“Mei-Mei, do you want more cereal?” I asked, during one of our usual hurry-or-we’re-going-to-be-late-but-don’t-rush-eat-properly school day mornings.
“Mmmuhhmmhuh,” I heard, as she faced the back porch where a squirrel had skittered across.
“Mmmuhhumhuh,” I heard again. Was her mouth full of food, or did I need my hearing checked?
“Mei-Mei! Do you want more cereal, YES or NO?”
“I said yes!”
“Mei, you need to actually say, yes or no, and face people when you speak, so they can actually understand you. It’s how we show respect. Got it?”
“What did I just say?”
“Answer yes or no and face you when I talk.”
…Minutes pass, coffee, cereal, packing lunch… “Mei, do you want applesauce in your lunch?”
I’ll admit I lost it a little just then. We just had this conversation, no? How many times do I have to say it (this was not the first)? I managed to not make her feel too bad, but frustration loomed over us both as we lugged our backpacks out the door. In the car she mused, “Sometimes I think people expect me to be perfect.” Ouch. How nice of her to couch it in general terms to spare my feelings. After acknowledging that ‘people’ in fact included me, she gave another example. “My teacher, Mrs. Blank, says nobody’s perfect, but then she gets mad when we do things wrong.” What’s up with that?
I know I’m not perfect, and I get mad at myself when I make mistakes—the self-talk can be downright abusive at times. My patients know they are not perfect, and I witness how they shame themselves over their unhealthy habits. How exhausting and unnecessary. None of us should be this hard on ourselves. And we still need to reconcile our behavior: If we’re not aiming for perfection, then what? Why bother, what is the goal? How do we move on from our mistakes?
After a particularly dismal volleyball practice my freshman year in high school, I thought for sure they would kick me off the team. At 5’2” and more of a math nerd than an athlete, I considered it a miracle that I got to play at all, and I felt I had to prove my worthiness again every day. The varsity coach, Bubba, gave me the best possible gift in these words: “Bring what ya got.” Every day, just do your best. Some days will be better than others, and as long as you bring what you have and offer it humbly, nobody can ask any more of you. You are worthy already, and you can still work hard toward improvement—of skills, teamwork, self. Wow, you mean you won’t throw me away if I have one hard day (week, month, year, life)? How comforting, how liberating!
I said some fumbling version of this as we pulled up to the school that morning. “Just do your best, try to remember why we do these things,” or something like that. I didn’t want her to feel bad about herself all day because of one mistake, or worse, feel that it would somehow cost her my love. I’m grateful for the reminder. When I see shame in my patients’ faces, having lost no weight and with cholesterol numbers as high as ever, I can remember that we’re all just doing our best every day. What got in the way? What do they need to reset and restart?
How can I help?
What a fine line we must learn to tread: expecting more of ourselves and pushing toward self-improvement, yet also realistically accepting our limitations and championing our smaller victories. I find it helpful to look for the true reason I avoid something, and when I’m being completely honest with myself, if that reason has to do with fear, as opposed to lack of interest or a mental or physical limitation, then I know that it’s a case where I will need to dig deeper for motivation and push myself. This is especially hard with your own kids. You know that they are capable of more, but they may not know it yet. How to gently encourage, without pushing too hard. It is definitely tricky.
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Me again. 😉 Your questions at the end of your piece have been bouncing around in my head (I’m off this wk on staycation, so have leisure time for background thinking as I do other things!) Here’s what I’ve got: When it comes to self-improvement, of any type, what are your personal goals? Then, what are the fantastic things about you that will help you reach your goals? When it comes to health, for example, I have a very personal goal. A very dear family member, who has since passed, was able to get down on the floor and play with her great-grandkids. When I saw that, I immediately thought, I want to do that when I’m her age! And my unique trait that will help me get there? I loved playing on the floor with my siblings, then my own kids: Leggos, cars, Little People houses, puzzles, etc. I know I will love doing that with future generations too. So I try to keep that mental picture in mind as I make daily choices that will affect my health.
Thank you so much for your thoughtful comments! This reminds me of Simon Sinek’s philosophy of ‘knowing your why.’ I wonder if you’re already familiar with him? He has two amazing TED talks (http://www.ted.com/search?q=simon+sinekj), and I recently read his first book, _Start With Why_. I’m listening to his second, _Leaders Eat Last_, now. I have a great interest in the intersection of leadership and health–people in positions of authority lead by example, whether they want to or not. Their personal health (and other) choices are so visible and impact those they lead. In my work I try to make leaders more aware and mindful of this, while I try to practice myself. It’s really fun! And you’re so right, keeping our ‘why’ in mind can really help us make consistent choices that align with our core values and goals. 🙂
You are welcome. I am not familiar with Simon Sinek and will definitely look up his work – thanks! The “intersection of leadership and health”…I like that and can see the value there.
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Over the years, I’ve come to think of “perfection” as an artificial construct: possible to achieve, perhaps, but impossible to maintain. By its very nature, perfection is static. If it could be achieved, it never could be maintained — at least not by any living creature. Perfection inevitably begins to slide into imperfection, unless measures are taken to whomp the life out of it.
I remember the “living rooms” of the 1950s and 1960s particularly. My mother’s was perfect — if white carpeting,a white silk shantung sofa and elegant decorations counted as perfection. But we couldn’t go in there, because we might, for example, leave footprints in the carpeting. No evidence of life allowed!
Better, perhaps, to appreciate perfect moments, the perfect pie, a moment of perfect understanding. If we see perfection as an occasional gift to be received rather than a goal to be achieved, how different would the world be?
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You wrote so beautifully about this in your post about your cataract surgery. The last part of your comment speaks to me about mindfulness and gratitude–two excellent traits to cultivate for a peaceful and fulfilling life! 😊
This has always been like me. I have always been an overachiever in all aspects of my life. I used to do competitive sports, I had to get the best grades, be the best girlfriend, daughter, friend, etc. It has always been a struggle being able to let go and allow yourself to not be perfect as well as be allowed to accept that. Thank you for the reminder!
Thank you, ‘Marie’! It’s hard for overachievers like us to venture out into new territories, where not only is success not guaranteed, but ‘failure’ is inevitable! I put ‘failure’ in quotations because it reminds me to think carefully about how I define the word. Just because something I try does not turn out the way I intended does not make it a failure, necessarily. So, let’s take this blogging journey together–there will be fantastic posts and some worthy of compost! Since I started a few months ago, I have found this community to be overwhelmingly welcoming and kind. What a nice place to try out something new! 🙂
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Yes! All we can do is be willing to observe ourselves with curious compassion. I wonder where that thought/behavior/feeling came from? And if we’re very lucky, we might be able to ask others those questions. Thank you for being one of the lucky.
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Ah, wonderful words of wisdom and kindness in this post. I wish you were my doctor~ how fortunate your patients are! I constantly berate myself, and I notice that when I do that I am prone to do it to others as well. Thank you for the gentle reminder.
Thank you, Melissa! Self awareness is humbling, huh? …When others show me compassion and patience, if I notice, it reminds me to do the same. The key is to notice, so let’s celebrate when we do!! It’s a sign of awareness, and the more we can be aware, the more peacefully we can all live. 😊
You are right Catherine. There is so much more power to hurt others, these days, so awareness and peacefulness are all the more important.
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