take criticism without taking it personally was I able to actually learn from it. These days, I welcome criticism because it can be used constructively, even if it is not meant that way. That’s not to say that criticism is not sometimes painful to take, because at times it is. Rather, much like deep tissue massage, if you lean into it even when it hurts, criticism can undo the knotted up areas of life and help you to perform, feel, and live better.
By a similar token, I have learned to stop taking praise and compliments personally. As an oldest child/type-A/achievement-oriented person, I tend to thrive on praise. If my performance or achievements were lauded, I would feel that I had achieved something worthwhile. If criticism destroyed my sense of self-worth, words of praise gave me a sense of identity. I was the good girl. I must be, since other people found me praise-worthy. As expected, I eventually realized I was on a hamster-wheel of people-pleasing and praise-seeking, drained from the effort to seeking my worth in affirmation from others and terrified to get off the wheel and see just who I was when not scrambling in circles. Sure enough, once I stopped basing my worth and identity on praise, I found a freedom I had not known before. I could be happy with my achievements even if no one else thought them noteworthy. I could be amused by my sense of humor even if no one else found it funny. I could be content with my appearance even if no one else found me the slightest bit pretty. That’s not to say I don’t appreciate affirmation and praise, and find it encouraging, but I don’t take it personally and see it as confirmation of my value as a writer/artist/athlete/woman/human. Like criticism, I look at praise as objectively as possible and learn from it. Someone praises an athletic feat? I examine the actions I took in order to accomplish it, and see how those actions could be applied to other areas of athletics and life. Someone praises my writing? I review what I did – content and style of the piece as well as motivation and methods during the writing process – and keep those things in mind the next time I sit down at the keyboard.
Health is holistic – it encompasses the entire being, spirit and mind and body. If one part is not well, the other parts will inevitably suffer in some way as well. This is why psychology is such a critical part of fitness – if mental health or emotional health are compromised, physical health is going to be affected. If you are putting in 100% effort at the gym but not giving a second thought the the fitness of your mind and emotions (or your spiritual life), you’re missing at least 1/3 of the equation. My own experience has proved this much to be true. If you struggle with perfectionism in any way, I would really encourage you to work on letting go of that. Your worth does not lie in your perfection or lack thereof, and your worth cannot be diminished by criticism or increased by praise. None of us are perfect and we never will be, but each of you are priceless because of the One who made you. You can rest assured in that.
“Why, even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, you are of more value than many sparrows.”