Wednesday, June 30, 2010

It's Important to Fail Sometimes

I grew up with a mother who had emotional problems and would take the least little mistake on the part of others in my family (mostly my sister and me) to let loose with her anger. Because the most reasonable mistake, such as making an unexpected noise, forgetting some small part of a chore, or simply putting some object in a place she didn't prefer it be, would set off a temperamental outburst, I became a perfectionist. I held myself to a very high standard and I'm sure that that was in part because the consequences of screwing up were seemingly so dire.

To that end, I worked hard in school and was very disappointed in myself when I not only didn't get A's, but high A's. Anything below 95% wasn't good enough. In fact, as far as I was concerned, 91% was close enough to a B that it might as well be one. Most of the time, I lived up to my absurdly high standards, but I was miserable when I didn't. Failure was always an inch away and success was always a mega-marathon of effort away. Somehow, I still managed to succeed most of the time, but that sort of energy investment takes a toll. It became very hard to be me under such circumstances. I spent much of my third year of college coming home and sleeping all evening because I just couldn't deal with the stress.

After I left home, this sense that I had to always be "perfect" started to slowly unravel as my husband is a calm, reasonable sort of person who very, very rarely gets worked up about anything, let alone the sorts of trivial matters that would set my mother into fits of verbal abuse. I learned slowly but surely that messing up wasn't the end of the world, except in one case. That case was my eating habits.

When it came to eating, I often felt that any time that I messed up and ate more than I should or foods that perhaps were not healthy, I was a complete failure and that those times meant that I would never, ever be able to control my eating or stick to an eating plan for very long. Every time I messed up, I felt I might as well give up because I clearly couldn't manage. Perhaps I couldn't manage in my previous failed attempts, but chances are that my attitude defeated me as much as anything or everything else.

One thing I've tried to incorporate into my thinking in the past year is a form of confidence training when it comes to my eating habits. Every time I ate more than I would have preferred to, I felt a little shaky about my ability to continue and worried that one day in which I didn't follow my plans exactly would lead to another and another and another until my resolve and weight loss efforts collapsed in one gigantic heap of accumulated failure. It was a little like how I saw my 91% "A" grade as being a failure because it was on the road to a "B". One day of overeating is a step away from doing so forever.

I've had quite a few days where things didn't go according to plan, particularly in the first 9 months of what I've been doing. In fact, as recent as last month, there were times when I felt a bit hot and cold on my eating habits. I'd have a day closer to 2000 calories than 1500, then go about 1600, then another day around 1800, then back down to 1500. Every time this happened, I'd feel insecure and tell myself that I would absolutely prove to myself that I could do what I wanted to do the next day, and I would do better. It was imperative to come closer the next day each time, because then I'd know I could do it again.

What I've learned is that those "failures" actually have helped a lot in building my confidence for the future. If I had nothing but strings of weeks, months, or days in which I'd been on target, any failure might seem to be an indication of a serious stumble. Since I was tripping and stumbling a little bit here and there, now and then nearly every week (sometimes twice), I have grown accustomed to the idea that any lapse can be recovered from.

All of those "failures" allowed me to gain a sense that I can succeed in the long run because they demonstrated my resilience in the face of random difficulties. I truly believe that multiple "failures" actually have greater value over the long haul than near constant success. We're all going to encounter bumps in the road when food options are poor or limited and we may eat in a way which doesn't fit our plans, or we may have bad days and simply react to the stress by overeating, and it's good to have the confidence that you can get back in the saddle again after falling off the nutritional horse. You can't get that kind of confidence by being perfect. You can only get it by failing sometimes.


Florida Food Snob said...

Our childhoods are quite similar. I commend you so much for how far and strong you have come. I tremendously enjoy reading your opinions and stories. I’ve almost read all your post from the beginning. I was telling my boyfriend the other day about you. Your posts are helping me verbalize what I’m feeling because I have always kept everything inside so at time I don’t know how to express what I feel. Thankfully I am making progress.

BTW: I was very delighted to see that you added me to your blog roll. I appreciate that very much! I tried to click on the link though and it doesn’t connect, not sure why. Thought I should let you know.

lisalgreer said...

Great blog! I have a feeling that many of us have similar backgrounds. I, too, was raised by a perfectionist mother. I made all As and pushed, pushed, pushed, until I stopped pushing one day. Now, I'm working on finding freedom from perfection. Life is better here...

screaming fatgirl said...

Florida Food Snob: As always, thank you for your kind comments. I'm sure you've seen some transition between the start and the end. Part of why I document this process is so that I can remember should I ever need to go back and figure out how I managed this time, though I hope it doesn't come to that.

The URL was malformed on the link and I have since fixed the blogroll. It should work now. :-)

Lisal: Hi, and thank you for reading and taking the time to read my blog. I do wonder what psychological bonds tie people with food issues together. Perfectionism does appear to be a recurring theme for many people. I've written about perfectionism before, and I think it was a way of "reliving" my upbringing and a way of making it easy to fail and hard to succeed - perhaps because that was what my other made me think life was supposed to be like.

I think freedom from perfectionism is definitely a step in the right direction.