- Just right
On my shoulder, there lives a small tyrant. Self-criticism makes him happy; anxiety satiates him nicely. His name is Perfectionism and he is my tormentor.
Perfectionism makes us feel terrible— the need to have things ‘perfect’ drives us to exhaustion: we keep going past the point of being done, under the guise that ‘good enough is never good enough for me’, but this place is fed by anxiety and self-criticism, so it is never actually satisfied. Because, let’s be honest, perfectionism isn’t actually about having the things we do ‘perfect’, its about having ourselves be ‘perfect’, and no amount of Instagram filtering is going to make that happen. Perfectionism is, in a sense, trying to finish everything and capture it in time, trying to hold on to a moment, like a curl of smoke rising from ashes: clutching a feeling that comes only from having everything just right. And only then will we be worthy; only then will we be good enough.
You’d think that, if I knew the tyrant was there, and knew where he was, I’d want to get rid of him— brush him off onto another unsuspecting person; let them fold all of their underwear and organize it by color and leave me in peace.
But the thing is, I know that this tyrant comes from the same place as my love of beauty. The feeling that I get from crisp clean sheets, or an exquisitely punctuated sentence is incandescent. And its so innate in my personality: I could no sooner change that than I could my eye color or that I love lemons. It feels, in a way, like a higher calling: like there’s something holy about order, and that feeling of everything being in its right place makes me feel as if I, too, am in my right place.
The same tendency can manifest in different ways depending on the focus, and most likely, stress levels. If my focus is just on what’s pleasurable— an expression of my nature to like things beautifully right— then the process is calm, and it feels like it comes from a place deeply connected to who I am and the world around me. From here, my liking of order isn’t a *need* and as such I don’t push it on the people around me (except maybe when I need something to do at a friend’s house so I rearrange their closets or do the dishes). On the other hand, if my focus becomes something outside myself— the end goal instead of the process; the way it should look instead of the way it feels— then all of a sudden the process stops being enjoyable. It becomes stressful, and other people not complying with my ideals stresses me out too. I feel this stress deep in my belly, like a burning pressure. My shoulders tense, my psoas contracts, and all of a sudden I *need* to get it done. And right. And now. And you should too.
When the Perfectionist is in control, small details of imperfection stand out as glaring errors that need to be corrected. But there’s a different place, where the love of beauty is in the driver seat, when my body is in charge and I’m immersed in the present instead of the [future] goal: the small imperfections become a part of the overall perfection. Every stage of becoming is complete in itself. A crack in a piece of pottery is a part of the patina and adds a dimension to its beauty. Perfection is something inherent in everything, in the moment, in myself, and from there, every small act of creation is a gift.
The difference is a tiny flip of a coin; a re-direction of focus. But the space in between the two sides of that coin is a universe.
I’ve been learning about polyvagal theory lately (thanks Angela). It’s interesting: Stephen Porges says thatinstead of the two branches of the autonomnic nervous system (sympathetic and parasympathetic) as we learn in school, there are actually three: there’s a newer, sleeker social engagement system, an older action system (sympathetic) and an even older still shut-down system (parasympathetic). The sympathetic system is that which drives us to action, and, when there’s a threat, it triggers the adrenaline response which puts us into fight or flight. When this response is even overwhelmed by the threat level, or if action (fight or flight) isn’t possible, then the older dorsal vagal response kicks in, and we freeze: shut down, tuen out the world, go into a deep disassociative silent place. Those of us who experience trauma early in life end up with an imbalanced system, where the stress response kicks in more quickly than usual, in situations that aren’t necessarily unsafe. The way out of this is to start teaching the body when it is safe, and to do this, first, you need to know when it feels UNsafe. And that’s where neuroception comes in.
Neuroception, is, quite basically, the ability to feel your body. That is, to feel what your body is feeling, be aware of it. Most of the time, we ignore what our bodies are telling us. If the body is feeling fear, we dismiss it; we push anger away, try to avoid grief. We’ve been taught over time not to trust our bodies, not to listen to them, to dismiss their impulses and drives as they get in the way of our work and our ability to get along in society. But our bodies are so very wise- they are the first things that tell us whether we are safe or not, according to our own perception. If we feel safe, then all of that social engagement system can kick in: we can enjoy our time with other people, find it calming, enjoy play, enjoy new things. If our bodies feel any kind of threat in the environment, then our social engagement system is overridden by the sympathetic, or ‘action’ system, and if the threat it so severe that we could die, then our bodies shut down and freeze entirely.
I came upon a quote, while reading about this:
“[sympathetic system driven] actions are mechanical and unpleasureable. They often have a "flung" quality. They lack grace. All satisfying actions , and the large majority of effective actions, are the product of the conscious choice and the vegetative systems working in concert.”
