Complete-ism: A refusal to accept any standard other than total completion. Side effects, like those of perfectionism, can be chronic discontent and dissatisfaction. – Hillary Raining and Amy Nobles Dolan
I arrived at my second book reading with my friend and co-author, Hillary, in teacher mode. I expected to spend the two hours sharing our understanding of yoga and faith. I expected to answer questions and to listen to Hillary do the same. I expected to do a little guiding of discussion to draw our guests deeper into the material. I expected to talk about the evolution of our book and what the publishing process was like. I even expected to have a few laughs, because I always do when I’m with Hillary.
What I didn’t expect was to leave with yet another self-improvement project to tackle.
We were deep into our conversation about bramacarya or moderation when I mentioned how practicing moderation had done a great deal to help me recover from a lifetime of perfectionism. As one of our guests described how hard it is for her to accept “good enough” from herself, Hillary commented that she had the same experience with complete-ism. I had no idea what she was talking about, so I was happy that she went on to explain that she had a very hard time stopping before a task was done, even if what she was stopping for was something really fun.
“Holy moly,” I thought. “I think I am a complete-ist too.”
Because Hillary is a very good teacher, she didn’t just leave it at that. She described how her complete-ism regularly tempted her to miss out on life’s good things. Because I was listening (feverishly) and because I know her really well, I wasn’t hard for me to imagine what this could look like for her. A quiet lunch on a bench outside her office. A movie with her daughter. Even the chance to take a walk in the woods with her dad. If these opportunities cropped up when she was in the midst of a project or a task, it would take herculean effort to stop what she was doing to seize the moment. Every cell in her body would be yearning for her to say, “Sure, after I finish up here.”
It was also terribly easy for me to imagine how things would play out after such a response because it happens to me all the time. She would drop her attention back to her project until it was done, only to look up and discover that the opportunity had passed. Perhaps clouds had obscured the sun making it too chilly to eat outside. Or she had missed the matinee show. Or her dad had gotten tired of waiting for her and had left for a walk without her.
Because it was yoga’s philosophy that first asked me to work with moderation in my life, it’s not surprising that it has something to offer those of us struggling with complete-ism. In fact, just last week I was talking with another yoga friend. As we talked through our various struggles in seeking moderation, she described a yoga twist on complete-ism. She said it is really hard for her to unroll her mat if she knows she only has 45 minutes to practice. Despite knowing that a little yoga is better than no yoga, she often is tempted (mightily) to skip her practice altogether if she knows she can’t do “the whole thing.”
Again, I grimaced and thought, “Holy moly, me too.” This “all or nothing” mindset about our yoga practice reveals the high potential cost of being a complete-ist. When I think back to the days when I succumb to complete-ism and just skip my practice rather than doing a shorter series of postures, I’m always disappointed. I spend those days feeling a little harried, a little off-kilter and a little scattered. These are all feelings even a few minutes on my yoga mat could have helped to soothe.
If I’m not mindful, my “need” to finish, to complete the whole practice, to do it all or to do nothing at all, can rob me of the gifts of my practice. Mind you, these gifts would be completely available to me from an abbreviated practice. Unfettered, my complete-ism, like my perfectionism of old, can drive me to strive for standards that are sometimes too rigorous. These standards are also unnecessary. On days when I can’t get myself to stop this striving, it’s not unusual for me to find myself steeped in dissatisfaction and discontent. Also, I have often totally whiffed on whatever gifts that life is trying to offer me.
If you think you also might be among the ranks of complete-ists, all is not lost. Some yoga tricks can help you (and me) begin to recover. First, pay attention. Notice when you’re tempted to skip something in order to finish something that could (maybe???) wait. Second, when you fail to set aside your project to embrace whatever else life is offering you, do not despair. You’ve got to keep practicing. And life will always give you another chance to try again. Finally, like a really hard yoga posture that you’re still learning how to do, try to get comfortable with the idea that sometimes (actually, most of the time) good enough is, in fact, good enough.
With patience and persistence, these tricks can help you wriggle free from your complete-ism to experience the fullness of a completely different, better than “good enough” life experience.
“When you let go, something magical happens. You give God room to work.” – Lifehack
The baby started fussing just as I was hitting my stride. I was giving a talk to a surprisingly large group of people at my church and my nervous butterflies were starting to settle down when the baby toward the front of the room ramped up to a full-throttle scream. “Ah,” I thought, “there will be no ignoring this.”
I looked up from my notes to give the mom a 100% empathetic smile (as a fellow mom, I’ve absolutely walked a mile in her shoes). Instead of looking back down to pick up where I left off, I went a little rogue. I looked out at the audience, smiled again, and made an off-the-cuff joke. This may not sound like a big deal to you, but anyone who knows me will testify that I’m not super funny. I’m much more likely to botch a joke than actually get a laugh. But that morning, I got a laugh! And I sailed through the rest of my talk.
