Guilt is my least favorite emotion. It hangs around for hours, potentially days, reminding me I fell short of my own expectations. I know the expectations I put on myself when it comes to being healthy (whatever that means) are often unrealistic and unreasonable.
In grad school, I spent a lot of time talking about SMART goals in relation to public health programming. Many group projects began with outlining program goals that were realistic, so as not to set ourselves up for failure. When it comes to my professional life, I know how to be realistic, in fact, I am often the one talking people down from unattainable ideas. So why can’t I translate these concepts into my personal life?
In her book, Food: The Good Girl’s Drug, Sunny Sea Gold pinpoints a concept about perfectionism that continues to resonate with me, and one I return to when I start to feel myself becoming unrealistic.
"Perfectionism is the mistaken belief that not only is it possible for you to perform perfectly at work, in school, in relationships, and in life, but also that people expect you to."
She then narrows in on the word “should” and asks her readers to write a list of “should” statements. For me, my list almost always includes, I should be able to eat a clean and healthy diet 99% of the time or I should be able to resist all of the food at tonight’s dinner party. There are two things I want to point out: 1) my “should” statements reflect the mistaken belief that perfection is expected, 2) these expectations often lead to my least favorite feeling of guilt when I do not live up to them, which is almost never. I am constantly setting myself up for failure, creating an environment eager to accept my most demeaning thoughts.
The most powerful part of creating a "should" list, however, is what Sunny asks readers to do next; examine each statement and ask where it came from, and most importantly, what would happen if we stopped attempting to achieve the unachievable?
What would happen if I stopped requiring myself to be perfect? I still do not have a full answer, as I am still trying to figure out where these ideas originated from. Did I develop these expectations on my own? Did society/culture force them on me? The truth is most likely in the middle.
So, what would happen if I stopped trying to live up to my “should” statements? As I unpack this question, my immediate thoughts and feelings turn to fear. I am afraid of gaining weight because I ate the wrong thing. I am afraid of feeling failure, which often can be felt deep down in my gut. I am afraid that I may not be able to control my eating and listen to my body’s hunger signals. All of these fears culminate in frustration and anxiety.
I am often struck by how much I think others pay attention to my struggles, and why I seem to believe perfection is expected of me by strangers. Let's face it, most people don't have the time, energy, or care to form an opinion about my eating habits. A point of real honesty, however; I sometimes walk around forming opinions of others. No one likes to admit the existence of judgment, but I believe we all form these thoughts on some level; it's a thin line between opinion and judgment. I also believe most people do not intend to think negatively of someone else or their actions, but rather it is simply an instinct that kicks in when we are confronted with the unfamiliar.
I could easily fall down a rabbit hole researching the biology of comparison, but in short, the Social Comparison Theory hypothesizes we are wired to make evaluations of ourselves based on our (perceived) comparison to others. I decided early on in grad school that social theories do not always play out in reality, however, this theory strikes a chord with me. Maybe the constant comparisons to others (a sometimes positive and life-saving process), over time taught my brain to become too judgmental of myself? Does this make sense, or did I just lose you? It's ok if I did; just thinking through this turns my brain to knots.
So how does this all relate to letting go of unrealistic expectations? For me, it starts with understanding my expectations come from a biological drive to compare myself to others. I can take a deep breath knowing some of this is simply out of my hands. Now, here comes the harder part. I need to practice a little self-compassion and be at peace with relinquishing ultimate control. Yes, I just stepped over the magical line dividing reality and "something bigger than myself", but I'm working toward embracing the possible existence of this fuzzy space. I know harboring constant criticism toward myself does not accomplish anything, yet knowing does not automatically translate into changed behavior. For the public health nerds out there like me, you know behavior change takes time, often years. So today, I am okay with simply knowing change is possible (and writing a few positive statements as a back-up).
Walking enthusiast, kitchen experimenter, sports lover (watching, not playing), and future world traveler.
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