Which got me thinking about how we approach our ‘to do lists, and the things we take action on during the day. We can leave our bodies behind, and carry on as heads running out in front of ourselves, paying attention to the list, the goal, the final result. Or we can do it with our bodies too. Pay attention to what’s going on in there. Let our feelings come along with us as we go about our day.
Think about this: when we *choose* to do something, and do it at a pace that our bodies can keep up with, then our bodies are operating in the world as one. It doesn’t even need to be all about feeling good— we can operate in the world with our bodies perceiving something as sad or scary, as long as we are actually paying attention to, and giving that part of ourselves credence.
I don’t give people herbs for weight loss.
Clients come to me wanting to shrink themselves, whether actually considered ‘overweight’ or not, and I don’t believe that forcing ourselves into submission is healthy in the long run.
Our relationships with our bodies and with food and movement have become contorted over time: food is something we ‘unfortunately’ need for fuel, or feel guilty about indulging in; exercise is something that we do to slim down as the punishment for eating something bad. Each bad thing eaten gets a mental tally of how many minutes it’ll cost on a treadmill to eat. ‘X amount of pleasure will cost me X minutes of pain. Is it worth it?’
Fat isn’t something that ‘needs’ changing. I’m saying it here because I think its important: bodies are beautiful, and bodies that revel in existing are even more beautiful. Fat has somehow become the thing in society that we dump on, feel free to criticize publicly, to try and humiliate people publicly for. I think its become the outlet for all our self-hatred in the world, our own and others’. And I refuse to feed into that by agreeing with clients that their bodies should be different. Instead, what I do is teach people how to like their bodies. And liking our bodies can start with the simple act of feeling pleasure.
I have a novel concept:
Learn to hear yourself. Sit down to eat when you want to eat. Eat what your body wants. This body of yours that has carried you for years, that has housed you and nourished you and kept you going through thick and thin, trauma and delight. Has run through the rain and splashed in the sea and experienced pleasure and pain. This is the part of you that is the most sensitive, that has a constant feedback system for you, and in not listening to it, we split ourselves. What do you want to eat? Is it a pile of fruit? Is it an entire chicken standing up at the kitchen counter? Is it crackers and cheese? A big salad? Ice cream? Cookies? Water? Yogurt? What feels good in your body right now? What do you *want*?
And when it comes time to eat it, enjoy it. I mean, take a bite and close your eyes and let your mouth wrap around what you’re eating and SOAK IT UP. Devour it fast or slow, however it is that you want it, but pay every ounce of your attention to it. If its a mango, let its juices drip down your chin as you revel in it. Eat that mango like you’re making love to it. If its chocolate, let each bite melt in your mouth and fill your body with pleasure. That’s what it does if you let it— it can fill your cells with the joy of being nourished.
Food can be about pleasure. Not just filling a hole or meeting nutritional requirements or making you look a certain way or doing what a book you read says is best. Food can be about life, about joy, about our senses. Food can hit your tongue and explode in your mouth and absorb into your body and every cell in you can say ‘yes! This is delicious! Yes! This is feeding me! Yes! This is nourishing me!’ And imagine what that does to your body, to take in nourishment in that way, instead of ‘I shouldn’t want this but I’m eating it anyway but I’m a terrible person for wanting it and I’ll do penance tomorrow by jogging painfully at 5am’.
This isn’t weight loss advice (I have no desire to reinforce any kind of cultural idea that more adipose tissue is a bad thing— I think my fat friends are beautiful just as I think my thin friends are beautiful and before you even say it, there’s absolutely no evidence out there that adipose tissue alone is a risk factor for your health), and I don’t know if eating like this will make you gain or lose weight, but I am certain it will make you like your body more.
Every thing in the natural world glows with the pleasure of existence. Plants don’t wake up in the morning to an alarm, stuff as many stimulants down as they can so that they can go work at growing. Plants are dusted with the light of the rising sun and growth happens simply because of the chemical reactions that happen when the light touches them (regardless of whether they grow up in pristine woodlands or on the edge of a railroad track). And yet we humans reach adulthood and somehow think that pleasure and play are no longer important. With a piece of music, nobody says ‘let’s go and work music’, you *play* music. And you don’t just play the best part. The piece of music is all the part, and there might be some individual chords you don’t like but they make the overall piece. A piece of music without spaces, without being drawn out over time, without the PLAY is just a cacophony of noise. If you did it all now it would sound like you’d just hurled a piano down a flight of stairs. Where’s the pleasure in that? If you’re playing music, you don’t rush through some bits to get to your favourite bits, or fast-forward through movies to get to the best scenes— without the rest of the story, that climax means nothing. Without the rest of the music, the dramatic crescendo isn’t nearly as beautiful. The pleasure is in the entirety.
