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How To Forgive Yourself For Not Getting It All Done

For years, I couldn't stop beating myself up.

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Paige Vickers
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Like many women, I juggle multiple roles and responsibilities — kids, aging parents and work — and my to-do list seems to grow exponentially. No sooner do I cross off one thing (sweet victory!), something else crops up: a pipe bursts, a tooth cracks, the red “engine trouble” light illuminates. It never ends. Trying to finally get that to-do list wiped clean is practically impossible. And trying to keep up leaves me frazzled and frustrated.

One thing I’ve struggled with for years is being too hard on myself. I beat myself up for not “getting it all done” or not “doing it all perfectly” as women tend to do, whether it’s not accomplishing everything on my impossibly long list, starting projects or meeting deadlines — many of which are self-imposed. All that time and energy I wasted by self-flagellation for not completing a task or hitting a goal didn't propel me to do better, either. It made me slide down a black hole of guilt and paralysis.

Therapists recommend speaking to ourselves as we would to a dear friend. I wasn’t doing that. I was like the mean girl on the playground you need to avoid. And that mean girl was living in my head 24/7. Speaking kindly to ourselves is an act of self-compassion. According to studies, self-compassion means “to be caring and understanding with ourselves rather than harshly critical or judgmental … and accepting the fact that we are imperfect. … Self-compassion motivates us to push through difficult challenges and learn from our mistakes.” It’s not surprising that this kind of self-love promotes greater emotional resilience and creates less anxiety and depression.

Loosening the reigns of perfection, putting a muzzle on my inner-mean-girl and learning to go with the flow mean doesn’t mean blowing off deadlines or ignoring responsibilities.

It means I’m aware of my responsibilities, but I’m also human. There are only 24 hours in a day, some of which need to be spent eating, sleeping and, yes, breathing. I can’t function optimally on an empty tank. At least, not for long and then everything suffers.

What I noticed when I stopped the self-flogging and started forgiving myself for not being superwoman was that I felt more confidence and had greater energy and enthusiasm to tackle my projects. Gone was the crippling inertia caused by fear of failing.

Releasing the need to be perfect freed me to be happier and more productive.

According to Wendy Wood, author of Good Habits, Bad Habits, “Backsliding is natural. It’s normal to fail a few times when we are trying to change. We often think that willpower and decision-making will be enough to change. It’s not. Try to arrange your life so that it’s easy to do the new behavior you are trying to make into a habit.” That means setting ourselves up for success, not failure, by not setting the bar so unattainably high. And if we do slip up, give ourselves a gentle pat on the back, say it’s OK and get back to business.

While sometimes a little kick in the pants is good and keeps you on track, self-punishment is not. It makes you feel incapable and overwhelmed, and often creates a cycle of procrastination. So be careful what you say to yourself. Speak to yourself as you would to a best friend: You’re doing just fine, girlfriend. Remember that.