“I had a cup of coffee,” I announced to my husband as he got home from work Friday afternoon.
“Good for you,” he replied without a hint of sarcasm or condemnation. It was the exact opposite of how I felt.
I’d endured a week of dietary restrictions – no wheat, dairy, corn or coffee (oh, blessed coffee, how I love thee). I’m not even sure how it happened. One minute I was swirling in a cauldron of unnamed emotions and the next I was popping in a k-cup of French roast.
I knew that he would react that way, that he’d see it as no big deal. This is a man who gets up every morning by 4:00 so that he can work out and get home in time for me to go jogging with the dog. Then we get to spend some time together as a family before he goes to work. He’s a walking billboard for We Make Time For What’s Important. But he’s disciplined, not regimented. As he puts it, “Discipline without joy is work, not pleasure. And no one wants to work.” He saw my having a cup of forbidden coffee as a step in the right direction.
After 20 years together, my husband knows how I usually approach goals. I plan, schedule, organize and color-code. I strategize and attack. Contrary to what you may think, I don’t regimen myself because I’m afraid of failure. In fact, I propose that many of us aren’t afraid of failure at all but are averse to erring. It’s the slipping and backsliding toward the bottom that we can’t bear. We clutch our bloody fingers into the side of the cliff and any amount of regression is unforgivable. Once we fail, we’re relieved. We can stop. It’s irrefutably over. There’s no place to go but up.
If success is the opposite of failure, perfectionism is the self-sabotage that prevents us from achieving either. I love a good story about how someone succeeded only after failing over and over. In hindsight, I appreciate my failures and see how everything needed to happen just the way it did for me to learn something invaluable. Trying to prevent risks or mistakes is really just an attempt to avoid feelings that I don’t want to feel like frustration, anger, discomfort and embarrassment. If you think about it, there are infinite opportunities to make mistakes between the top and the bottom and the prospect of having to endure these feelings over and over can be daunting. Failure starts to look good. Or even better, not trying at all.
That’s not to say that a good plan isn’t important if you want to reach a goal. But when focusing on the details becomes a way to block unwanted emotions, it’s a form of numbing. In fact, it’s a socially accepted form of numbing as we live in a society which values workaholicism and excessive busyness. When there is no joyful outcome from our efforts, it’s time to take a deep look at our motivations and intentions.
An example is when I first got sober. I went to five AA meetings and I was warmed by the honesty and truth I saw. I knew that AA saved lives. I also knew that I was nowhere near ready to surrender to the process. I instantly wanted to be the poster child of AA. I wanted to attack it like a goal and even though I couldn’t express at the time why that was dangerous for me, I knew to take a step back and find another way to stay sober. If I had kept going to meetings, I may have ended up at the same place of surrender but I’m proud of myself for making an unpopular choice that was right for me and for my sobriety.
When I was first told that I needed to restrict my diet, the thought of obsessing over what I was consuming felt wrong, even if I would reach my goal. Sure, I could probably manage to do it “perfectly” for awhile but I knew I’d eventually mess up and be very hard on myself over it. Just the thought of planning it down to the smallest detail caused my chest to tighten and I knew that anxiety would keep me from giving my attention to what my body and spirit were trying to tell me. When I had that cup of coffee, part of me wanted to berate myself but it many ways, that cup of coffee set me free. I’m learning that missteps are not only survivable and forgivable but can be liberating. And I’m not giving up.