It wasn’t just that the joke helped bolster my confidence. Sharing a laugh with the crowd shifted the dynamic of the experience for me. Instead of feeling like I was talking to them, I felt like I was talking with them. We were suddenly a group of people having a conversation. And that made all the difference in the world. As I took off the microphone at the end of my talk, I knew I had done it. Not only that, but I’d enjoyed it. Mostly, thanks to a crying baby.
Seriously. By disrupting my exceedingly well-planned plans for my talk, that baby forced me to work with a situation that even a talented planner like me could never have planned for. My talk came to life the second I chose to embrace the moment exactly as life delivered it to me, rather than trying to force the situation back to the way I expected it to be. When I let go of my plans (and my script), I made space for something better than what I’d planned to happen that morning.
Is that magical? It sure felt like it to me.
I think it’s also a very practical tactic. We simply cannot control or foresee all the surprises that life brings our way. Truly, the only thing we can control is our response to these surprises. As a life-long planner, I have spent a staggering amount of energy resisting life’s surprises as I tried valiantly to stay the course for which I was so well prepared. I did this in friendships, at work, when learning a new piece on the piano, in my marriage, when getting settled in a new school or in town, when raising my children and training my dogs. There is literally not a sector of my life where I have not tried (wicked hard) to be in control; where I have not fought to stay the course.
Looking back, I see that the course I was fighting to stay on was the one I imagined to be mine, but perhaps was not the one life had in store for me.
Does being open to life’s surprises absolve me from the responsibility of planning? Actually, no. What it does is free me from is my death grip on those plans. Had I not worked so hard planning and re-planning my outline, my talk that morning would never have survived my “baby heckler.” I knew what I wanted to share that morning, so it was safe for me to go a little rogue. Because I wasn’t up there winging it, it wasn’t hard for me to respond to the reality of my audience while still winding my way through the points I wanted to make.
I do the same thing whenever I’m teaching – whether it be a yoga class, a college philosophy class or a teacher training workshop. I always show up with an intention. In fact, I also always have a detailed plan in my back pocket. For a yoga class, it is usually the Ashtanga primary series. For one of my philosophy classes, it’s a pretty detailed outline of a lecture. For a teacher training workshop, it’s a schedule for the day and a series of detailed outlines.
Yet I find that my worst classes are the ones where I teach as if I were bound to all those well-planned plans. It never fails that the classes that leave me knowing for sure that I’ve shared something meaningful in a way that will have made a mark on my students are the ones where I let go of my plans and instead embrace what the class brings my way. Perhaps I notice two or three students with tight hips, or sense a low energy level in the room. Whatever I see molds my language and the postures I choose for the class. Or perhaps a student shares an insight that draws us away from my planned points. If I cease to resist, choosing instead to accept his invitation, I often find myself in fertile territory I’d not considered while making my plans.
So, it is with great relief (being in control is hard work, after all!) that this planner invites you to explore the freedom to stay open to life’s surprises. To be willing to hold your plans lightly – even to let go of them. Perhaps to be willing to go a little rogue if the opportunity presents itself. To notice and welcome what is, rather than desperately seeking what “should” be. When you do let go like this, I think you’ll find that whatever you’ve prepared and planned will come to life in ways you never could have imagined. Perhaps in ways that even seem a little magical.
“Isn’t it funny how day by day nothing changes, but when we look back everything is different?” – CS Lewis
We got a new showerhead in our bathroom last week. It is (to quote my husband) “the greatest showerhead of all time.” Actually, I don’t even think it’s a special showerhead. The feature we love most is its water pressure. I can now successfully rinse the shampoo from my hair in the blink of an eye. So, essentially, we’re thrilled to have a showerhead that actually works!
It may come as a surprise to you that I find a new showerhead newsworthy. I don’t, really. What made me pause and think was the fact that, for so long, we didn’t realize that our old showerhead wasn’t really working. I remember mentioning to my husband after an overnight at my sister’s that her shower was nicer than ours. I remember him speculating that our new water heater must have thrown something off with plumbing. But, mostly, what I remember when I look back is not really thinking about or even particularly noticing the fact that taking a shower (which has always been a really pleasant part of my day) was no longer satisfying.
Gradual change like the failure of our old showerhead can be sneaky. If you have children, you absolutely know what I’m talking about. I’m sure you’ve looked up as your child walks into the kitchen to find that you’re smiling at her shoulders rather than into her eyes. She has grown so tall that eye contact requires you to hold your head at a different angle than before. You know she’s been growing gradually for weeks without you noticing, but it seems like she shot up overnight.
The same can be true as you or your loved ones age. Or with the development of a new skill – in a sport, hobby or work. Or with shifts in relationships. Or with wear and tear on your home, car or even your favorite sweater. Change happens, yet, somehow, we miss it completely.
For me, practicing yoga is an opportunity to practice the art of noticing subtle change. Every day I unroll my yoga mat and move through my practice. My routine rarely varies – drop into child’s pose to suss out the state of my lower back, wiggle around in a trial downdog to check out my cranky right hip, stand at the top of my mat and say a little prayer. Even after that little ritual, the postures are all familiar.
