Today was a wonderful day. I woke up, read in bed with my husband, we went for a 2-hour walk exploring the land around where we live, came home and assembled a 10-foot metal rack to hold our firewood, then I made coffee and an espresso-cardamom pound cake (all organic, of course, but in full disclosure, not gluten free or sugar free), and sat down to my computer for a few hours of low-key work catching up on correspondence with friends and students. That’s when I got inspired to share this story with you.
These days, it’s my commitment that when I’m not traveling to teach or work, and we’re not off visiting the kids for the weekend, my husband Tracy and I take a leisurely day on Sunday. But I have a confession to make: I haven’t always been this way. While I thought I was this chilled out chic who did yoga, ate well, did art, gardened, and lived a great wholesome natural life, about 10 months ago, I realized I had an addiction. Not to drugs. Not to alcohol. Not to gambling. Not to sex.
My addiction came in the form of being a perfectionist.
Now I don’t mean to downplay potentially life threatening and devastating addictions by comparing them to perfectionism. As a medical doctor who spent 3 years working in addiction medicine, I deeply recognize the devastating impact that substance (and other) addictions have on the individual who is addicted, and their family.
But I also don’t want to ignore the fact that perfectionism, a major problem affecting a lot of women, can have long-term health consequences – in fact, though much less obviously, perfectionism can be deadly. Here’s how…
Perfectionism and Your Adrenals
When you are in a constant or chronic state of internal stress, as is the case with most perfectionists, your body believes that it is in danger. As a result, a cascade of stress hormones is released that put you in a state of red alert and heightened reactivity. These hormones are part of a survival mechanism that has been with us since the dawn of time and that allows us to run away from – or fight off – threats. That’s why it’s called the fight or flight response. It’s supposed to be a mechanism that kicks in only on occasion, when we need it, and then when it shuts off, our systems go back to a natural relaxed state.
When we’re exposed to stress hormones day in and day out, as happens to most perfectionists, over time there can be havoc in your mind and body. Here are just some of the things that can happen:
- You gain weight around your middle (belly fat, muffin tops)
- You have trouble falling asleep, staying asleep, you wake up too early, or no matter how much you sleep, you never really feel fully rested
- You have sugar, carb, or salt cravings – or all of them
- You feel run down a lot, overwhelmed, overly reactive, or burnt out
- Your hormones are all over the place
- You feel anxious, blue, or downright depressed
- You have high blood sugar, insulin resistance, or diabetes
- You have high blood pressure
- Your digestive system is off kilter
- You’re having trouble focusing, your thinking feels foggy, or your memory just isn’t what it should be.
You may recognize these as symptoms of overdrive or fatigue in your adrenals. That’s because it’s your brain and adrenal glands, through a primitive, conserved system called the stress response, or the HPA Axis (Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal Axis), that is responsible for this survival system – and when the survival response is stuck in the on position, your systems go haywire!
Perfectionism Is Toxic to Your Health
Perfectionism creates the same set of internal stress reactions and releases those same potentially toxic hormones as do other forms of chronic stress. Perfectionism is also addictive, causing us to seek and try to achieve more and more success as the “fix.” As with any addiction, the satisfaction from achievement often doesn’t last long, and may be accompanied by intense fears and anxieties, for example, fear of failure in the future, fear of disappointing others who expect highly of you, becoming hyper vigilant and hyper responsible, experiencing ‘imposter syndrome’, feeling like you weren’t actually as good as you could have been, and on and on. In fact, perfectionists have a higher rate of anxiety, depression, and suicide than our non-perfectionist peers.
Now being high achieving isn’t a bad thing. It’s a good quality to have in your doctor, for example. You want a doctor who doesn’t like to miss details, is willing to work overtime returning calls, and who wants to know everything about their specialty so studies a lot. But perfectionism is different than excellence, having big dreams and strong goals. Perfectionism has a dark side.
So many of us have internalized a seemingly bottomless ocean of negative messages telling us we’re just not good enough that we work ourselves to the bone working on ourselves, plagued by a feeling of not being good enough. Ever. It’s a real fun-sucker. Underlying so much of it, is this implicit message that we are not enough – that we always have to be working on ourselves, getting better, thinking better, doing more juicing, stretching, journaling, therapy, etc.
And if we “fail” at whatever it was that we were setting out to do (more on the beauty of “failure” in a future article, too) well, it was our own damned fault. If we had just studied harder, visualized more, meditated more deeply, done more yoga, focused on more positive thoughts – well — we’d have gotten that “100%.”
