Recently, while cleaning out my childhood bedroom for a move, I found a list. It was called “30 Days to a Better Me,” and it carefully mapped out an elaborate self-improvement regime that included daily exercise, affirmations, and reading assignments.
This wasn't a page from some self-help book or a worksheet from a therapist. I made the plan for myself, five years ago, when I was eighteen.
Meet Me, the Literal Most
See, I'm a bit of a perfectionist. During high school, I loved making plans. I would write three-page to do lists every morning. Every night before I went to bed, I would check my student website, which updated my GPA every time a new assignment was graded and uploaded to the system. My obsessive tendencies didn't stop with me — I even made my high school boyfriend a spiral-bound booklet of colleges I thought he should apply to (and in fairness to me, he did, actually, end up going to a college on that list).
Just in case you're completely overwhelmed, don't worry. So was I.
My obsessive perfectionism got me to a lot of great places. I went to Wellesley College and studied abroad at Oxford; I created a popular blog; and I even self-published what ended up being a (very short-lived) Amazon bestseller.
But perfectionism also royally messed me up. My desire to be the best and to constantly outdo myself often kept me from being able to do anything at all.
Where it Got Me
So when I graduated from college last December, I was pretty unhappy with myself. My years of perfectionism might have given me a pretty resume, but they didn't give me much else. I had gained an unhealthy amount of weight in college from stress eating, and I didn't really feel like myself anymore. Between school and running my, by now, three websites, I didn't really remember how to have fun outside of work. And even my work felt confusingly aimless: without the structure of a program or someone else's expectations, I wasn't sure what I wanted to accomplish, do, or be.
When New Year's Eve rolled around, I made myself a list of resolutions. Historically, I had never once completed a resolution, because I always set the bar so impossibly high that it felt impossible to begin. But lists and goals are in my DNA, so I did it anyway. I got myself a goal planner (because of course I did) and I did some introspecting.
On the first page of the goal planner, I had to write down how I felt, and what I was trying to let go of. Here are my answers, word for word.
How I feel: Tired, overwhelmed. Afraid of my new beginning. When it comes to my health, I feel like I am a repeated failure. I feel like a failure when I can't help my friends [with their problems]. I feel like a failure — totally and completely — when people criticize me. I take it personally when not everyone is happy.
What are you letting go of to move forward?
– Impossible standards
– Defining myself by how other people see me
– Feeling worthless
On the next page, I described what my ideal year would include. I wanted to learn a new language, start a hobby (I gave sewing and baking as examples), and learn more about my side-interest midwifery. I wanted to have a healthy, communicative relationship with my boyfriend, especially now that we were moving in together. I wanted to live in a house that felt peaceful, and not like the walls were about to cave in with all of my mess. But as for my resolutions, I focused on three things:
- Lose weight.
- Learn to dance.
- Find purpose and passion in my work.
It's was a lofty list, especially if you include my vaguer, more loosely defined goals for the year. But despite my terrible track record with goals and resolutions, I kind of…
And not how you think.
Where I Am Now (Ten Months Later)
I'm not saying that I knocked every resolution out of the park. But it's currently October, and I so far this year I have:
- Lost 30 pounds
- Taken a salsa class this summer (and even gone out dancing by myself for fun. Well, twice.)
- Succeeded at my work, failed at my work, and figured out what I wanted again
- Taken Indonesian classes
- Sewed a bunch of ornaments and baked a bunch of breads
- Read books about midwifery
- Actually kept the house clean (most of the time.)
I also improved my relationships, started my life over in Europe, and stopped pretending to be happy all the time. But more on that later.
Mess Up, Whatever, Move On
It turned out that the key to all these things wasn't having a daily checklist, keeping a meticulous diary, or even doing the monthly check-ins that the goal planner suggested.
It was screwing up, taking breaks (sometimes for months), and caring a whole lot less about being perfect or, ironically, ‘doing it all.'
See, the failures started to come early on. For the month of January, I met with a personal trainer twice a week for four weeks. But then I moved to the Netherlands to live with my boyfriend, and between figuring out how to cook for ourselves and how to, you know, be adults, I stopped going to the gym entirely for months. When I started again, I had gained back some of the weight that I lost.
But I started again.
Me, learning how to be an adult while building an FLARDENSNÄERDUR bed
The weight gain and loss, specifically, is the best example of my “whatever” mentality at work. I'm not kidding when I tell you that I've had to “start over” with my good intentions around 25 times this year. Sometimes I did food tracking and workouts every day for weeks, and then I ate pizza two days in a row and consumed a whole roll of Mentos on the walk home. The next morning, I'd be lying in bed feeling disappointed and sorry for myself, thinking I would never be able to do this. But to move forward, I had to move on. So said “whatever” and I started over again. And again, and again.
