“Perfectionism is self-abuse of the highest order.” Ann Wilson Schaef
Debbie and Sheila are out on their lunch break at a new local pop up restaurant in the Exchange District. They’ve both just ordered fancy vegan soups and salads. Debbie turns to Shiela: “There’s this great new product/program/course/diet/parenting idea that you should check out. I think you’d love it. I’ve been telling Sarah about it and she tells me it’s changed her life!”
Sheila replies, ‘No, I’m good. I’m sure that product/program/course/diet/parenting idea is fantastic. It’s just that I’ve actually decided that I’m good enough. I’m just going to keep on living with the stuff/training/information/plan that I already have.”
Diane is concerned, “Are you okay? Do you think you’re depressed? Don’t give up! Things can always be better!”
Sheila laughs, “No really! I’m good. I’m actually happy with how things are going. My life is not perfect, but it’s good enough.”
This conversation does not end there. Diane continues to try and ‘talk sense’ to Sheila, convinced, at first, that something is seriously wrong with Sheila and that she must be in denial. Later, in the conversation, Diane becomes convinced that Shiela must think that she’s better than everyone else, or maybe Sheila just thinks she’s better than Diane. Diane becomes offended and eventually ends the conversation by saying, “If my advice/info/resources/experience aren’t good enough for you, then maybe I’m not good enough for you!” and then leaves the restaurant in a huff. Diane does not speak to Sheila for several months.
This conversation never happened, as far as I know, and probably won’t happen any time in the near future. But what would it mean if it did? What would it mean if someone actually decided that they were satisfied with what they had, with the way their life was going, and decided to stop trying to constantly improve it? First of all, that person would face a daily barrage of arguments that wouldn’t end with the lunch date. Every part of our current society sends us messages that we are not good enough, that we should be striving for more, and that there is always something better.
This may have begun with advertisements which clearly have their own interest in having us believe we are not good enough. Why would we buy self-improvement products/courses/ideas if we thought we were okay? Most of us get that; we get that it’s a ploy, a scheme, and can see through, at least a portion of these things.
But we’ve internalized this idea. We think if we’re sad, we need to medicate? If we’re stressed, we need to buy relaxation. We think if our relationship has conflict, we need to end it. We think if our kids misbehave in school, they need a diagnosis.
The cult of self-improvement is pervasive. As I write this, I have this twinge of discomfort in imagining myself ever being Sheila. I can’t quite believe that this state of contentment is not somehow pathological or arrogant. But why is that? Why does it seem impossible that things could actually, truly be okay – that no major work is necessary? What do we risk if we decide that maybe we are fine? If we actually thought we were fine,
How can we tell if we’re just responding to social anxiety, or if there is something we actually need to address? When would we know if we were okay?
Here are 7 things to consider…
1. Is there something actually wrong that’s getting in the way of living your values, as best as you can, or of achieving long term goals? (See, for example, Avoiding Exercise – An Expert’s Guide)
2. Or is it just a feeling, that something’s not right? Check (Self -Assessment guide)
3. What do you need in order to fix what is wrong?
Problem solving strategies usually fit into one, or more, of three categories:
- Acting on the problem: Perhaps you know what to do and just haven’t done it. Figure that out, and do it.
- Seeking social support: Perhaps you need a friend to talk to about the situation, so you don’t feel so alone.
- Getting more information: Maybe you don’t know what to do. If this is the case, do your research. Sometimes Google helps. Other times you might need to talk to someone who has experienced a similar situation, or you might decide to talk to an expert or do a consult.
4. Are others telling you something is wrong?
- Consider where the messages are coming from. Check with more than one person that you trust to be honest with you. Sometimes others can see things about you that you can’t. If the thing another person is pointing out is something you don’t see as a problem, but know that it is getting in the way of your relationship with that person, you might consider addressing it merely for the sake of the relationship.
- Consider what might be motivating others’ messages to you that you need to improve something. What do they have to gain? Is an advertisement disguised as an article by a professional? Is it someone who is concerned about their own appearance to the rest of society and not necessarily your own best interests?
5. What is the cost of improvement? Are you so stressed by trying to follow through on all of the recommendations, suggestions, and advice, that you worry you’ll never get it right?
6. What is the cost of not making an improvement? Is your health or relationships at serious risk? If so, it’s probably worth making a change.
7. Consider what is actually working in your life, what you don’t want to lose or change. This may take some time, if you’re accustomed to looking for areas to improve.
A few years ago, I was inspired by a friend who is highly optimistic and often responded with an enthusiast “Great!” when I asked how things were going. I decided to start doing the same unless something was really bad, instead of looking for the things that weren’t quite perfect to talk about whenever someone asked me how I was doing. Slowly, I began to realize that if things aren’t bad, they’re actually good and my responses are actually more true than I originally thought they’d be.
All in all, I’ve come to believe that, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Knowing when something is broke, and when it ain’t, may take some time yet.
“A Day spend judging another is a painful day. A day spent judging yourself is a painful day.” Buddha