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  • teresamckee

A Work in Progress

I had a lovely Thanksgiving holiday this year, having family over for the first time in so long and then hanging out with my grandkids who stayed over. After dropping them off Saturday evening, I woke up in a fine mood Sunday morning but then my day and mood began to slide. First, I went grocery shopping and left my wallet with phone inside on the checkout counter. I realized my blunder as soon as I got home and borrowed a phone to call the store, who reported no wallet or phone had been turned in. As I pondered my situation, my brain had a challenge processing at first. What was in the wallet? My drivers license, my credit cards, my insurance cards, a gift card, cash, and of course my phone, but what else? What was on my phone was the next question. Bank apps, store accounts, e-gift cards, travel service apps, my email accounts, my digital vaccine card, and then I drew a blank as the anxiety hit, wondering what someone could do what all of that personal information combined with my ID. I went online and began suspending my accounts, just in case. Sure enough, there was already a message regarding a verification code for my Visa.

I decided to return to the store and check the parking lot. Perhaps someone took what they wanted and tossed the rest on the ground or in a trash can. I didn’t get very far, however, because I discovered I had a flat tire. I asked my partner to follow me to the tire repair shop and then to take me to the grocery store parking lot. We arrived at the tire store only to discover they’re now closed on Sundays. Back home again to drop off the car with the flat tire and then on to the search for the wallet. No luck whatsoever, so I remotely erased everything from my phone upon returning home and began making a list of everything I’d need to do Monday. Go to the bank for an emergency debit card, DMV for a temporary drivers license, and on and on.

I ordered a new phone, breathing through the rising upset over how expensive they are. And then of course realized I couldn’t pay for the phone since I had suspended all of my accounts. My helpful partner stepped in again with his credit card and the new phone will arrive in a couple of days.

Once that was done, I started thinking about what was going on. Why was everything suddenly going so wrong? And although I remained calm on the outside, inside I was feeling pretty rotten. At first, I believed it was the concern over what could happen with all of my lost information, but realized it was really just a lot of self-judgment. How could I have done something so stupid? So mindless? What was wrong with me? I had been silently berating myself from the moment I realized I’d lost the wallet. Then my brain said, okay, you want to beat yourself up? And a flood of other thoughts showing me my failings began to flood through. Here it is, the end of the year, and I haven’t released the weight I was going to. Oh, and why isn’t my book done yet? And hey, when’s the last time you reconciled those bank accounts? And on and on.

Fortunately, once I recognized what my mind was doing, I took a pause. After three deep breaths, I focused on gratitude. I was so grateful the flat hadn’t occurred while driving the 50 mile stretch of a busy freeway to get my grandkids home. For all of my complaining about technology, what a blessing that at the click of a button I could wipe out every single thing on my phone so no one could access the information. I could be grateful, too, for the fact that I could have a brand new phone delivered to my doorstep 36 hours after placing the order. Finally, I was grateful that I practice mindfulness because even though I did something completely mindless, I was able to remain relatively calm even though my brain was resistant and I was able to remember to internally observe, thanks to that training.

Self-judgment is a mindless act because it’s an automatic response that serves no purpose. If I’d been less busy criticizing myself, perhaps my brain could have worked a little better in figuring out what actions to take. As I was considering this, a conversation during Thanksgiving popped into my mind. My grandkids were talking about the need to be better at some of the things they are involved in and I pointed out that it is estimated to take 10,000 hours to master something, so instead of being self-critical, they just need to realize that every time they try, they’re whittling down the hours leading up to mastery.

The one exception to this is being human. We spend a lifetime trying to master it, but that’s not really possible. We will always be a work in progress, as life is full of changes and surprises. Holding myself to a standard of being mindful 100% of the time is impossible, because I’m human and we make mistakes, we get distracted, and we sometimes do things that don’t serve us well.

Late Sunday afternoon, the grocery store called to tell me they’d found my wallet with phone still attached in a shopping cart. After yet another trip to the store to pick it up, I spent what was left of my Sunday in contemplation over what had occurred and what lessons I might glean from the whole debacle.

One is that I need to slow down. I was rushing at the store because I had lots of work to do, which of course, I never got to due to the day’s events. I’ve also been pushing myself really hard the last few weeks, now that I’m getting my PMR under better control, trying to catch up on a year’s worth of projects around the house and for work that my previously struggling body weren’t cooperating with. That’s fatiguing me and frankly, if the projects have kept for a year, I don’t need to get them all done in a month, so lesson received. Second is that I may have needed a reminder that it’s okay to fail. Failure is how we learn, and I’ve been putting too much pressure on myself to get a perfect book finished, create new and engaging workshops and trainings, and to get my body back into shape. At least with that last one, I know it’s not going to be perfect, but I’d be okay with better.

Striving for perfection has only resulted in prolonging getting any of it finished.

Procrastination is the offspring of perfectionism, and it just isn’t effective. When I look at the stack of work I’m behind on and then look at both a front yard and a backyard full of construction materials, my brain starts to shut down, so I lose precious time through inaction. I’ve been judging my work because it is far from perfect and that kills my motivation, so I’m not just falling short of perfection, but my productivity is dropping like a brick flung from a rooftop. My approach over the past few weeks has been to push myself through sheer willpower to get the engine running again and although I was making progress, there was a price to pay, from not feeling great physically to mindless actions like leaving my wallet and phone at a store.

There are actually two types of perfectionism – one is healthy and the other not, so what I’m really referring to is the latter. Healthy or positive perfectionism is related to conscientiousness. It’s characterized by striving for excellence, deriving pleasure from painstaking labors, and being organized, while also demonstrating the ability to be less precise. Unhealthy or negative perfectionism is evaluative, characterized by concern over mistakes, need for approval, procrastination, doubts about actions and unrealistic expectations. I’ve clearly been slipping into the latter.

Mindfulness calls for us to be objective and nonjudgmental. When I paused to reflect in that manner, I could clearly see that it was understandable why I was struggling and how I had let my mind slip into a negative stance that wasn’t healthy. I could also feel some compassion for myself. It’s been extremely challenging for me to be so limited over the past year, and an urge to catch up felt like a way to relieve some of that frustration. Which it did in some ways, but I need to be more self-caring going forward.

Consider how you’ve been treating yourself lately. We’ve been through major changes again recently and it’s possible I’m not the only one being too hard on myself. Whether you’re struggling with returning to a worksite, adjusting to a permanent remote work situation, challenged by a health issue, or just feeling like you’re not living up to your own standards in any way, take a pause. Take those three deep breaths. Observe in a nonjudgmental way what is going on in your mind. And look at yourself as a work in progress, not a perfect outcome.

Great masterpieces can take a very long time. It took Michelangelo 4 years to complete the Sistine Chapel. It took 5 years for Leonard Cohen to write Hallelujah. It took Michael Crichton 8 years to write Jurassic Park and J.R.R. Tolkien about 15 years to write Lord of the Rings. It took approximately 20 years to build the Great Wall of China and 200 years to complete Notre Dame. And those are all just things, nowhere close to the complexity of human beings.

Perhaps it’s time for us to focus on acceptance. We can accept ourselves where we are now, as a work in progress, and aim for what we want to be, but without judgment of where we are right now. We can also be grateful for lessons learned as we sometimes stumble through the difficulties of life.

The American-Canadian psychotherapist Nathaniel Branden said, “Self-acceptance is my refusal to be in an adversarial relationship with myself.”

We can all choose to be in friendship with ourselves instead of self-criticizing. We’re all great masterpieces in progress and it’s in living mindfully that we can make the greatest strides, both internally and externally.

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