Thank You, Perfectionist, You Can Go Now!
It wasn’t until I turned down a renewal contract on a high-profile job in a famous medical practice, freeing myself from a long history of saying yes to something because it looked good, rather than it feeling good, to honoring my inner truth, that I recognized that I’d spent decades with an inner stress motor running. When I walked away from that contract, my entire inner self got quiet – the way your home gets quiet when the power goes out in an electrical storm – and for the first time in a long time, I had a chance to reflect on how I really felt and how I really, really want to feel in my life. It was then that I realized I was addicted to perfectionism – having spent years trying to be the best professionally, as a mom, in my health – pretty much in everything. And I realized it was causing me unnecessary anxiety and stress. It was affecting my sleep and my focus. It was skewing what I said yes to, fearing that if I said no, I might miss an opportunity (yup, FOMO!).
So I stopped all of that. I let myself truly embrace and FEEL the inner peace I wanted to live my life with and act from, and committed to using that feeling as my decision-making and life experience compass.
This doesn’t mean I’m not in hot pursuit of being GREAT at what I do — we can still be master jammers on whatever we love to do. But it does mean we’re in the driver’s seat of our ambition, not driven to exhaustion by it.
We are worthy. You are worthy. I invite your to join me today by accepting and loving ourselves exactly how, where, and who we are. Right this second. Start from yes, I am AMAZING. We are absolutely fantastic women. Are there things we want to change, learn, and do? Sure. Are we always growing? Of course. But we are doing it from a place of full self-love, not self-contempt, judgment, or worse, loathing.
Radical self-love starts with self-acceptance. I would like to propose that we are all Good Enough. That we are all amazing, fantastic expressions of beauty, creativity, kindness, and good intention. That this, rather than a self-deficit mindset, is the starting place from which to launch your dreams and visions and desires to grow even more sublime.
Here it is: With a deep inhalation to the count of six you say to yourself: I AM BEAUTIFUL and on an exhalation to the count of six you say AS I AM. Repeat 3 more times. That’s it. 48 seconds. Then rather than a battle with a self that needs to be thinner, healthier, more successful, or whatever it is that plagues you about not being good enough, you make healthy choices from a place of self-love and it all becomes the art of enjoyment. Your green juice becomes a celebration of your desire to be healthy and delight your body with high quality food information for your cells not a battle with your sugar cravings, your yoga becomes a celebration of moving your body not a battle with your belly fat, your visualization be a joyous act of creative self-expression not a mind game to get yourself out of a stuck situation.
What’s been amazing to me in this new way of approaching my life is that all of the energy I used to put into worrying, pushing, and striving is now freed up just to be creative, serve, and love – and sometimes even just do nothing. I’m more of a powerhouse in my life than I’ve ever been. I sleep better, feel better, and have so much more fun. I’m gentler with myself – and others – and I know what’s important in my life. And I realized, as Mark Twain said, “I have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened.”
I’ve also translated this inner peace into how I teach, what I teach about, and how I help my patients. My approach to women’s health has profoundly shifted into emphasizing learning how we want to feel, listening to our bodies, being infinitely and radically self-loving, reconciling the inconsistencies between how we want to feel and how we spend most of our time actually feeling, and learning how to feel truly successful in our lives. In shifting this mindset, it becomes easier for my students and patients to achieve their own personal and health goals, because when we are kind to ourselves, we release enormous amounts of potential energy for healing, creating, learning, and expanding our minds to explore greater possibilities. We sleep better and as a result we eat better, think more clearly, and have more energy. As those stress hormones clear from our systems, we lose stubborn weight, get sick less often, our hormones become more regular, brain fog clears up, inflammation goes away…
While I’m still sometimes tempted to pick up the old perfectionist habits, I catch myself by recognizing the difference in how I feel when I am in the flow of creative process, following my passion and doing things beautifully, well and deeply, versus in a quest for perfectionist achievement. The former is accompanied by a feeling of being in my zone, losing track of time, no self-consciousness, ease, peace; the latter by a feeling of compulsion, tension, and pressure – and that inner motor is churning. When those feelings rise up, I remind myself to take a deep breath, and thank those old habits that helped me survive and get out of a tough place at one time in my life. I then tell them their services are no longer needed, and I reconnect with how I want to feel – truly free, at peace in myself, quiet, creative, joyous.
I invite you to join me in doing the same.