Searching through the bathroom drawer for an elastic to braid my daughter’s hair, I glance in the mirror without thinking. Out of habit, I pause to inspect the reflection.
My eyes fall first on my waistline, which is thicker than it was six months ago. I turn to the side and stand up tall, sucking in to see if my posture makes any difference. It helps, but not enough. I hike up my pants a bit to cover the extra bulge below my belly button and above my hips. Just suck it in, I tell myself harshly.
Maybe no one else can see the difference these extra pounds make, I reason. But the change is obvious to me. I see the way my clothes don’t fit the same, if they fit at all. I feel the way my stomach rolls over my pants, the way my jeans pull tight around my thighs, the way I just can’t get comfortable in my clothes or in my skin.
What I see in the mirror is a girl who is not what I want her to be. And I blame her for it.
I criticize her for failing to discipline herself enough to keep from gaining weight, for not exercising more or eating less or cutting out wine and sugar.
I reprimand her because I want her to try harder, to stay in control even when the world spins in chaos all around.
I judge her for looking more like the overweight girl she used to be, the one who hated herself and feared there would never be anyone who could love her or her body.
What I see in the mirror reflects a lifelong struggle with perfectionism that constantly tells me I should be better.
Exhaling disappointment, I force myself to leave the bathroom and feign cheerfulness while my hands weave Brooklynn’s hair into braids. Inside, I’m spinning. Old neural pathways quickly find their way through my brain, triggering self-condemnation that’s painfully familiar.
My thoughts spin out of control even though I know better. I know I’m healthy; my weight is within the recommended range, my fitness level is more than adequate. But my struggle defies logic.
What I see in the mirror is not based on reality, but on the impossibly high yardstick I’ve created to measure my worth.
Someone asked me recently, “What does gentleness toward yourself look like right now?” I balked at the question, caught off guard. Tears welled quickly in my eyes as I realized painfully that I don’t know how to be gentle toward myself. I didn’t know that was allowed.
Perfectionism helped me survive the first half of my life, and it’s hard to unlearn. Pushing myself to always work harder, move faster, and be better allowed me to achieve academically, compete athletically, and succeed professionally.
But it also created an unrealistic standard for me to attain. I could never be smart enough, strong enough, or thin enough to feel like I was enough.
How I feel when I look in the mirror reminds me that perfectionism isn’t working for me anymore. It keeps me bound up by unrealistic expectations, wasting away my life by wishing for what I’ll never become.
Freedom from self-condemnation starts by giving myself permission to be human. It means allowing my faith to infiltrate my actual thinking, choosing to trust that I am loved just as I am, not as I think I should be.
Fighting back against perfectionism starts by practicing gentleness with myself. Key word: practice. Maybe you could use some practice too?
How to Practice Gentleness:
Be realistic about your expectations.
Maybe this isn’t the time of your life to do all the things you used to do or want to do someday. Can you train for a marathon? Maybe not right now. But can you run or walk a couple miles (or a handful of minutes) a couple days a week? That’s enough. Being honest about your energy, time, and motivation sets you up for small, frequent wins instead of self-perceived failure.
Accept that seasons come and go.
I’m not a collegiate athlete anymore, and life is limited with kids learning from home. My body, and yours, will change as seasons change, and that’s normal and okay. Prioritizing your health looks different now than it did last year, and it will look different again next year. Today, you’re doing the best you can, and it’s enough.
Do what you can to stay healthy.
I know I need to break a sweat most days, but not to lose weight. A walk or a run or a dance class helps me release tension, inspires creativity, and it gives me ammunition to fight against the lies in my head. But on the days when I can’t find time or my body needs rest, I remember that health is a lifelong journey and not a test I can pass or fail.
Practice the discipline of telling yourself a different story.
I’m awkwardly repeating to myself the words I pray Brooklynn accepts for herself as she grows: “You are enough, just as you are.” I don’t believe it yet, but that’s okay. What do you need to hear? Practice saying it aloud, no matter how you feel. With enough practice, you’ll start believing it.
Looking back at this season when a global pandemic knocked the collective breath out of us, I want to say that I’m different on the other side. The truth is, I may wear a different size than I used to. But I hope my insides change even more than my appearance.
May we give ourselves permission to practice becoming more gentle with ourselves. It just might change what we see in the mirror.