“I define depression as a comparison of your current reality to a fantasy about how you wish your life would be.” ~Dr. John Demartini
I always wanted to do things “right.” I was the little kid at the front of the room, raising her hand for every question. I was great at pushing myself to succeed and please.
My drive to be perfect was an asset through college and law school. I rocked high grades and landed a big firm job right out of school. But that same drive drove me right into a therapist’s office at twenty-five, where I was diagnosed with severe depression.
Then just like any good perfectionist, I drove myself harder to overcome the depression, to be more perfect. I Cookie Monstered personal growth, intensely gobbling up books, lectures, retreats, and coaching.
Have you ever been cruising along, then suddenly realized you’ve been going the wrong way for a while?
When I had suicidal thoughts in my thirties after giving birth to my daughter, my intense drive came to a screeching halt. My desire to be perfect had driven me into a deep and scary postpartum depression.
My thoughts were no longer mine, and for the first time in my life I was afraid of what was happening in my head. Something had to shift.
So I went on a new journey, one designed to find out (for real this time) how to reduce the daily suffering that I knew I was causing myself. What I learned shifted my entire life. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Let me walk you through my journey. Maybe you can discover something about yourself along the way.
To Motivate or To Berate—That is the Question
Like all good journeys, mine starts with a hero (me) and a villain (my inner critic voice). Now, that “little voice” for me was not little at all. It was more like the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man in Ghostbusters, the mean one with the scary eyes.
One day I decided to turn toward my Mean Marshmallow Man Voice and ask it questions. Why must I be perfect? Why are you always criticizing me?
“Because you’re not perfect.” It said, with a booming voice. “You’re not…” and then it went on to list about 2,000 things that I was failing to do, be, say, or accomplish.
But this time, when I pictured all of these 2,000 things, I started to imagine the person who would actually have done all of those things. Who would this person be, this perfect version of me? Let’s name her Perfect Lauren.
Well, let’s see. Perfect Lauren would never let the clothes on her floor pile up, or the mail go unread. Perfect Lauren wouldn’t spend hours watching The Walking Dead or surfing Facebook. Perfect Lauren would work out every day, in the morning, before work.
Perfect Lauren would eat extremely well and would skip Starbucks, no matter how much she loved Salted Carmel Mochas. Perfect Lauren would have a perfect meditation practice every day.
I saw my entire life flash before my eyes, one long comparison to Perfect Lauren and one long failure to measure up. Did I assume that with enough self-abuse, one day I would become Perfect Lauren? One day I would finally be this fantasy super mom who would always “have it together”?
Suddenly I realized that my immense drive, the one that had allowed me to be so successful, was not a drive toward the happiness I wanted. I was not driving toward anything at all. I was driving away from something.
I drove myself to avoid feeling shame, self-criticism, and self-hate. I drove myself to please the Mean Marshmallow Man Voice. I drove myself to avoid hating myself.
Why do you do things? Do you exercise, eat right, study, or work hard because you love yourself and want good for yourself? Or do you do these things to avoid shame and self-criticism?
I had spent my entire life motivating myself with negativity. And I was now paying the price.
Why It’s Hard to Change
Once I realized how much I compared myself to Perfect Lauren, I tried to stop. It seems simple. Just stop doing it.
But when I tried too hard, I kept getting stuck in this Dr. Seuss-like spiral of hating myself for trying to not hate myself. My former coach used to call that a “double bind,” because you’re screwed either way.
For me to finally learn how to change this, I first had to ask myself…why? And yes, I know that I’m starting to sound like Yoda, but follow me here.
Why did I need to compare myself to Perfect Lauren? Why did it matter? When I pulled at the thread, I found the sad truth.
I compare myself to Perfect Lauren because somewhere deep in my mind I believe that Perfect Lauren gets the love. Real Lauren doesn’t. So I must constantly push myself to be Perfect Lauren, never accepting Real Lauren.
Okay, that sounds ridiculous. When you highlight a belief, sometimes it can look like a big dog with shaved fur, all shriveled and silly. I don’t believe that at all.
I believe the Lauren that leaves clothes on the floor and loses the toothpaste cap deserves love! The Lauren who hates to unload the dishwasher and loses bills in a pile of mail, she deserves love too!
How to Transform Self-Criticism
Have you ever looked endlessly for something and then realized it was sitting right in front of your face? It turns out that the solution to my self-criticism and comparison was actually pretty simple—start loving myself more.
Now loving Real Lauren, with all faults, is not easy. But I’m trying.
Instead of pushing myself with shame, hatred, and self-criticism, I am learning to motivate myself with praise. Instead of threatening myself, I am pumping myself up.
And this has changed everything. I actually get more done using positive motivation. And more importantly, I feel better about what I get done. I’m happier, calmer, and feel more at peace with my life.
If you want to shift your own self-criticism and free yourself from the tyranny of your Mean Marshmallow Man, stop trying to fix yourself and start trying to love yourself.
Here is a practical way to implement this into your life:
The next time you notice that you are criticizing yourself or comparing yourself to Perfect You, stop. Hit the pause button in your head.
Next, say, “Even though I… I love and accept all of myself.” So, for me today, “Even though I shopped on Zulily instead of writing this blog post, I love and accept all of myself.”
Now imagine that you’re giving yourself a hug, internally. Try to generate a feeling of self-compassion.
When you do this regularly, you will start to notice what I noticed. Love and self-compassion can shift even the strongest negative thoughts and emotions and allow you to enjoy more of your life.
And that’s the real goal here, isn’t it? If we keep driving ourselves using self-criticism, we will never be happy, no matter how perfect we are, because we won’t enjoy the process. We won’t enjoy the journey.
I believe that the happiest people in life aren’t the ones with the least baggage. They are just the ones who learned to carry it better so that they can enjoy the ride.
The more we generate self-compassion and love, the easier perfectionism and self-criticism will be to carry. And the easier it will be for us to love and enjoy this beautiful and amazing journey called life.
Depressed woman image via Shutterstock