On Stress and Perfection

Mar 16, 2019

When I was a kid, I distinctly remember announcing to my parents that I didn’t believe in stress. I must have been 11 or 12 or so — old enough to see and understand how stress was affecting my parents, but still young & naïve enough to not have experienced anything truly stressful in my own life. Now, obviously blatantly ignoring that stress even exists is not a realistic way to live your life, and later on I was forced to reconsider my beliefs about stress. But maybe little Maria did have a point…

Last Wednesday was the beginning of Lent this year (I promise this is going somewhere, hang in there with me). If you’re unfamiliar or need a refresher, this is the 40 days before Easter when Catholics abstain from meat (except fish, don’t ask) on Fridays, and are encouraged to give something up or add something extra. (Ok, Lent is more than just that but for the that’s the extent you need to know for the purposes of this post.) As a kid, this usually meant giving up something trivial adding an extra chore (somehow I always had to keep doing those after Lent was over…). As an adult I’ve used the time as an excuse to re-evaluate and change any unhealthy habits that I’d picked up.

I haven’t done anything official in awhile though, as I’d taken more of the philosophy of doing self-betterment things year round. This year though, when Marc asked if I was thinking of doing anything, it was at the end of a(nother) long week. And so I jokingly replied, “Maybe I’ll just give up stress for Lent.” He knew I was joking, but since he loves me, his response was “no seriously you should consider it.”

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The more I thought about it, the more the idea grew on me. I realized this could be an excellent way to frame something that I had been struggling to articulate.

You see, I’ve been trying to write another post in my healing hormonal acne series, but every time I sat down to write about my face, I ended up writing about my mental state. And while they are undeniably connected (that is the point actually), it became clear that they’re two separate topics.

So today we’re talking about burnout, and how in the world I’m actually giving up stress for Lent.

It begins with my intense obsession with perfection. Specifically: with making myself perfect. In certain doses and situations this is helpful — it gives me motivation and I’m always striving to be better — but I have a history of letting this obsession control my life.

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At the beginning of last year, with the wedding in September as sort of a goal line, I decided to embark on several self-betterment campaigns. These included but weren’t limited to: getting promoted to team lead at work, fixing my posture + getting toned for the wedding, and fixing my acne. By the end of the year, I had accomplished most of these things. I got the promotion. I gained 10 pounds of muscle. And while objectively I’m incredibly proud of myself, I didn’t feel fulfilled at the end of the year. Like I mentioned in my cinnamon rolls post, I felt like I had gotten hit by a train. Our honeymoon was an absolutely perfect week doing nothing on a beach in Mexico, but turns out a week isn’t enough to undo months.

Despite the exhaustion and saying that all I wanted was to chill, I came back and kept operating under the expectation of perfection. And so nothing changed. Turns out that getting promoted means more responsibilities. (Who knew?) Now I was (am) in charge of a team. People want & expect things from me, and I expected even more from myself.

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And remember that last goal I set at the beginning of 2018: fixing my acne? Well, I hadn’t actually accomplished that one. In fact, just days after the wedding my face positively erupted in pimples. I even named one Mt. St. Helens, and like its namesake it left a giant crater on my face. There were several days that I called into work sick because I was too ashamed to show my face, and there were many more than several days that I’d cry every night as I washed my face — I was that frustrated.

It seemed the more I tried to do, the worse it got.

And though this was about much more than my acne, that one “goal” became a proxy for all the other stress I was putting myself. Although I just wanted it all to stop, it was like something else was forcing me to keep going against my will.

Classic. I let my obsession with perfection control my life (again).

I’m ashamed to admit that I let this go on for five months. YES, THAT’S ALMOST HALF A YEAR.

Throughout it all, there was this tiny voice in my head saying things like “Hey, maybe trying to do it all is what’s making your face worse.” Ooh, I didn’t want to believe that voice. I ignored it as long as I could. I told it, “What, you just want want me to not care?! You want me to just accept these hideous, embarrassing, painful bumps on my face??!” (Yes, this the part of the story where I start talking to myself.) I tried everything instead of listening to that voice, until there was nothing left to try. And when I had nothing left, I found myself thinking, well, maybe just for a sec I’ll pretend I believe what the stupid voice is saying.

I’m done doing things that cause me unnecessary stress.

I’m done ignoring the voice. Ok, well I’m trying not to ignore it anymore. So for the next 40-ish days — as a starting point — I’m putting my mental health first. I’m consciously not doing anything that causes me unnecessary stress. I’m done hiding behind “being healthy” and actually beating myself up for not being perfectly toned and blemish free. Yes, you better believe it’s hard giving that up, but we’re doing it. We’re doing it.

The beauty of this is that, unlike the all those other goals I set myself, it’s actually impossible for me to both succeed and also hold myself to perfection & beat myself up for failing — because then I will actually have failed at what I set out to do! The irony is absolutely fantastic.

In case it’s not clear, I want to clarify that I’m not saying all these things from a place of “that was bad but now I’m better now.” I am still very much as my own personal rock bottom, dealing with burnout, and talking to voices in my head. But at least I’m sleeping better, and my skin is SLOWLY (so slowly) but surely improving. Equally as slowly it seems, I’m starting to feel a sense of relief as I repeat to myself that I don’t have to BE anything (least of all perfect). It’s kind of hilarious to watch how hard I’m still trying to hold on to the notion of being perfect. But we’re working on it. Maybe by Easter I’ll be a smidge better.

If you got this far — thanks for reading, you’re seriously the best. And stay tuned for a post that’s actually more about my acne, and a few of the tactical things I’ve been doing that have been helping. Cheers! 💙

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