Until recently, I would never have called myself a perfectionist. Perfectionists were the girls at school who played violin, were on all the sports teams, got A*s in everything and always did their homework on time. They were the Hermiones of the world.
In contrast, I constantly left tasks unfinished, made a mess wherever I went, couldn’t be bothered to do a hobby for more than a few months and, while I could play sports, I much preferred bunking off, coating myself in Collection 2000 makeup and going to watch the boys play football.
As I got older though, and spent less time thinking about the 1st XI midfield line-up and more time thinking about who I was, I came to realise that I was actually inwardly perfectionist. I didn’t care what I looked like to others (turns out being a mess is cool!) but in my head, the expectations I would set for myself were impossible. And I was failing at every single one.
You almost certainly do this too. “I’m going to start going to the gym in the morning,” you might say to yourself as you dutifully lay out your trainers, your leggings and your sports bra the night before. Come 6am, you’ll have turned off your alarm, rolled over and and decided to catch a few more hours' kip. All day, you’ll beat yourself up mentally. “Why am I so lazy?” you'll think. “Other people, better people than me, would definitely have managed to get up.” And the most common one: “I’m a bad person.”
Of course you’ll be happy to joke about your gym-skiving with friends. “What am I like?” you groan, as everyone else shares their stories of similarly fruitless mornings, some of which you believe, some of which you don’t. Rachel in Accounting, for instance, most certainly did not eat “so much shit” for breakfast, because she never eats anything that's bad for her. That’s just what Rachel’s like. But she’s trying to fit in with you all, so let’s put her to one side for now. This is about you. And you need to realise that the expectations you’re putting on yourself are often going to be impossible to achieve, and you’re only going to let yourself down.
Which is where a trick I learned comes in. My therapist, who is probably one of the greatest human beings I’ve ever met, taught me many things, but one of the best things she taught me comes into play here.
Picture, if you will, a line. One end is 100%, the other is 0%. Say you decide you want to be a morning gym-goer. How many times would you have to go in a week in order to feel like you’ve "succeeded"? For me, until recently, I would have ticked 100%. Anything less than that and I would consider myself a failure.
But 100% is ridiculous. No one does 100% of every commitment. Except Hermione. And knowing what we know now about the impact of stress on physical health, Hermione would be dying an early death faster than you could say "Avada Kedavra".
For normal people, committing to 100% of everything just sets you up for failure. Because of this, you’ll worry about your ability to achieve it, which means you won’t sleep, which means it’ll be harder to get up in the morning, which means you won’t go, which means you'll feel bad about yourself all day, which means you’ll find it harder to go tomorrow, which means you won’t go again... and so on, and so on.
Instead, go back to that line and bring your commitment down a little. Try 40%. That’s not bad at all for a first-time Morning Gym-Goer. All you need to do to succeed at your goal is go twice in a week, and you can definitely do that. Any other trips to the gym will just be a bonus. By succeeding at your goal, you’ll get confidence, you’ll be proud of yourself, you’ll be encouraged to push yourself further and, who knows, in a few weeks’ time, that 40% might move up to 60%. Or it might not. Either way, you’re still succeeding.
Applying this to going to the gym may sound trivial. But truth be told, it'll work in any area of your life that’s getting you down. Doing work on a project outside your day job, for instance. Tell yourself you’re going to spend all weekend tackling it and you'll start late, ruin your Friday and Saturday nights out, not work as hard or as long as you envisioned, and end up, Sunday evening, feeling miserable because you failed yourself. Allot yourself three hours on Saturday afternoon to do a specific task though, and you’ll probably do far more quality, consolidated work than if you’d committed 100% of your weekend.
I guess really, the takeaway from this is don’t be so hard on yourself. Be realistic. Don’t, despite what S Club 7 told you, reach for the stars. Instead, just stretch your hands up in the air a reasonable amount and grab what you can while you’re there. Less than 100% doesn’t make you a failure, it makes you human, and that’s a pretty okay thing to be.