Tuesday, January 4, 2011

masochistic expectations

I feel like people constantly toss around the term "perfectionist," but how many of us think this a positive asset? It's a cliché response to "what are your weakness?" And, I bet, many of us believe that we're actually providing a weakness that can be interpreted as a beneficial trait. In reality, perfectionism is an unhealthy pursuit of excellence that is most often coupled with anxiety, depression, self-doubting, compulsion, and the like. Like most things in life, we can go overboard and become unhealthy if we go too far....and this is something I understand quite well.

I was reading a very moving and relatable blog the other day, that discussed unhealthy body image and unhealthy personal expectations, and something began to wake up in me. Shortly after reading this blog, I went for a run on the treadmill. I usually run 3 or 4 times a week, but given the chaos of the holiday season and being away on my honeymoon for 2 weeks, I had fallen out of my routine. So, when I climbed on the treadmill on this particular day, I was feeling guilty and the need to push myself was quite palpable.

During my warmup, I began to think about that need to push myself, the drive to run faster and longer in an attempt to reach some state of perfection that I have been striving for for 30 years, but have never actually attained (because it's unreasonable and unrealistic). I found myself really hearing my thoughts and understanding how damaging my perfectionism has been. As I heard my expectations flying around my head, I realized that they are nothing short of masochistic.

I suddenly understood that I was just running on a treadmill on the 4th floor of my apartment building, and it didn't have to mean anything other than I was doing something healthy for my body and mind. As I realized this, I felt the tightness of asthma in my chest, the fluid in my lungs thickening as I choked and coughed my way no closer to perfection. At that moment I slowed down. I actually allowed myself to run SLOWLY and to breathe comfortably. To me, that was a miracle! I finally saw what I have been doing to myself for so long and I chose to take care of myself instead. I still got a workout, I still sweat and pumped fresh oxygen through my body....but I wasn't in pain.

It wasn't until this past year that I realized how often I am in severe pain, both physically and emotionally. It was simply the way I learned to live, or should I say survive because that isn't really living, now is it? Growing up in an alcoholic household put such enormous pressures on me, and I never stopped feeling my parent's unrealistic expectations. There was some state of perfection that I was supposed to be living up to at all times, but I was never given the manual and the expectations seemed to constantly change. This led to a lifetime of self-imposed masochistic expectations for myself, which meant I was often in a panic-ridden, frustrated, depleted, self-loathing state while I attempted to do.....well, anything. Or, on the flip side, I was totally paralyzed from doing or trying anything, because if I couldn't do it perfectly then I'd rather not do it at all. I could get into the numerous areas of my life that this unhealthy thinking has affected, but while I was running on the treadmill the other day, it was my body image that was plaguing me.

I have never had to worry about my weight. I don't have to work out (but I do), I don't have to eat healthy (but I do) and I don't have to try every new fad diet out there (but, I'll admit that during rough periods of my youth, I did).

I am lucky, lucky, lucky. But, I have endured so many accusations, so much ridicule and insult, so much self-loathing as a result of it. That is something no one seems to believe or understand. I was called names as a child and teen, and would make my mother take me to the doctor to try to figure out "what was wrong with me" and how I could make myself put on weight. Well, there was nothing wrong with me and nothing I could do to change my natural body. Later in life, I was conditioned by other women to feel unattractive and less womanly.....yes, girls can be cruel when they feel bad about the way they look. They lash out. Then there are the hoards of people that have come through my life accusing me of having an eating disorder, because I couldn't possibly look this way if I were eating. I'll tell you flat out: I eat. A normal amount. And I love dessert more than anything.

The problem is, I am skinny and lucky, but can never stop finding parts of my body that need to be "worked on" or that aren't "perfect." I try to camouflage these so-called flaws of mine and am constantly devising plans to finally arrive at a "perfect" resting place. My parent's expectations, followed by a lifetime of everyone around me studying me and sharing their criticisms, has left me with a completely warped body image (which is now my responsibility). Even when I feel beautiful, I can still name 10 things that should be better or fixed.....and sometimes that number is closer to 20, on my bad days.

I am the first to comfort and nurture other people out of that way of thinking when I see it, and have been known to inspire others to much greater levels of self-love and confidence. But, it's me that I need to focus on. So, in light of the new year, I am going to lower my expectations. I am going to run at a comfortable speed, leave my padded bra at home occasionally, enjoy my face sans makeup, and love myself for being imperfect. As my husband and I always tell one another: I am (or he is) perfectly imperfect.


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