While this familiarity is comforting, I’ve learned over the years that I have to stay tuned in. Though I know which postures I can do and which ones I am still learning to do, there are always surprises. The unchanging nature of the postures highlights the constant changes of my body. Every day I witness change – in my flexibility, in my energy levels, in my ability to focus, in my emotional state. Sometimes this change is as stunning as the day I noticed that my son “suddenly” towered over me. Sometimes the change I see is a miniscule, but inspiring, ability to move deeper into a challenging pose.
If I’m not tuned in, I have learned that I can get hurt. In other words, if I fail to notice a tight or sore muscle and go into a posture the “way I always do” I can end up injured. After so many years of practice, thankfully, that kind of inattention doesn’t happen very often. What happens more often is that my inattention can cause me to miss new abilities that have been developing slowly. I may not even attempt the next iteration of a posture because of my assumption that I can’t do it. In other words, I’m on autopilot or cruise control just sailing through my practice.
Just as I feel more at risk of falling asleep at the wheel when I have the car in cruise control, being in autopilot on a yoga mat makes for a snooze-worthy practice. Not only am I missing out on the small details of the scenery (as it were), but I am missing out on any chance for it to be a moving meditation.
When I let my mind disengage and for my body to just “do its thing,” I will not sit up from my rest at the end of practice feeling any different than I did when I stood at the top of my mat before I stated to move. I will not have created any shifts in my emotions or settled my thoughts. I will not have connected with my spirit, let alone with the Creator of that spirit. In other words, by not noticing and engaging with the changes my practice reveals about me, I will not be changed by my practice.
The same is true in life. If you’re not tuned in to the little, gradual changes in the world and people around you, you will miss out on opportunities to let life amaze you. You will miss out on chances to let the people you know surprise you. You will miss out on the inevitable progression of time that is your life – and that can be heartbreaking when you realize it’s happened.
While my failure to notice the failure of my showerhead is not even a little heartbreaking, it does mean I missed out on months and months of enjoyable showers. And now that I own “the greatest showerhead of all time,” even that small cost of inattention seems like a crying shame.
Long-haul: a period of years, rather than days, weeks or months. – Cambridge English Dictionary
Here in Philadelphia Eagles country at the start of football season, emotions (at least in my house) are almost more fraught than they were last winter as the Superbowl approached. Last year, as the Eagles won their way through their long season, it was exciting and surprising, but there were absolutely no expectations. Only hope. After all, while the team had periodically had great seasons, they’d never before won a Superbowl.
It turns out being the guys on top rather than the underdogs feels a lot different. As this season gets underway, our city’s excitement is definitely mixed with expectation. And that makes the hope of victory feel, somehow, more stressful.
This type of post-victory experience is not relegated to professional sports. Think about the pressure J.K. Rowling surely felt as she embarked on her first book after her juggernaut Harry Potter series. Or the way M. Night Shyamalan must have felt working on the movie after his out-of-the-blue smash, The Sixth Sense. I know my lawyer husband has felt this way after getting a big win for a client. He describes it being a little harder to get up and go back to work the next morning.
There is no doubt that being on top feels amazing. To reach the pinnacle of what you do leaves you feeling breathless and a little invincible. It’s the inner equivalent of standing on a mountain peak, arms spread wide with a huge grin on your face as you let the thought wash over you – “Victory is mine!”
But life is a long-haul journey. If you’re lucky, that peak you’re standing on is one of many along your way. As every hiker knows, if you climb a peak, you must also climb down. That requirement is perhaps less obvious in life, but it remains true. There are highs and there are lows and none of them last forever. Mostly, there is journey.
Nothing has taught me this lesson more profoundly than working on a challenging posture in my yoga practice. Over the years, the posture that I’m working on has changed a hundred times. What has not changed is that a moment always arrives where I succeed – where I’m standing on the yoga equivalent of a mountain peak or Superbowl podium thinking (sometimes yelling) “Victory is mine!”
What has also not changed is that there is always (sadly, always) a “next morning” when victory is wrenched from my grasp and I am unable to recreate my feat from the previous day or days. Do I throw in the towel or wad up my mat? Nope. I take a deep breath and get back to work. I trust that my practice is a long-haul journey. I rely on my past experience that even the most elusive postures eventually become reliably accessible. I lean on my confidence that my current “failure,” like my earlier “victory,” is but another step in a journey that I very much hope lasts a lifetime.
So I offer this advice to the Eagles, Eagles fans and all of us out there doing what we love:
After you celebrate (and, please, celebrate with all your heart!), hold your victories lightly. Trust that there will be many of them along your way. Know that there will also be setbacks and a few failures. Ups and downs are simply part of your journey. Remember that focusing on past successes can generate the pressure and stress of expectations. Instead, shift your focus to the long-haul. Focus instead on gaining the wisdom of experience, rising to various challenges and stretching toward new goals. When you do, you’ll rediscover the joy of the journey with which you fell in love in the first place.
In short, when we set aside our expectations of specific outcomes, what we’re actually doing is choosing to stay open to surprising developments – such as a Superbowl win, a blockbuster novel or even a yoga posture you never thought you’d get.
Happy travels to you for the long-haul!