Now I'm 30 pounds down. And, just for a little reality check, the last time I “started over” was two days ago.
Yes, I could have lost more weight (and done it faster) if I hadn't had all those mess-ups. But this is the most progress I've ever made in one go (or, technically, 25 consecutive goes) in my many years of trying to combat my weight gain and get healthier. And if I had been focusing on losing as much as possible, as fast as possible, I know I wouldn't be where I am right now.
I'm not at my goal yet. But in terms of progress made, I'm closer than I've ever been.
As for dancing, I signed up for a salsa class on a whim one weekend last spring. I was self-conscious — about my size, my sense of rhythm, and the fact that I had signed up alone in a room full of couples. In fact, I was so anxious about it that I skipped the second class. But, the next week, I went again. Sure, maybe I looked ridiculous. But I had fun, I kept going until I completed the course, and I learned something.
Work held even more failures for me this year. I started a blogging program that was supposed to help me improve my work and income as a writer, and I quickly realized that my original plan — to do it for this blog — was not going to work out. So I worked incredibly hard for months to use the program's system on one of my other websites, leading up to a launch that was a total flop. I was devastated — for a day. And then I was sad for a week. And then I picked myself up again and kept going.
There are tons of other examples of this. I didn't have a perfect homework, or even attendance, record for the Indonesian classes I took with Ken's mom. But I took them. And then I took a break. And, after I come back from the States next month, I'm starting again.
I baked cookies and breads, and some of them fell flat (literally. Imagine a sheet full of one flat, melded-together cookie). But I just tried a new recipe the next time. I bought midwifery textbooks, read in them every day for a week, didn't touch them for a month, and I started again. I cleaned the house 'til it was spotless, let it get stupidly messy, and started over.
Who has the time to clean the kitchen every day, anyway?
How “Whatever” Helped My Relationships
That attitude opened the floodgates for me, and it started spilling over into my relationships — with other people and myself.
First, I learned to stop pretending to be happy all the time. For years, whenever someone asked me how I was doing, I would say, “Excellent!” or “Amazing!” or “I'm great, how about you?” I thought that the answer was either true, or that, whan it wasn't, pretending it was true would make it so. But it was stifling, so I stopped pretending. I didn't need to be happy for anyone but myself. (And I'm doing fine, thank you!)
But more importantly, I learned to stop obsessing about other people's feelings. I used to take my friends' sadness, anger, or annoyance personally, and obsessively go out of my way to make up for things that weren't even my fault. This probably didn't help my friends much, and it certainly didn't help me. But in the context of a live-in relationship, it was totally impossible. I couldn't expect Ken to be in a good mood all the time, and I couldn't expect myself to throw my life into the air every time he was moody. So, when he was cranky about something beyond my control, I just thought “Okay, whatever,” and went into my office for a while, until he felt good enough to talk about it and I felt good enough not to take his moods personally.
This attitude even helped me in my relationship with myself. I had spent years trying to meet (and exceed) other people's expectations, in the hope that maybe their validation would give me the confidence I craved. But making peace with my constant slip ups and failures has helped me make peace with myself. I didn't need to go out of my way to please strangers anymore. It helped me write better blog posts, have more fun in my work, and move on quicker from criticism.
Isn't that Just Persistence?
Some of you might call this persistence. And in a sense, you're right. But it's also more than that.
My perfectionism stopped me from being persistent in the past. Failure is inevitable, and when I inevitably failed at something, I had a hard time brushing myself off and starting over. I had to learn to care less about my mess-ups and my embarrassing mistakes, which goes above mere persistence for me.
For me, caring less wasn't an option. I cared so much about my mistakes that caring “less” still meant caring a whole lot. So I tried to let go of mistakes altogether. When I messed up, I would obsess for a day, and then I would tell myself,
“Whatever. This is fine, everyone makes mistakes, this is no big deal. Just start over. Not tomorrow — right now.”
And I did.
I won't pretend that I'm cured from being the Literal Most, or from caring too much about things from time to time. But for me, caring less doesn't mean caring less about my relationships, my work, or my interests. I can still be a great friend and girlfriend, love my job, and enjoy crafting like a Pinterest mom in a 24-year-old body, and let go when I mess up. That's what this year has been about for me: moving on when I mess up so that I can actually enjoy the process. And I do.
If you're looking to add this care-less attitude to your own life, I can't give you a checklist or a listicle (though some part of me still wishes I could). I can only say: try, and fail. Try everything, and fail more. Get turned down, write terrible novels, and let go of the fear that other people will judge you for it.
It won't always be easy. But I promise you'll have more fun.