The bewilderment of confusing symptoms, the weeks and months it can take to pin down a coherent diagnosis, the frustration when something disrupts what tenuous balance you’d been able to find in your health the day or week before… no matter which autoimmune disease you are managing, the uncertainty in the healing process can be the most challenging thing about it.
Uncertainty of any kind can be difficult to tolerate, and uncertainty about our health can have devastating effects on our outlook on healing. When I talk with my clients about their conditions, one of the yearnings I hear again and again is the desire to just know what to expect, to have a clear roadmap that they can follow.
Over time, I’ve found that developing trust in what the disease process has to teach us about what our bodies need is as key to healing as any roadmap would be. I’ll explain how below.
We’ve All Got A Little Perfectionist Inside Us
Are you a self-proclaimed perfectionist? I’ve got a theory about perfectionism: we all have a little perfectionist inside us. Some of us self identify that way and see it as a key pillar of our personality. And some of us are totally willing to be imperfect and messy in some areas of our lives, but will die on the hill of Getting It Right in other areas. I believe we all have these areas in our lives, even if we don’t realize it.
Where do you consider yourself a perfectionist? Do you…
- Go to great lengths to keep a clean house
- Eat the ideal diet without faltering
- Always get the optimal amount of sleep, or
- Make sure you’re on time for everything?
One or two or all of the above? Or maybe you’re in the running to win the Most Patient Parent award. Maybe you get your oil changed within the exact mile on the sticker in your windshield every single time. Perhaps you triple check every text message you send to ensure proper grammar and spelling.
No matter whether you outwardly declare yourself a perfectionist or internally strive for perfection without realizing it, we all hold ourselves to impossibly high standards in some areas of our lives. We can identify these areas by asking ourselves where we most fear failure. Somewhere along the way, we picked up the notion that failure or imperfection in certain areas means we are unworthy of love and lack value as people. This concept is reinforced throughout our lives, by messages we pick up from those close to us, cultural norms, and our own self-talk.
I want to make a distinction here between perfectionism (striving for impossibly high standards 100% of the time) and doing things with excellence. To me, the difference really shows in how we deal with failure. When we are doing things with excellence, we consistently work to improve, seek feedback, and forgive ourselves when we don’t measure up. When we are in perfectionist mode, if things don’t go our way, we beat ourselves up, spiral into guilt, and see our performance as proof that we have no worth as a person. It sounds dramatic, but I would be willing to bet that you can relate!
Over the years, I’ve learned that many in the autoimmune community can relate to these concepts all too well. So many of my clients are high achievers in life, accustomed to success and accomplishment as a result of hard work. They believe that if you have a clear road map and expectations and you work hard, you will get the results you want.
They encounter the complete uncertainty of the autoimmune journey—and the stage is perfectly set for some serious turmoil.
It Comes Down to Control
When we get wrapped up in tendencies toward perfectionism, we are buying into the story that displaying mastery means we are worthy of love, acceptance, and recognition. How many times have you said some variation of the following to yourself:
- “If I nail my supplement routine, my skin will be clear and I won’t feel so grossed out when my partner touches me.”
- “When I can get the right amount of sleep, I’ll go back to being the parent I know my kids deserve.”
- “I’m going to get to the gym every day this week and crush my workouts—then I’ll feel good enough to attend the company party on Friday.”
We tell ourselves that by controlling various aspects of our lives to a high degree, we’ll get the outcome that we’re looking for and be worthy of love. I’ve talked about this Have > Do > Be approach before: so often, we focus on what we want to have in our lives and what we need to do to get there, thinking that we will be lovable, happy, healthy, worthy, content, joyful, etc. once we arrive. When we flip the model on its head and approach it from a Be > Do > Have framework, we get to START with how we want to be in our lives, recognizing our power in accessing these ways of being from within. If we uncover our inner state of being lovable, happy, healthy, worthy, content, and joyful, then what we do and the results we have flow from there. (Read one client’s story for an example that’s common in my health coaching practice.)
I see my clients spend a lot of time on the hamster wheel chasing the Have > Do > Be (like a perfectionist junky looking for her next dopamine hit from false sense of control and certainty) and the results are clear: they keep themselves on alert, always anxious and looking out for the next opportunity for failure, thus activating stress hormones and exacerbating their symptoms. This is the cycle of the perfection addict. And, in hindsight, it is clear how years of stress and anxiety in attempt to outplay failure and prove worthiness end with an overactive nervous system and taxed immune system, leading to an autoimmune diagnosis. It is no surprise that perfectionism is a risk factor for autoimmune disease, and a powerful barrier in experiencing wellness post diagnosis.
Shift Away from Perfectionism to Jump Start Healing
There is a huge opportunity within autoimmune disease to work through our habituated habits of perfectionism—and the bonus is, your body will give you feedback! When we surrender our notion of control and recenter our focus on ways of being, we get to set down the stress of always aiming for mastery and perfection. The inflammation generated by release of stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline subsides, and we get to settle into our bodies without demanding they be different.
We get to hang up the black-and-white, perfection-or-failure mindset that so often runs us and trust the body to let us know what it needs. My clients consistently tell me that when they reframe their symptoms as powerful messages from their bodies and have trust in themselves, they have a much easier time figuring out their next steps to support their healing. We don’t have to fight against the body to experience healing—we get to uncover our inner power with curiosity and self love to discover a new level of transformation and deep healing. And we learn that trust, surrender, and worthiness (even in the messy, uncertain stages marked by failure and discomfort) are more powerful than fighting, rejecting, and controlling.
When we give ourselves and our bodies permission to be imperfect and know deep down that we are enough, being sloppy or messy in some areas of life can be a huge relief. That kind of authenticity is a gift to everyone around you, because it gives them permission to be imperfect, too.
The process of unlearning rigidity and control and perfectionism is truly lifelong. Tell me—what lessons have you learned lately about letting go of perfectionism? What healing have you experienced as a result?
You are describing my experience exactly in this post. I have actually googled “perfectionism and autoimmune disease” recently because I suspect that AI issues may be more prevalent in perfectionists! (But no one has studied this). Daily meditation and a mindfulness practiced have allowed me to notice when I’m engaging in unhealthy behaviors so I can modify them. For me perfectionism is tightly interwoven with people pleasing. So setting up boundaries and saying no has been key in my healing journey.
Yes! You nailed it! This is so true! I’m finally, at 35, not obsessing about my body or my food or my exercise every day. I had to realize I only have so much energy and it’s not best spent on some of the things I’m “supposed” to do (like exercise) and is better spent on what actually needs to be done (caring for my family and myself in other ways). And so many things got easier. But I still have stuff I DO obsess about. We’re not done until it’s over. God’s not finished yet!