This is a photograph of me taken in 1997.
That’s SIXTEEN YEARS AGO. Looking at this picture now I think to myself “huh, maybe I WASN’T fat,” but at the time I was struggling with my second serious bout of anorexia and FAT is all I ever felt. I weighed 112 lbs in this picture, if memory serves, and I’m inclined to believe that’s true. One thing anorexics accurately know at any given time is their weight.
In this photo I was wearing a pair of jeans, size 5. They were a little big, as you can see, but that’s how I liked to wear my clothes. “Maybe people won’t notice my size if I wear big clothes.” Looking at this photo now I don’t see how anyone could NOT see I was starving OR how I could feel so fat, but hey. Delusion is part of addiction. I apparently got a good helping of “fantasy” when Ana was passing it out.
This is a photo of a pair of jeans I pulled out of my drawer 20 minutes ago.
Yes, those are the same jeans. Yes, they’re 16 years old, yes, they’re a little out of style. But I’ve kept them. I love them. I pull them out on occasion, never trying them on but holding them up, looking at the tag, turning them around, then folding them up delicately and putting them back in the very bottom, left hand side of my drawer.
I love those jeans. I covet those jeans.
I WORSHIP those jeans.
And really, it’s not THE JEANS I covet and worship and pet (like Lennie from Of Mice And Men). What I covet is the thing that was INSIDE of those jeans. I worship the body that used to wear those pants.
In my head there is an ideal version of me. Skinny and Ideal Me are BFF. Ideal Me has a pedestal, and a throne, and perfect skin, and she is wearing the SHIT out of those pants. A wonderful, happy, fantastic, successful, beautiful, sexy, RIGHT and CORRECT and WORTHY version of me wears those pants.
“Perfect Erin” wears those pants.
We all do it. We all have that special number on the scale, or that one pair of jeans, or a little black dress, or a high school football jersey, or a skirt that we stopped fitting into after college-marriage-pregnancy-age-35. It’s the thing to which we reluctantly said “don’t go I’ll miss you I love you I’ll find you” as it slipped out of our current reality. It’s that “trophy outfit,” or “target number,” the thing we use as visual leverage like finish line tape that signifies the end of the race. We want to BLAST THROUGH THAT TAPE, arms held high after the work and effort, and wear that piece of clothing like a medal with our best “BITCH PLEASE, of course I still fit in this old thing” attitude.
The voices in our heads say things like “You can do it. You’ll FOR SURE be back in those pants. That weight is totally reasonable, you can get there. You used to fit in that dress. I want to fit in those jeans. I WILL FIT IN THAT SHIRT.” A special picture window in our Cathedral is painted with images we put there ourselves, images of us in those pants, and the title on the plaque under the window reads simply this:
Someday they’ll fit. Someday I’ll be happy. Someday I will get up and put those pants on and they’ll fit like a dream, I’ll button then and bend over without passing gas or feeling like I’m going to throw up. There will be no muffin top, there will be nothing squeezing. Someday those pants will be on a body WORTH something, a body I worked for, a body I LOVE.
“Someday will be perfect.”
You know you’ve done it.
I confess I have done it many, many, times. The number on the scale and those fantasy pants have dominated my consciousness and served as finish lines for a long, long, long time.
Now don’t get me wrong. I AM A BELIEVER IN GOALS AND PLANS. I believe that failing to plan is planning to fail. I believe that setting goals is important to any sort of achievement. No great accomplishment has ever been won without serious, hard core, purposeful, intentional planning and execution. I’m pretty sure Lincoln didn’t win the war by saying “I’m not sure how we’re going to do this, I don’t know how I want this to end, we’ll figure it out when we get there.”
So then what’s wrong with the tiny bikini hanging in my bathroom, or the picture of the slinky black dress I have taped to my fridge? Why shouldn’t I hold on to the photo of me from 1997 and look at it for inspiration? What’s wrong with shooting for that number on the scale?
