McCall Dempsey of Southern Smash: “Perfect is a mythical place that will literally kill you in every way”

Perfect is a mythical place that will literally kill you in every way — spiritually, emotionally and physically. I always thought, “I will be happy when…” waiting for that perfect weight or grade or career to make my life happy. Happiness does not lie in perfectionism and it does not happen because you cross a line in […]

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Perfect is a mythical place that will literally kill you in every way — spiritually, emotionally and physically. I always thought, “I will be happy when…” waiting for that perfect weight or grade or career to make my life happy. Happiness does not lie in perfectionism and it does not happen because you cross a line in the sand with a new job or jean size. Happiness and contentment come when we embrace who we truly are and live authentically.

Many successful people are perfectionists. At the same time, they have the ability to say “Done is Better Than Perfect” and just complete and wrap up a project. What is the best way to overcome the stalling and procrastination that perfectionism causes? How does one overcome the fear of potential critique or the fear of not being successful? In this interview series, called How To Get Past Your Perfectionism And ‘Just Do It’, we are interviewing successful leaders who can share stories and lessons from their experience about “how to overcome the hesitation caused by perfectionism.

As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing McCall Dempsey.

McCall Dempsey, founder of Southern Smash, is an eating disorder survivor and passionate mental health advocate. After a 15-year battle, McCall sought treatment in December 2010. Since then, she has made eating disorder awareness and prevention her life’s work and passion. McCall writes the popular blog, Loving Imperfection and has been featured on various national television, print and online publications, including Today Show, Women’s Health Online and Huffington Post. A Louisiana native, McCall now resides in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida, with her husband, Jordan, and her two children, Manning (9) and Marjorie (6).

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we start, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?

Raised in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, I grew up in your typical Cajun Catholic family where young girls were molded to be perfect in every way: looks, grades, social calendar and everything in between. My perfectly nuclear family was filled with genuine love and care for each other. Overall, my childhood was a happy one. My dad was a successful dentist. My mother stayed home with my sister and I, pushing us to become the independent and hard-working women we are today.

When hard feelings rose up, my parents’ generational teachings came through — put on your big girl panties and move on. I learned to sweep things under the rug and look perfect while doing it. At age fifteen, I developed anorexia. The weight loss was evident and my parents worried, but by the time my anorexia swung into bulimia, my weight was restored and the worry went away. Just like my feelings, I learned to hide my eating disorder from my family and friends.

My eating disorder was a way for me to stand out and cope with my feelings of depression, anxiety and not feeling good enough in my skin. As I journeyed through high school and college, my eating disorder thrived off my perfectionism, shame and secrecy. On the outside, I had it all together. I was social chairman of my sorority, Kappa Kappa Gamma, at Ole Miss. I was literally planning parties and killing myself slowly behind closed doors. My shame kept me silent because who would believe me? I didn’t ‘look’ sick. Little did I know, eating disorders do not have a look — they affect all humans.

I graduated in Marketing and Journalism and set out to be a television producer. I married my college sweetheart and somehow managed to keep my eating disorder secret from him too. Eventually, my mind and body could not keep up the exhausting cover. In 2010, I quit what I thought was my dream job and entered treatment. Three months later, I left treatment and made a silent vow to pay it forward. I also decided Corporate America was not for me. I was going to finally live life on my terms — not what I thought other people wanted me to do.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I do not follow rules well, so I have to give you two:

  1. “Be the change you wish to see in the world” — Gandhi
  2. “We can do hard things.” — Glennon Doyle

When I founded Southern Smash in November 2012, my mission was never to change the world. My goal was to pay it forward and help just one life, to let one human know they are not alone in their struggles. I felt so alone throughout my eating disorder, all I ever want to do is let just one person know they are not crazy or weird and that it is okay to ask for help. Each time I speak, I encourage the audience to be the change. None of us can change the world, but we can impact the people around us and make a ripple effect of change.

The second quote has become my life’s mantra since enduring an incredible number of bumps in life’s road in the past ten years. From my daughter’s early birth at 27-weeks, followed by her cancer diagnosis at 7-months old, to my own prophylactic double mastectomy gone wrong, “We can do hard things” is my daily mantra. Like the Gandhi quote, Glennon speaks such truth in five simple words. We can all do hard things and we are all doing them every single day.

Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

The Gifts of Imperfection, by Brené Brown was monumental in my early recovery. Through its wholehearted living guideposts, I used this book to not only strengthen my recovery, but to discover what is my calling, my passion and purpose in life. Ten years later, I still vividly remember opening the book and just knew it was written for me. It was the first time I read a book and thought, “Yes. Yes. Yes. This is me and this is how I continue to be myself — my imperfect, human self.”

