I’ve got a shelf full of cosmetics and nowhere to use them.
What’s the point in wearing make-up if there is no one in sight to tell me, ‘oh I love that colour on you’?
I’ve spent years, soon to be decades, of my life doing stuff with someone’s opinion in mind.
At times I’ve done this based on explicit feedback.
‘You shouldn’t wear shorts, your legs aren’t skinny enough.’
But in most cases, I’ve done it by extrapolating the bits of explicit feedback onto random, unsuspecting citizens.
And so, even though the person disapproving of my thigh-hugging shorts was on the other side of the continent, I stopped buying shorts. I imagined that’s what everybody else would think.
‘Dresses look better on me, anyway,’ I’d tell myself.
Which they do, but that’s not the point.
The point is:
Self-limiting habitual thinking gets stronger each time I say Yes to external expectation and No to internal impulse.
Shorts become university applications become jobs become friendships become the way I speak become what I read become how I decorate my flat become how I handle a breakup.
Compulsively ticking people’s boxes doesn’t stop at the first page. It goes all the way down to the bottom of the form, it answers all the Equal Opportunity questions and ticks the Permission to do whatever we want with your data box.
So I’ve had just about enough of spending precious nanoseconds and neuro-connections wondering, ‘What will X or Y think if I do this?’
This morning I took a shiny bottle of nail polish and spread it across my nails.
Before doing this, I asked,
‘What colour speaks to you today?’
Where you was not an external party, but an internal impulse.
Magenta. Two layers and a top coat.
They look rather dashing, if I do say so myself.
I’ve let my nails grow out, as a testament that I haven’t anxiously bitten or shred them in some time.
And no one sees them but me.
As a way for my body to cope with generalised anxiety, it rarely elects to be still.
While waiting for the nail polish to dry (the last coat is always the sticky one), I was clicking around for a podcast, journaling on what I was hearing, sipping on chamomile tea and snacking on chakri.
One of the nails received a dent in an otherwise lustrous coat.
An opportunity to heal my perfectionist patterns, if I’ve ever seen one.
As the critical voices in my head started hailing their disapproving chants, I observed 3 choices:
- Listen to the critical voices and agree with them. Indeed, I am a good-for-nothing nail polisher, I couldn’t just be still for a few minutes, every manicurist that’s come and gone is swirling in their grave. I should repair the dented nail. Preferably un-polish it and then re-polish it, so it isn’t a layer thicker than the rest.
- Listen to the critical voices. Really listen. Do they mean what they say, or are they fearful of something? Do they worry that, if I let this one nail slide, I am on a fast-track to leniency and will never achieve my life goals? I could give myself the benefit of the doubt and trust that, by healing from perfectionism, I will have a chance at the success I’m so afraid of missing out on. I won’t repair the nail.
- Voices? What voices?
Most days, I follow number 1.
It’s my default. My factory setting.
My very own Professor Umbridge.
It’s easy to rely on this conditioning. It’s a habit. And as far as habits go, they live on loops, starting with a neurological cue to start automatic pilot, then doing the doing, and ending with the reward that reinforces the habit (so says Charles Duhigg in The Power of Habit, referring to an MIT experiment).
I have to say, I’m not comfortable with this finding. Are these scientists calling me a masochist?
I’ve had enough evidence thus far that indulging in perfectionist habits stops me from starting activities, finishing them, or enjoying the ones I actually do.
So what is this reward that my subconscious gremlins are getting from sabotaging me?Perhaps there’s a glitch in my psychological wiring, leading me to appease imaginary versions of past critics.
‘Look, see, I’m doing this well. Are you happy now?’
Or perhaps it gets more meta than that. Maybe my neural harddrive created a virtual disc with past critics’ voices, which are now my voices, which start conspiring against me.
They whisper sweet nothings in my ear, seducing me into believing I can be perfect, if only I do this one thing. And now just one more thing.
Well, whatever the reward is, this is just too freaky.
Number 3 is a good contender.
I could put my ear muffs on.
‘La la la la la. I’m not listening to you.’
With number 3, I can leave things as they are. They’re good enough and I can move on to the next thing.
Also, maybe those critical voices will realise they are not being listened to and will break up the crowd.
But who likes being ignored?
These voices are essentially imaginary little pseudo-humans living their days inside my mind.
If I ignore them for too long, they may go quiet, but only because they are plotting a savage comeback for the next time I am vulnerable from a failure.
‘See, look how things turn out when you don’t listen to us. Now, next time, just do this one thing.’
Number 3 feels like befriending an ostrich.
Today, I did number 2.
From the list. Number 2 from the list.
I left the nail alone.
In fact, I’ve even chipped another nail while chopping up vegetables.
And I left that one alone too.
I am putting my faith in the fact that this short-term disappointment with myself will mutate into long-term peace, as long as I listen out for the fears and respond with compassion.
Compassion, not laziness. Not an omen for imminent disaster. Not a pledge to never achieve anything meaningful.
Just chill out, Ioana.
This article was originally published in Be Yourself on Medium.