What’s wrong with my fantasy pants?
Well, fantasy pants are PERFECT. Fantasy pants symbolize Perfect Erin, and there is no such thing as Perfect Erin. There is no such thing as a perfect PERSON. Shooting for fantasy-pants-finish-line is shooting for the wrong goal.
Shooting for perfect will result in failure. Every. Single. Time.
Perfect is a “comparison word.” Nothing standing on its own is perfect. The object in question has to be measured against something else before we can say it’s perfect, and both parts must be quantifiable and static (easily measurable and not changing). You know you got a perfect bowling score when you get 300 points because that’s as many as you can get, and once you get that score and the game is over the number doesn’t change. You know you pitched a no-hitter because no one hit the ball, and any hits after the game is over don’t count. You can say “that book fits perfectly on that shelf” because it slid in just right, and the shelf and book will be the same size forever.
PEOPLE do not work that way. The only thing we will ever do perfectly as human beings is DIE. No way to fuck that one up. People are not easily measured and they never stop changing, so anything other than death will be executed with flaws. We will never be perfect, or ideal, or spotless. “Perfect people” do not exist.
DID YOU HEAR ME PERFECT ERIN? YOU DO NOT EXIST. YOU. CANNOT. EXIST.
I am a textbook overachiever. I did really well in school. I took the hardest classes I could find. I applied to Johns Hopkins because it was the best school for my desired field. I wanted to be a doctor because that was the most prestigious job. I advanced in every job I ever had. I ran my own contract painting and construction business to help pay for college. I bossed around men three times my age, and I liked it. (I liked that part a LOT.) I worked a full-time job while taking 18 credits a quarter. I was promoted to a KM position at age 24 and had to hire and fire and train 15 employees, then was sent to the stores that were failing so I could turn them around.
I tried hard to be perfect.
It was exhausting.
NOTHING is free. Everything comes at a price. The price I paid to drive toward perfection was depression, anxiety, eating disorders, suicidal tendencies, lack of sleep, addiction, pain, wasted time, and FAILURE. SO MUCH FAILURE. And SO MUCH WASTED TIME. I try not to think about it too much, but what would I have accomplished with my life had all that energy and focus been pointed at a MEANINGFUL and ACHIEVABLE GOAL?
I thought I could do anything I wanted to, go as far as I desired, and be whatever the eff I chose. I decided I was going to get the perfect job, have the perfect body, get perfect grades, shoot for perfect stars, be a perfect kid and make my parents perfectly proud. And why wouldn’t I attempt to do those things? I believed I could do it, people TOLD ME I could do it, so it has to be possible, right?
I believe one of the biggest fallacies we operate under as human beings, particularly those of us living in a first world country, is the idea that “we can be whatever we want to be.” We’ve heard platitudes like that all our lives.
“YOU CAN DO IT! Set your mind to it and you can accomplish anything! You can become whatever you aspire to be if you’re willing to work for it! THE SKY IS THE LIMIT! YOU are a bundle of potential! Reach for the stars!”
You cannot and will not ever be anything more than what you are capable of doing. Period.
I feel bad saying that. I KNOW IT’S HARD TO HEAR. Like I said, I am a textbook overachiever and to even CONSIDER that I have legitimate limitations makes me want to punch puppies. ANGRY. FURIOUS ANGRY RAGE. I know some of you are pissed off even considering what I’m saying, and for those of you that can see where I’m headed with this I’m sure there’s a sense of indignant irritation. “DON’T KILL MY FANTASY.”
We have to be real, though. To say that we can “do anything” is seriously limiting to our potential. If we spend our time shooting for a goal that is impossible to hit, how can we expect to maximize the potential we ACTUALLY HAVE? To reach for an unattainable goal is a waste of time and energy. And be clear, I’m not saying “you can’t do ANYTHING,” I’m saying “you can’t do more than you’re literally limited to.” You can’t do more than you’re REALLY capable of. That’s honest and truthful and factual and REAL.
