As I entered the office last week, I saw my patient sitting there, head down, eyes averting mine, slouching with the posture of a defeated woman. At long last, she looked up, wiped back tears, sighed, and in a hushed and hopeless voice, said “Dr. Peeke, over the past week I tried my best, but I’m so frustrated because I wasn’t perfect.” Arrrgh! There’s that “P” word again. I smiled warmly and told her that was never the point. “Progress,” I exclaimed exuberantly, “is the goal.” In reality, she’d been doing really well, already having removed 30 pounds. She was tough on herself when she couldn’t hit the gym and her eating was a bit off due to extensive travel. It’s incredible how fast people forget their achievements with just one challenging week. That’s what striving for perfection does to you.
I’m convinced that if you’ve ever owned a pair of ovaries, you’ve got some level of perfectionism in your DNA. Men are quicker to compromise and navigate life’s obstacle courses. They rarely ever say mean and rotten things about themselves as they encounter tough times along their healthy lifestyle journey. Instead, they usually blow off days when they haven’t been stellar and just regroup again and again. Women, on the other hand, make aiming for perfection a second career.
Webster’s notes that perfectionism is “a disposition to regard anything short of perfection as unacceptable.” Perfect means “being entirely without fault or defect, or flawless like a perfect diamond.” In 2001, at the White House, I had the pleasure of meeting Nadia Comaneci, the great Romanian gymnast who, at the age of 14, made history by achieving a perfect score at the 1976 Summer Olympics. As we were sitting together viewing a new documentary on women in sports, I decided to play with her a bit and commented, “It must have felt great to be perfect”. I knew that would provoke her to say something amazing, which she did. I’ll never forget her reply. “My scores were perfect because they were numbers. I, however, am not perfect. I’m a human being.” OK, everyone, listen to this priceless lesson. Living beings are never perfect. Inanimate objects are – test scores, computer systems, your car brakes. These are all quantifiable and, if they become imperfect, can be fixed to achieve perfection again. I want my computer and my car operating perfectly. I, however, am a living being and aim for progress, never perfection.
Perfection leads to paralysis. You’re so terrified about taking that first step (e.g. learning to cook a healthier dinner, joining a gym and taking that first class) and not doing it perfectly, that you don’t try at all. Or, you show up, and then spend all night castigating yourself for not performing perfectly. Enough of this perfection thing. Let me show you a better way.
In Week One of our journey, I described the Power Mind, something I developed when I wrote Body for Life for Women. The essence of the Power Mind is to embrace progress and to honor your own humanity. Activate your Power Mind and reject perfection as a way of ever referring to your life journey. When you look at pictures of women in magazines, don’t ever believe that they are perfect. Don’t use them as a goal to achieve. You’re looking at the results of hours of make-up applications, hair styling, and Adobe photo shopping. Believe me, I know. Being in front of the camera on TV and in photo shoots is an eye opening experience. I usually have to take a pressure hose to my face and hair when I’m done just to wash off the layers of war paint and hairspray. Then I peer into the mirror and see my freckles and the healthy glow on my cheeks once again. My freckles are not a flaw. They’re a piece of what makes me unique, memorable and human.
Webster’s likens progress “to a forward or onward movement (as to an objective or to a goal), advance; an expedition, journey; a gradual betterment.” Now we’re talking. This is about moving you forward through your life journey toward your positive goal of optimal health and wellness. This is a living, breathing dynamic journey that never ends until you do. Progress is about a lifelong process of living. You practice this every day of your life. Some days are hopping good while others are funky and thus you’re completely forgiven for hiding under your blankets never wanting to get up and face the day.
That’s where I developed my 80%-20% rule. Progress, not perfection, means that if you pay attention and work hard and keep your focus 80 percent of the time, you’re doing superbly well. The other 20 percent of the time, you get to be human. Are you in the midst of a hormonal tsunami and feel drained? No problem. Blow off your workout today and go home, chill out and watch a Law and Order marathon for heaven’s sake. Pick it up again tomorrow. Fell off the wagon and binged? Hey, nobody died. Stop beating yourself up. Don’t keep crying out “why did I do that?” Instead, see the lesson and make the connection (e.g. your mom visited and laid a heavy trip on you and you bolted for the fridge as soon as she left). That’s part of your humanly 20 percent. Regroup as soon as you can and keep pushing forward. And, next time mom shows up, you’ll be better prepared mentally to cope with her without self destructing.
Pound perfection out of your life and shoot for progress by practicing these simple exercises:
1. Replace “I aim for perfection,” with “I aim for progress”. Practice saying that throughout the day. Write it in your journal pages.
2. Instead of saying “I wasn’t perfect,” proclaim proudly “I did the best I could, given the constraints and restrictions of my life.” Your day starts with a 7 AM plane flight, goes straight through with meetings, and ends at 11 PM as you stumble through your hotel room door. Hey, so what if you didn’t see the gym or you ended up eating later than planned? It happens. Get over it and move on, regrouping as best you can the next day.
3. Substitute “but” with “and” when you’re describing your journey: “Yea, I’ve removed 20 pounds but I have another 20 pounds to go,” versus “Yes, I have indeed removed 20 pounds and I’m getting more fit and I’m just pushing forward to remove the rest of my weight and achieve my goals.” Wow, what a difference.
4. Celebrate every ounce of progress you make. Never diminish your smallest achievement. Clap your hands with delight about the fact that you now eat a healthy breakfast every morning instead of skipping it as you’ve done for years. Don’t wait for 50 pound weight drops to give yourself an “Atta girl/boy”. Honor every step of this journey.
5. Pound perfection out of your lifestyle habits. Perfectionism creeps into your work and personal life. Have fun with this. Go into your perfectly organized closet and stick a red shirt with your whites just to play with yourself. Don’t make up your bed until later in the day. Laugh with yourself about how rigid you can sometimes be. Lighten up and smile as you continue your quest for progress, not perfection.
Think Small Lose Big
- Week 1: For Lasting Change, Start with a Power Mind
- Week 2: The Secret to Dropping Real Weight is to Eat Real Food
- Week 3: The Next Step is the Big Step
- Week 4: The Lifestyle Rx for Muffin Tops and Menopots
- Week 5: Don’t Self-Destruct! Adapt and Adjust!
- Week 6: Shoot for Progress, Not Perfection
- Week 7: Find the Motivation That Sticks
- Week 8: There Is No Finish Line