I don’t see myself as a perfectionist, because I don’t do things perfectly.
(See: the irony of perfectionism)

However, I would be lying if I didn’t say that the pursuit of becoming perfect occupied a lot of my emotional time. The pursuit gave me the hope and the opportunity to play in a fantasy where I was completely in control of everything – how I behaved, what emotions I felt, and how others saw me. I believed that if I was perfect and in control, I wouldn’t be so damn anxious all the time. If I could delete this feeling, I’d be able to live my life freely. As someone who deeply values personal development and growth, immersing myself in self-care culture seemed like the quick cure to deal with these pervasive and inconvenient feelings of anxiety.

In actuality, my pursuit of perfectionism gave me more anxiety than I ever fully recognized. I made it a challenge for myself. I tried to be perfect at “doing” self-care.

So I present to you the following: What I learned my self-care doesn’t look like: A three-part example series.

  • One. I was committed to waking up at 5am. I binge read several “Top 5 Things Successful People Do” articles with the intention of carving time in my morning. Lured by the idea of doing life better in any sort of vague way was enticing to me. Despite fully knowing my night owl nature, I wasn’t prepared for the brief but passionate love affair with coffee to sustain me when I deprived myself of several restful nights of sleep. I felt tired and miserable.
  • Two. I sat in my luxurious lavender-scented bubble baths, absolutely riddled in anxiety as I thought endlessly about debt. And finances. And this stupid expensive bath bomb. And, of course, how I’d have to scrub it off from my bathtub later. My glass of wine sat abandoned in the corner, collecting condensation. I felt frustrated and guilty.
  • Three. I forced myself through 30 minutes of silent meditation, even as I was noticing my body becoming achy. Agitated in the way it does when I get too ahead of what I am able to do. I jumped into the deep end of habit building when I hadn’t yet learned to doggy paddle. I wasn’t able to meditate, let alone gain a nugget of peace from the experience. I felt inadequate and disappointed.

Our culture -myself included- has a precarious relationship with self-care. “Self-care” has been marketed as an easy solution. Do I feel like a candle being burned from both ends? Is my work-related stress, friendship, or stress from other parts of my life just slipping right through? I was told I just need to buy the bubbles in order to vicariously experience this self-loving bath of enlightenment and zen.

There is a huge difference in “doing” self-care and “practicing” self-care that isn’t just linguistic; it’s a learned, experiential kind of difference. “Doing” is the carving out of valuable time in order to do the things that are supposed to make everything better. For me, it included: reading more, exercising more, socializing more, spending more time alone, drawing more, meditating more, deep breathing more, eating more salads, treating myself more, treating myself less, and the broad spectrum of other “more’s” and “less’s”. During graduate school and other high-stress times in my life, I could barely make time to eat. Every single second felt intense. I couldn’t waste my very limited milliseconds on listening to some hour-long, arbitrarily chosen podcast.

It was when I had exhausted every type of popularized self-care in the self-help section that I had no energy left to resist my difficult feelings. I recall I had thrown myself onto my couch and stared aimlessly at the fluttering tree that peeked into visibility from my living room window. I resigned myself to feeling my anxiety. It sucked but it was still there. I leaned into the feeling of my imperfection and accepted it because I tried everything else to make it go away and it hadn’t worked. Yet, that was when the intensity of my feelings felt less like hurricane waves crashing above my head and more like temperate ripples at my knees.

What I learned my self-care looks like: A revised three-part example series.

  • One. My partner’s college friend told me he was a morning person, noting he naturally woke up at 7am everyday. I was bamboozled. Seven am as early? That idea was so outside of my rigid definition of being a morning person. Yet, his disclosure created the gray space I needed to accept that there is more than one way of being a morning person. I have since then decided that a full sleep does more for my mental and emotional health than waking up at 5am ever could. Coffee and I don’t spend as much time together now but the time we share is enjoyable. I felt attentive and well-rested.
  • Two. I threw my hands in the air and did the hard, unpleasant kind of self-care. I addressed the source of my financial anxiety by sitting down and budgeting all of my incomes and costs. It was not intuitive for me. It certainly wasn’t fun, especially not when I felt the momentary blinding guilt of where it was important for me to cut costs. I created a habit of logging my daily costs. It’s somewhat of a ritual for myself. I felt proud and powerful.
  • Three. My eyes glance at my cell phone, laying beside me as I type up this blog. It gives a subtle yet assertive vibration. An external reminder for an internal check-in. I turn off my computer monitor, get up, then change locations. I lean into my new seating position, taking a deep breath. I allow myself to check in on how my body feels, where the calmness is, and where the unease sits. I ask myself what my emotions need, what my body needs. Mostly, it needs that momentary pause of acknowledgement. This takes about a minute or two of my day. I felt energized and hopeful.

My self-care looks like “it depends.” “It depends” is hard for me to hear on the days I’d rather have things fitted in a nice, wrapped box with a bright bow on top. It’s not fixed, nor is it always the best way of doing something. It’s the truth, though. My self-care is an intention I have to consciously set for my mental and emotional health every day. I mentally write it in pencil – I’ve learned what I need can shift in a moment. It’s keeping an eye on the moment, the day, and the grander scheme of what I want for myself. Rather than perfect, I’ve become observant.

Post in recognition of World Mental Health Day.

Dr. Nathalie R. Henaine, Psy.D is a post-doctoral fellow at the Cira Center for Behavioral Health. To schedule an appointment with someone at CCBH, please visit ciracenter.org

Featured image by: Gerd Altmann from Pixabay