Unfortunately in our culture we consider it cruel and heartless to be REAL.
People don’t want REAL, they want fantasy. They want to believe that they can be size-6-tapered-waistline-willowy-neck-125-pounds. They want to believe that the fashion mags that line the check-out aisles at the grocery store are telling the truth, that they CAN achieve a flat stomach in 20 days, that they really will drop a pound a day on that new smoothie recipe. They want to believe that they’ll find blissful happiness when they have a baby, or get that job, or if their husband would only listen more. They want to believe they can fit in the fantasy pants, or the little black dress, or that they’ll look awesome in that bikini.
The trouble with fantasy, though, is that it never, ever lasts. Fantasy is not REAL Fantasy is another word for “dream,” or “illusion,” or “pretend.” Fantasy is another word for LIE. Eventually you wake up from your fantasy and realize you’re worse off than where you started, AND you have to deal with the mess you made while you were visiting LaLa Land.
I drove to perfection like it was a place on the map, when in actuality it was like chasing the wind. You can’t catch the wind, or touch it, and if you do manage to get some of it in a jar and screw the lid on tight all you have in there is AIR. Not wind.
After many, many, many failures to reach perfection, I started to wonder what things would be like if I spent my life trying to catch AIR. Not wind. Not PERFECT. How would I feel and what could I accomplish if my goal was the right one? If I’d spent time working on reasonable, attainable, REALISTIC goals?
What would happen if I let go of “perfect?”
Isn’t that thought liberating? When perfect doesn’t exist and we let it go, stop trying to catch wind and instead work on catching AIR, we don’t have to TRY so hard. We don’t have to work so hard. We can just BE. And eat and breathe and drink and sleep and play and enjoy our jobs and spouses and kids for what they are. We can catch a SHITTON of air. That’s do-able.
On my journey to healthy the first thing I had to accept was “these are the cards I’ve been dealt.” I’d heard that expression hundreds of times before but never really considered what it meant for me personally. I never considered the benefits of the hand I held, what my cards looked like, or how to play the ones I had. All I considered was how much my cards didn’t stack up to “the perfect hand.”
“I’ve got a pair of threes. This is SO TOTALLY NOT A ROYAL FLUSH.”
I spent years and years of my life mourning over my lack of a perfect hand. I spent countless hours of effort trying to fudge the numbers on the cards, trying to change them into something else, trying to STARVE the numbers to be something they would never be, even closing my eyes and pretending they were different. I looked at my cards, the one I was given through Grace and blessing, and I felt like I failed. EVERY DAY I FELT LIKE I FAILED because the cards I had weren’t, in my mind, perfect. I starved and binged and hated myself with destructive self-thought as punishment for my lack of perfection. I wasted tears, work, energy, and focus because I wouldn’t just take the cards I was dealt and be happy with them. FIND SOME WAY TO BE HAPPY WITH THEM.
To throw in another twist, getting pregnant is like swapping out cards with the dealer. AND SWAPPING OUT SOME OF THE GOOD CARDS. I got pregnant and traded in the cards that counted for breast size, flat stomach, thick hair, and hips/knees/ankles that don’t crack like popcorn when I get up after sitting for too long. What I got back were cards with my kids names on them, and one with the word “joy.” Not bad cards. I love those cards. But really, they’re not cards that are applicable to my physical appearance. Perfect Erin is kind of pissed about the cards she had to give away to get those kid cards. Ana and Mia and Skinny HATE those cards.
Ana and Mia and Skinny are horribly, horribly deceived. Ana, Mia, and Skinny LOVE PERFECT and detest with all their existence the idea of failure. They think “kids messed up our body. TIME messes up our body. LIFE MESSES UP OUR BODY.” In the mind of an Ana-Mia, there is perfect appearance, and there is failure. There is nothing in between. They do not understand nor do they care that perfect does not exist. Through the very essence of their being, Ana, Mia, and Skinny destroy themselves to get to Perfect with their never-ending, relentless drive toward an unattainable goal.
