I’m bad at running. When I say bad, I mean it has taken me months to consistently run more than two miles at a pace of 10+ minutes per mile. Nearly every time I lace up my sneakers, I feel a shot of fear and my brain frantically sends terrible messages like “This is not fun! You will be in pain soon; you will hate this!” If I’m not careful with my stretching, I can require medical treatment just from trying to put in ten miles in a week. I’m not fast, I can’t run long distances, and my body reminds me it must have very specific conditions in place for it to subject itself to some pavement pounding.
I am also right-hand dominant. So dominant, in fact, that a massage therapist recently commented that the muscle tissue of my upper body is dramatically more developed on the right than on the left. Sometimes while absent-mindedly doing house chores, and I look down to see my left hand curled into a claw–so uninvolved in the task that it shriveled up. My left hand has the fine-motor skills of a toddler, and I can’t think of one task I ask it to do apart from typing or carrying things.
Yet, I sign up for 5K races and for the past two months I’ve been brushing my teeth with my left hand.
Why? Because I think it’s important for me to do things that I am not good at. I think it’s really important for me to experience struggle and failure in small ways on a daily basis.
That answer is more complex.
I am a recovering perfectionist. For most of my life, I avoided any activity where I couldn’t predict to win, dominate, receive praise, or deliver shock-and-awe with my product or performance. Failure was avoided at all costs, and my confidence depended on me living up to some pretty unrealistic expectations. I was hard on myself and therefore others. I lived in constant fear that I would look stupid.
My sister can attest to this. A fearless little gymnast, she would regularly hurl her body through time and space in a way that left me wanting to curl up and disappear. When we were kids, she spent months convincing me just to do cartwheels. I knew I would break something and look dumb trying.
This perfectionist approach carried into my early 20’s where in college I sacrificed fun experiences to pursue a perfect 4.0. It was during my junior year and during a study abroad experience in Australia where I began to recognize some of my misplaced priorities. Their cultural norms pushed me to think differently about how to define a successful life.
As I entered a master’s program in my mid 20s, I strategized ways to counter the damaging perfectionist tendencies I had begun to recognize. For every course, I told myself that the goal was not an A; it was a solid B (allowing me to keep my financial assistance). I also allowed myself one skip week. Since it was agonizing to half-ass any assignment, I found it more liberating to skip some activities altogether. Instead of stress and grades, I would choose relationships, self-care, or even indulgence one week of every course. Practicing intentional imperfection and loving myself through those choices was the start of a recovery that I believe will take a lifetime.
To continue to battle perfectionism, I find things in my personal life that I know I will not excel, will not win awards, and will likely see those around me succeeding in ways I will not. I find those things and then I engage in them intentionally and regularly. I leap into the mire of struggle where the rewards are internal and my satisfaction comes simply from participation.
Running has become one of these activities. I celebrate every time I start and every time I finish. I forgive myself when my splits are slow, when I walk during a race, or when feel my legs turn to lead. Running is struggle, and I’m competing only against the inertia of my perfectionism. Every time I start, I’ve won. Every time I finish I’ve won. Every time I smile in the middle, I’ve earned a gold star.
In battling perfectionism, I’ve also tried to adopt a growth mindset–trying new things that feel awkward, believing that I can learn and will get better. The cliché: “It’s not the destination, but the journey” comes to mind when I think about this growth mindset approach.
Enter brushing my teeth with my left hand. Feels awkward, I look ridiculous, and both of those things are the point. Over time though, I have improved. Also the point.
Professionally, both running and awkward teeth brushing represent my more recent commitment to learning empathy. If I only ever engage in activities where I am confident, how will I understand the perspective of a student who struggles to express herself through writing? Writing has always come naturally to me, and I have a lot of practice. It’s difficult to empathize with the struggle to write if I can’t draw on my own experiences with struggle in other areas. I need regular experiences that jar me out of my comfort zone and put me in unfamiliar territory. These experiences allow me to choose a growth mindset, reject messages of perfectionism, and build memories for me to grow in empathy.
I also learn so much about empathy through the modeling of my friends and colleagues who help me in my struggles. By running at my pace and celebrating at the finish, my friends show me the joy in prioritizing relationships over medals they could easily have won.
So this month it’s running and left-handed teeth brushing. Next month who knows. But I’m committed to a life-long recovery from perfectionism. I’m committed to choosing a growth mindset, and practicing empathy whenever I’m presented with the opportunity. And when I fail, I’m also committed to forgiving myself.
I control my gold stars, and I’m up for an award soon. Prepare to cheer for the accomplished ambidextrous tooth brusher.