Food can be fuel, or food can be pleasure. Rest can be a guilty ‘oh just ten minutes’ or it can be lying in bed feeling the pleasure of your sheets, the support of your mattress, the wiggles in all your cells as you allow your body to regenerate itself. Exercise can be hours on a treadmill for self-punishment or it can be ‘what does my body feel like doing today?’. It can be a walk in the park or it can be dancing to The Beatles for an hour or it can be making love or it can be gardening. It can be lying in bed breathing. It can be pushing yourself to get up a hiking trail faster, not because you’re in a hurry or trying to make yourself smaller or fitter or release more endorphins, but because you absolutely revel in the way your body feels when your muscles are pumping and your lungs move like bellows. The sweetness of sweat running down your body. There’s a joy and a pleasure in that that is a gift, that wiggles out through your cells like ‘yes please more please thank you thank you’. And you can’t help, when you move from this place, to be grateful to your body. You can’t help but revel in how good it feels to simply be a human being on the earth able to move*.
*To whatever capacity we are capable. Obviously, disabled people aren’t exempt from this.
Linda Rodin was asked in an interview about her style and how she came to find it. She said ‘I have white hair because of genetics— I went grey really young and don’t believe in hiding that stuff. I have thick rimmed glasses because I’m blind as a bat. I wear dark lipstick because I like it. I dress like this because its comfortable to me.’ It made me laugh: we spend so much trying to emulate other peoples’ styles, but for the most part, people develop these things because of their limitations. What we’re truly looking for isn’t their style, or to be like them, but comfort level in their own skin.
I think about this with my work: every time I see an Instagram post by an artist I like (an image of her in her studio covered in paint) and I think ‘maybe I should quit my job and become an artist; I want my life to look like that,’ it’s usually when I’ve been spending days on the computer and haven’t made anything or been out in nature. And then I stop to think about it and realise what I want isn’t to be an artist, but to have a job that I feel so immersed in that I don’t want to be anywhere else. And that if what I want is to feel calm and confident in my own work like she does, maybe I should focus on what I’m doing and why I love it. When I focus on what I love, and reconnect with the plants and my own creativity, what someone else is doing ceases to matter. What I’m saying is that the answers aren’t out there in the world but here in what we already have. The iconic styles come about not because of unlimited time and funds but because of the imperfections inherent in them— the chips in the vases, the big noses, the small houses, the limited time. The faults we don’t want to look at or are frustrated by are the very things that make us distinctive. Our crucible is our own life, and if we relax into it and let our own stuff emerge from that crucible it will be glorious… to others.
Immersion and self-consciousness can’t exist together. You can live your life whole-heartedly, be completely immersed in it, or you can tiptoe through your life wondering what other people think of it and how it looks from the outside while playing the comparison game.
Pema Chodron says that self-improvement is inherently violent. It makes sense to me: wanting to change something about ourselves because it is ‘bad’ or ‘wrong’ or ‘not good enough’ means that its something we don’t accept. On some level, I don’t think we’re supposed to be self-aware in the way that social media and self-help books make us self-aware: if we’re constantly paying attention to how we look, how our words are received, how many ‘likes’ we get, how we are progressing towards our goals then we’re not fully present in our bodies in the moment. We’re here and there, torn between two things, simultaneously doing the dishes and wanting to be watching Game of Thrones; working on something but focused on the end goal. Outside ourselves is a way to be discontent at every moment.
What if instead, we turn inwards a bit: step back and allow our bodies to catch up. Pay attention to where we are in space and how we feel about it. Feel the ground under our feet; the air on our skin. Feel for what we want, in life as big goals and in the moment as small things. Do we want to be outside right now? Go. Do we want to lie down? Do it. Do we want to change the world with our words, actions and creations? Definitely, definitely, go and do that. Feel our extra layers of fat, or the lack of muscle. Feel our noses that are too big and our hair that’s too thin and our living rooms that don’t look like an Instagram post. And instead of looking at them from the outside, feel them from within. And instead of strong-arming ourselves into changing things, take it all as it is, like a piece of cracked pottery that’s even more beautiful because of its imperfection. And in that imperfection is the flip-side of that paradox: that imperfect thing, just as it is, is perfect.
Who we are is enough.
What we want is enough.
It’s a flip of a coin, and in between those two sides is an abyss so big that you cannot fathom stepping into it.
And yet, in that abyss is the entire universe, and I promise, promise that it will catch you.