Have you ever heard the phrase Progress, Not Perfection? How about, Don’t Let the Perfect Be the Enemy of the Good? Both of these phrases require some gray-area thinking, which isn’t always my strong suit. I want there to be a right answer, a perfect choice, an obvious course to take and an obvious course to avoid. But that’s not always realistic and it’s very perfectionistic. So, today, I want to talk about anti-perfectionism as it relates to working out.
First, let’s talk about black-and-white thinking. Imagine the perfect workout for your goals. You want to get stronger, increasing the weight you can move in your deadlift and your squat. So you create a progressive 4-day per week workout program. Each workout takes about 90 minutes, every muscle group is targeted the appropriate number of times in all planes of motion, and you know if you follow it, you’ll get excellent results. But in week three, you’re assigned a big project at work that takes up a lot of time. You’re starting early and working late. You miss two of your workout days. The following week your mom falls and needs to have hip surgery. You fly to Minnesota to help her get settled back at home. You miss all four workout days. By the time you get home, you’re thinking, “Fuck it. I’m so far behind, I might as well just give up.” So you sit on the couch in your yoga pants and binge old episodes of Parks and Rec.
This is an extreme example, but it’s apt. When we’re engaging in black-and-white thinking, it’s hard to recover when something goes wrong. Thinking everything has to be all or nothing can be paralyzing. It can make it hard to do anything because the thought of failure looms. And when you’re a black-and-white thinker, failure is unacceptable. It’s better not to try at all than to fail.
I’ll admit, I’m prone to black-and-white thinking. One of my clients attended an Elizabeth Gilbert book signing that included a Q&A. Gilbert had talked a lot about perfectionism in interviews about her book, Big Magic, and my client asked her how she deals with it. Gilbert said that perfectionism excludes you from universal compassion, which is the notion that all beings deserve compassion. If we recognize that perfection is unattainable for other people, but we hold ourselves to that exacting standard, then we think that perfection is in our (and only our) grasp. This is, of course, an act of narcissism. (Gilbert says some interesting things about perfectionism and fear here.)
So let’s return to the example above. If you have the perfect workout plan, but you can’t complete it, then it’s not the perfect workout plan for you. So what if, instead of finding the perfect workout plan and sticking rigidly to it, you find a realistic workout plan. Maybe the workouts take 45 minutes. Maybe you have some stuff you can do at home for those 80-hour work-weeks when you can’t get to the gym. Maybe you have stuff you can do when you're traveling and don’t have access to equipment. Maybe this won’t help your max deadlift. Maybe a max deadlift and max squat isn’t a realistic goal right now. And maybe that’s okay. Maybe you pick one of those and you make sure you get to the gym once a week to work on that lift and the rest of the week is accessory work you can do anywhere. Or maybe you decide you just want to do some intentional exercise most days. To feel strong in your body, like you could run your ass off and climb into a tree if a dog was chasing you. It’s better to do something than nothing. Whatever you decide is right for you right now is okay.
But you’re not perfect.
And neither am I.
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