Every few weeks, on a night that I can’t make it to the gym, I hit “play” on a yoga video that friends and I used to do together in graduate school. It’s a fairly good workout, and it helps me relax. For those of you who aren’t familiar with yoga, while it focuses on poses and stretching and balance, yoga also teaches a philosophy of self-acceptance and awareness. Instructors tend to provide some type of life lesson along with the movements. Sometimes, especially when they’re on tape, these can come off a bit cheesy – as is the case in this video, when the instructor says “strive for progress, not perfection”.
Yeah, right – easy to say for her as she effortlessly bends like a pretzel and I struggle to reach my toes. You can’t help but feel a bit frustrated when you aren’t able to do something as well as you would like, especially when you’ve been working very diligently on that “something”. Our culture has taught us that perfection is not only real and attainable, but necessary in order to feel fulfilled. When we set our sights on a goal, we want to reach it quickly and completely – we want to be the absolute best at it. And once we reach a level of success, we don’t give ourselves permission to be anything less from now on. But what we often fail to realize is that perfection is elusive – it’s an unattainable ideal that exists more clearly in our minds than in reality.
I believe that we can fall into this trap in many areas of our lives, exhausting ourselves and expecting to get everything right. But today I’d like to talk about how this idea of “perfection” has the potential to interfere with our progress in therapy. I believe that people choose to go to therapy because their visions of their ideal lives are different from their perceived realities. Therapy becomes a place to change, grow, and reach the personal goals that they hold most dear in their lives. Therapy is in fact a place where all of these things can happen, and it is a wonderful and challenging step for someone to take.
If you’ve been in therapy for a while, my hope is that you’ve gained some significant insight into your life and the life of your partner and/or family members who may have come with you, and that this insight has translated into a feeling of growth and change for you. You may feel as though you can communicate more effectively, share your feelings more openly, or have regained a stronger connection. You may look back upon your life just before you began therapy and notice just how far you’ve come, and never want to go back to that place.
And then one day, you’re there. You’re stressed out, angry, and seem unable to access the skills and insight that you’ve gained in therapy. You notice this, and you might worry that you’re falling back to that place – a fear might wash over you that it was all in vain. I’m here to tell you, though, that your journey is and always will be a work in progress. While it is important to notice those times that you feel you’ve fallen backward into old habits and feelings, it is also important to notice the positive progress that you’ve made. Maybe one day you feel as though you’re in that old place, but how many days has it been since you last felt like you were there? Are one or two or even three days out of a month in that hard place better than every day out of a month? Absolutely.
The truth is that no amount of therapy will ever allow you to reach a state of perfection. We’re human beings with wonderfully complex lives that take us to unimaginable places. Giving yourself permission to have some hard days, even some that take you back to an old place, is an invaluable way to show yourself compassion and love. My hope is that after those days, you can look back upon all of your hard work and realize that you’ve gained the skills and insight that you needed to bring you back to a good place, realizing the progress you’ve made. The ability to show yourself love by doing this will only strengthen your resolve to continue working on your journey. Perhaps remembering the phrase “strive for progress, not perfection” can help you with this.
If you do feel as though you’re sliding backward into old and difficult ways of feeling or interacting with others overall, and you’re having trouble getting things back on track, it’s important to discuss this with your therapist and/or revisit therapy if you’ve taken a break from it. Our struggles – like our lives – are fluid and ever-changing, and sometimes revisiting our challenges can bring us new and greater insight and help us to become even stronger versions of ourselves.
Wishing you the feeling of progress, and the compassion of accepting the imperfections along the way.