Much like the Gifts of Imperfection, Untamed, by Glennon Doyle entered my life at the perfect time. Untamed arrived at my door on its release date in March 2020 aka the beginning of the dumpster fire that was life as a quarantine working mom. Life had become a confined rat race of kids, work, homeschool, cooking, cleaning, emails, repeat. Untamed was my reminder to stop believing the bullshit the world had taught me and reignited my pursuit of authentic living outside the box.

Today, I am a religious Glennon and Brené podcast listener. Their podcasts are the perfect balance of feeling seen and challenging yourself to do the next right thing — which happens to be my favorite recovery tool.

You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

My career began in television production then evolved to marketing and then I quit it all. I went to treatment to finally get the help I needed to start recovery from my eating disorder. I truly thought I would return to my job at an advertising agency, but once I returned home from treatment, I just knew that was not for me.

I feel really grateful to have hit rock bottom. It allowed me to find my true self and my life’s work and passion. Starting Southern Smash was the most terrifying and best thing I ever did. I had no idea what I was doing and had never been surer of anything in my life. Southern Smash started as a wild idea and mission to pay it forward. My parents and friends thought I was crazy. Who quits a stable marketing job to start a non-profit that raises eating disorder awareness through a scale smashing event? I do.

I would say the traits that have served me well in my work have been following my intuition, flexibility and knowing the best thing any leader can do is to be inclusive and collaborate whenever possible.

  • Intuition

We all have that voice inside. Often times we mute that voice with perfectionistic gremlins and other people’s opinions and expectations. My work in recovery reconnecting me with my intuition and that little voice inside. I listened to that voice when I founded Southern Smash. Despite everyone around me thinking I was crazy, I knew in my bones I had found my passion and purpose. I had no idea how I was going to make it work, but I knew I had to try. I followed my intuition and never looked back.

  • Flexibility

To take Southern Smash from a crazy idea to a successful and meaningful organization meant I had to be flexible — very flexible. I will never forget when I was on a call with a potential sponsor and they asked me, “Do you have a sponsorship packet?” I definitely did not have a packet, but who was to say I couldn’t create one…quickly. “Yes, of course, we have a sponsorship packet. I will email that to you today.” I Googled ‘sponsorship packet’, reviewed a couple of examples and went to work.

Needless to say, my flexibility served me well when hosting events on college campuses with college students. You never know when risk management is going to step in or when your lead SMASH Ambassador stays out a bit too late and doesn’t show up with tables. To be a successful leader (and human) you must roll with the punches. If I stressed about every missed reservation, scale mishap or anything in between, Southern Smash would never have become what it is today.

  • Collaborate

For seven years, I was a one-woman show — traveling the country, smashing scales and speaking. I grew Southern Smash organically with a true ‘boots on the ground’ mentality. Until, one day that was not enough. For many years, I had collaborated and supported my dear friend, Johanna Kandel, founder and CEO of The Alliance for Eating Disorders Awareness. We both believed in lifting each other up, knowing the more people we impacted the better.

In November 2018, Johanna and I came together to create a fundraiser in New Orleans, Louisiana. The goal was simple: raise enough money to create a free, clinician led eating disorder support group in New Orleans. It had always been my dream to create support groups for the college towns I visited. Being a working mom, I did not have the bandwidth to create these groups. When I discovered the Alliance, I knew there was not a point in reinventing a wheel Johanna had created.

That night was a huge success. Two non-profits, coming together to create change. Support groups were always the missing piece in my recovery and I helped create one for my home state. That evening, my mom and I were having drinks at our hotel after the event. As we toasted to the success, I received a Facebook message. A young woman who reached out to me many times had lost her battle to anorexia. My heart sank. I was so tired of losing people to this treatable illness. I was sick of hearing about folks being denied access to the care they needed and deserved. I knew what I needed to do.

In February 2019, I called Johanna and asked her a simple question: “What do you think if we merge our organizations?” Without missing a beat, she replied, “YES!” In July 2019, Southern Smash became a proud program of The Alliance. I am no longer a one-woman team driving around the country with scales and sledgehammers making up sponsorship packets. I am a part of family, each of us passionately dedicated to helping spread eating disorder awareness, education and support to all individuals and their loved ones.

I am so glad I listened to my gut that whispered, “Do more. Do more TOGETHER.” And now we are. We are the leading national non-profit. We work tirelessly to ensure that NOT ONE MORE individual loses their life to this insidious illness.

My success is not measured by numbers (remember, I smash those) or degrees or awards. My success is in a box I keep in my office. It is filled with every card and note I have received from individuals I’ve connected to help and care over the years. It is tucked away and my constant reminder to keep going.

Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion. Let’s begin with a definition of terms so that each of us and our readers are on the same page. What exactly is a perfectionist? Can you explain?

Perfectionist: a person trapped by gremlins who force them to believe that nothing can be wrong. A perfectionist believes the false message our world sends through a filtered social media lens.

The premise of this interview series is making the assumption that being a perfectionist is not a positive thing. But presumably, seeking perfection can’t be entirely bad. What are the positive aspects of being a perfectionist? Can you give a story or example to explain what you mean?

Seeking perfection negatively impacts our life in so many ways. There are zero positive qualities with perfectionism. However, seeking excellence and striving for our best is wonderful in so many ways. People often get perfectionism and excellence confused. It is so important to set goals and to also know that you are still a worthy human being even if you do not reach every goal.

What are the negative aspects of being a perfectionist? Can you give a story or example to explain what you mean?

There is nothing attractive about being a perfectionist. After writing my blog anonymously for a year, a friend shared it on Facebook. I thought I was going to die — all of my Facebook friends knew I had an eating disorder, when to treatment and that I was crazy. I still had so much shame wrapped up in my story keeping me silent. To my shock, my Facebook Messenger was filled with messages after my blog was postecd:

“Thank you, McCall for sharing. I struggled with ______.” Insert anorexia, bulimia, binge eating disorder, perfectionism, alcohol, the list went on. But the best message by far and the one that knocked the wind out of me:

“Thank you, McCall, for sharing. All those years I thought you had it all together, a perfect life — it is SO great to know you did not.”

I realized being authentic and imperfect was the only way to live my life from that moment on. Perfect was (and is) boring and unrelatable. We all have a cross to bear so why not live out loud and embrace our perceived imperfections that make us HUMAN.

From your experience or perspective, what are some of the common reasons that cause a perfectionist to “get stuck” and not move forward? Can you explain?

Perfectionism causes us to freeze, literally. We become frozen in fear of the ‘What ifs’ — What if it isn’t good enough? What if, what if, what if? The perfect gremlins in our head shout all the mistakes or things that could happen. Social media fuels our perfectionism gremlins as we scroll and see one perfectly filtered picture after another.

Here is the central question of our discussion. What are the five things a perfectionist needs to know to get past their perfectionism and “just do it?” Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Perfect is a mythical place that will literally kill you in every way — spiritually, emotionally and physically. I always thought, “I will be happy when…” waiting for that perfect weight or grade or career to make my life happy. Happiness does not lie in perfectionism and it does not happen because you cross a line in the sand with a new job or jean size. Happiness and contentment come when we embrace who we truly are and live authentically.
  2. Letting go of perfection is not giving up, it is the best gift to give yourself. You are human — strive for excellence, not perfection.
  3. Just hit the send button. Sometimes we get caught up picking apart an email, story or report, wasting countless hours trying to make it perfect. You just have to hit that button and walk away, knowing you did your best. There have been countless articles and emails I have picked apart over and over — sometimes you just have to hit send and be done!
  4. What would you say to your best friend? Our perfectionist gremlins beat us up. Talk back to those gremlins and speak to yourself the way you would your best friend.
  5. Life is short. Plain and simple. Either spend your life trapped in the perfect prison or bust out and live out loud, embracing mistakes and failure as opportunities.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?

The Dare to LOVE Yourself Movement. When I started Southern Smash in 2012, I created Dare to Love Yourself cards. Many people see these cards and phrase as loving your physical body, missing the entire message of loving yourself. Our bodies are simply the vehicle that moves us through life. Sure, the ba-jillion (that being the technical term) dollar diet industry tries to sell us happiness by shrinking our bodies, but Dare to Love Yourself is learning to embrace and love who you are — not your reflection. I want people to look in the mirror with the grace that you might not like yourself every day, but you can LOVE yourself. You can love the person you are — the friend, the partner, the parent. In a world that rips us apart, I want people to dare to love their imperfect selves. At the end of our lives, all that matters is the mark we left — no one has ever had their weight or size on a tombstone. Instead of obsessing about our food and body, what if we spent that energy discovering our passion, listening to that whisper inside and lifting up others.

Is there a person in the world whom you would love to have lunch with, and why? Maybe we can tag them and see what happens!

Anyone who knows me or follows me on Instagram knows the answer to this question — Glennon Doyle and Brené Brown. Their books and work have been monumental in my personal recovery and my continued journey to live authentically. I have given their books to countless individuals because they speak to all of us. Glennon and Brené are women who do not pretend to have the answers. They show up as they are, in life’s trenches with all of us and because of that, they have created a safe space for all folks to show up as they are — imperfections and all.

How can our readers follow you online?

Instagram — @McCallDempsey

Facebook — /McCallManningDempsey

Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!

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