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.