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Letting go of perfectionism: a New Year’s resolution for self-compassion

Last week I drove to my favorite trails in Point Defiance Park. The roads seemed oddly empty and quiet, even for “the time between the years” as I’ve heard it called. Perhaps I hadn’t noticed it before, since in medicine, it’s always been just another week when most people don’t work, but we always had a full schedule.

The day was overcast, as it so often is during winter in the PNW. The trails seemed unusually quiet and dark as well, with fog surrounding the woods and blanketing the Sound.

The ambiance reminded me of fallow time, a term used to describe when not much seems to be happening. It derives from farming when fields are plowed but left unsown to allow the soil’s quality to improve between growing seasons.

I had been feeling that quiescence as I struggled to complete my planned writing for January. Nothing was jelling. Everything I wrote stalled and wouldn’t bloom into something meaningful.

And into these quiet fallow times came news reports that Matthew Perry was still using drugs during and after he wrote his memoir “Friends, Lovers, and the Big Terrible Thing.” I read his memoir, and it was an excruciatingly hard read. Not because it was boring or poorly written, but because every page darkly proclaimed “I am irrevocably broken.”

The amount of self-hatred masquerading as self-deprecating humor was breathtaking (and not at all funny). As was the relative lack of self-compassion. If he was still using while presenting to the world that he wasn’t, that all makes so much more sense now.

You cannot hate yourself into wellness. You cannot create lasting change while despising yourself for all the things you deem “wrong with you.” You cannot build your dream life while still maintaining your beliefs about all the secret loathsome places you contain. Because those negative beliefs about your inherent inadequacy and unworthiness will constantly taunt you by claiming they “know the truth” about who you actually are.

Except those beliefs are not the truth. They’re only what you have believed to be true. Making significant changes will necessitate relaxing your grip on those beliefs. Just contemplating the possibility that they’re not true can be enough, because this kind of change requires an identity shift, however modest.

It’s normal to have adopted some of these beliefs during your life’s journey. Perhaps they stem from your family of origin. Or maybe they were acquired from our culture. Conceivably, you even thought them to be useful at times to fuel outward success in school, training, or work.

But ultimately they are poison. Their underlying message is that you will never be good enough because you will never be perfect, which is unattainable, always beyond our grasp. That’s why it’s so toxic. The all-or-nothing clamor of perfectionism informs you that no matter what kind of progress you have made, it is not enough. In fact, it is nothing.

Progress is not nothing. It can only be something. Three steps forward and two steps back are still net progress. A clearer and more holistic understanding of yourself and what you want to create is not nothing. Having a vision that you’re engaged with is not nothing.

Encourage the negative beliefs to take a pause and settle into the background as you explore new possibilities. (They tend to resist if directly confronted and start excavating for evidence.) Instead, acknowledge, accept, and even embrace your current sense of self and situation while you reflect on what alterations would benefit you the most.

And then, as you ponder any New Year intentions, rather than vowing to crush or eliminate all your inadequacies, stamping out the things you dislike about yourself, extend yourself compassion for creating habits, behaviors, and beliefs that helped you survive and get by when you needed them. And before you knew another way might be possible.

Then design and initiate your desired changes with a foundation of genuine affection and compassion for the person you’ve become, coupled with a sense of curiosity about the person you are evolving into.

Victoria Silas is an orthopedic surgeon and physician coach. 


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