Old Erin would have willingly and purposefully destroyed herself to reach that goal, unattainable or not.
So now at age 36 I am holding a handful of cards to play this game of life, and I am finally coming to grips with the fact that THESE ARE the cards I’ve been dealt.
Are they perfect? Nope.
Am I happy with them? Mostly.
Am I going to play them to the fullest of my capability? You bet your ass I am.
Do I know what it looks like right now to play those cards successfully? Absolutely not.
And THAT RIGHT THERE, FRIENDS, is the confusing part. The SCARY part. For a perfectionist, the “there is no perfect” part is scary. TERRIFYING. I ask myself “wait, what was all that talk about PLANNING, where is your goal, you have GOT to be shitting me, WTF DO I DO NOW.” If you’re not driving toward perfect, where do you go?
Once my fantasy pants are in the garbage I have no idea where I’m headed. Once I let go of PERFECT and stop driving for it like a bull toward a matador I don’t know what to do. Taking the “perfect” out of “perfectionist” is really, really hard. I have a difficult time even getting out of bed without some idea as to what the day will hold. I NEED to know what the end result looks like. In this case, though, I really don’t know.
But I’m going to GO anyways.
So where is the destination? Where are we headed? What do we use as our finish line?
After spending a lot of time thinking about it I’ve decided to use “time with the program” as my benchmark. Since I don’t know what my body will look like at max capacity with all these strange cards in my hand, my goals are centered around GETTING to max capacity. Instead of measuring my accomplishments with a tape, or a scale, or fantasy pants, I’m measuring the number of days and weeks and years I’ve stuck with my workout plan. I’m counting the days I successfully eat three meals plus snacks, the days I go without a binge, and the days I don’t want to work out but I push to do it anyways. I’m focusing on the things that MATTER, the things that will make me healthy, and the things that will get me to the end of the road I’m on even though I don’t know what I’ll find when I get there.
It’s time for me to say goodbye to “perfect.” It’s time to say goodbye to Perfect Erin. Real Me is not perfect. I will never be perfect. Perfect Erin and Skinny can go hang out with each other, drink nonfat lattes and eat rice cakes at a mall somewhere far, far away from Real Me. It is time for me to let go of my ideal, to burn the unreasonable expectations I have of myself, to let go of fantasy and WAKE UP. It’s time to be real and honest about the hand I’ve been dealt. And really, the more time I spend finding gratitude for what I DO have the easier it is. I almost don’t even miss those fantasy pants. Not going to lie, I do miss them sometimes, but eventually the pants I put on in the morning will just be PANTS, not “these aren’t the fantasy pants, you failed to be perfect” pants.
I’m just so tired of failure. No more perfect also means no more failure. Without perfect all that’s left is “I did my best.” THAT sounds AWESOME.
I’m going to say this now, and if you take nothing else away from what I’ve written please remember this. Accepting that PERFECT DOES NOT EXIST, that “this is what I have” and being real about “this is what I’m capable of” is the only way to change. You CAN NOT get healthy, make a promotion, lose the weight, better your relationships or progress in any way shape or form that will have lasting results if you are not honest with yourself about where you’re starting from, and realistic and reasonable about where you’re headed.
Do not shoot for perfect or you will for sure fail. Instead GET REAL and REALLY LOOK at the cards you’ve been dealt, accept them, find joy in them, and work with what you’ve got. Get real about what you can accomplish and set a realistic, measurable, reasonable goals.
Throw out the scale. Get rid of the little-black-dress picture on the fridge, or the high school jersey you wish you could still wear. Say goodbye to “perfect someday” and work on TODAY. Work on RIGHT NOW. On the right path with the right goals you’ll get to where you’re headed.
Throw away the fantasy pants. Because really, the failure was never “I don’t fit into my fantasy pants,” the failure was trying to fit into the wrong pants in the first place.