When I was fourteen, my therapist told me I had a homework assignment to do: fail a test at school.
I know some of you might be thinking, “Sounds great, permission to not study granted!”
But I’m someone who lovingly calls herself a “recovering perfectionist.” Failure of any kind was simply unthinkable, and in a time where my identity was solely centered around my academic achievements, it was unacceptable.
Truth be told, I never failed that test like she wanted me to. And I probably lied and told her I did it, because I wanted to be the perfect therapy patient, too. I continued to struggle with perfectionism that presented itself in every facet of my life: school, my eating disorder, even my recovery.
What clicked for me was yoga. It was the only space where practicing “failure” was...safe. Fun, even. It felt like playing when I fell out of a handstand or stumbled out of a pose, and my teachers encouraged it with enthusiasm and love. After years of competitive sports and competitive academia, it was revolutionary to practice something where there simply was no “perfect” to strive for.
As a teacher, it fills my heart to see students who once came in asking me how to do the poses “the right way” and becoming visually upset when they’d fall out of a shape now laughing and smiling their way through class. It fills my heart because I was that student, and in many ways, I’m still that student. Still learning how to fail and find peace in the process of it all.
Looking back, if I try to find the root of this persistent perfectionism, another common theme arises: shame.
I definitely felt a lot of shame in the thick of my eating disorder: shame about my body, about how I was isolating myself, about how it affected those around me. But what I don’t hear people talk about nearly as often is the shame you can experience in recovery.
Recovery included its own forms of shame. I felt shame about how much space I was taking up, both as my body grew stronger and as I needed more time, resources, and attention in order to heal. I felt shame because I felt like I now needed to admit that I was “wrong,” that I had messed up in an unimaginably impactive way. And I felt shame because I was now carrying around the stigma of being mentally ill: something that, at least in my community at the time, was more associated with “crazy people” than it was with “average teenage girl.”
Even years into my recovery, in a space that feels far lighter and filled with liberation, I still experience shame. I feel ashamed of the ways I’ve hurt my body, ashamed of the things I said and did at the low points of my life. Even ashamed of my own shame: shouldn’t I know to be compassionate by now? To not blame myself for an illness that lies in my genes and in my history?
And then there’s the shame that whispers in the voices of those around me, a manifestation of my ego outside my body. When I turn down a dessert at a party of my own volition (no longer at the behest of my disorder), a voice in the back of my mind says, “They probably think you’re restricting right now.” Or when I turn up to the gym excited to work out and go all-out that day, the voice whispers, “They probably think you’re over-exercising right now.”
In all likelihood, of course, no one is as aware of my recovery as I am. If I’m away at school or somewhere new, it’s more than likely that no one even knows I ever had an eating disorder. And yet, my own insecurities and fears about what recovery means and looks like in my own unique context are projected onto those around me.
At one point or another, we all experience shame. Perhaps in the context of recovery, like me, or in other ways. But it’s a part of the human experience, which makes me trust that there’s some growth to be found in it.
You see, even though I still confront it from time to time, I know that shame limits our ability to generate change from a space of love. It paralyzes us, holds us captive in the mistakes that we make because we are human. It stops us from taking the actions that are so needed in the pursuit of radical self-love, equality, and healing.
A quote from You Are Here by Thich Nhat Hanh comes to mind when thinking about responding to shame:
Anger is like a howling baby, suffering and crying. The baby needs his mother to embrace him. You are the mother for your baby, your anger. The moment you begin to practice breathing mindfully in and out, you have the energy of a mother, to cradle and embrace the baby. Just embracing your anger, just breathing in and breathing out, that is good enough. The baby will feel relief right away.
A natural reaction to shame, at least in my experience, is to attack it and try to beat it back down into submission. I tend to see it as something that must be stifled and tucked back away out of sight, not as something to be cradled and cared for. And while I don’t have much experience with kids, I have been one and observed one thing: yelling at an upset child doesn’t solve a problem. Offering them a hug, putting aside your own frustration at their emotional response to console them in even explosive anger, can make an incredible difference.
When I feel shame arise, I try to replace the typical accusatory, “Why am I doing this again?” with, “What do I need right now?”
Not once have I responded to that question with, “Oh, what I really need right now is to berate myself in my head about how this is my fault. That will really make me feel better.”
Asking this question has, however, lead to hopping on my mat to connect breath with movement and shift my energy. It’s led to turning off my phone and opening up a good book. It’s led to sitting down and writing without pressure to perform or share what’s produced. It’s led to taking a hot shower and making a cup of tea. It’s led to gentleness that, to be honest, does not come naturally to me.
I grew up in an internal whirlwind of perfectionism fueled by shame. It bred a nature of harsh rigidity: my natural response to most things is to try and “fix” the problem, to find an error and correct it, to persist beyond the point of fatigue. The practice of softening into shame in order to release it is incredibly fresh and awkward at this point in my life, like learning how to walk again.
This journey always brings me back to the mat, back to the yoga practice that has already fueled so much growth for me. I teach what I most need to learn, encouraging playfulness and falling down every once in awhile. I read the texts and listen to my teachers speak about aparigraha and ahimsa. I self-study on my mat, reflecting on how these themes arise on my mat and in my life. And unique to this facet of my life- so different from the realm of academia or the trenches of my disorder- is the freedom from perfection in this process of unlearning perfection. This practice is just that: consistent practice over time. Healing slowly, tenderly, actively.
All in due time. I trust.