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The Power of Aiming for Progress, Not Perfection, in Life With Chronic Illness

If you’re living with a health condition, you may constantly hear about the importance of “progress over perfection” — to the point where it may even feel cliché. But if you constantly worry that you’re not doing enough in life with your condition, compare yourself against your able-bodied friends, or strive for perfection in every area of your life, noticing and celebrating your progress can help you more fully accept yourself and your capabilities.

Life with a health condition can be messy and unpredictable — which can make perfection a tempting but impossible goal.  When your health rapidly changes from your “baseline” to a “hard day” to “feeling your best,” you may want to hold onto those “good days” for as long as you can and try to put the state of your health entirely in your control.  Unfortunately, though, there are so many physiological and mental factors that influence your health that while you can make some lifestyle choices that may improve life with your medical condition, those days when you function at your “peak” may not be sustainable for long stretches of time — and that’s OK.

Although it may sting to see your able-bodied, neurotypical friends living their lives in a way that’s not as much dictated by their physical or mental state as yours might be, striving for that type of “perfection” in your life with a health condition may cause burnout and amplify the effects of your symptoms. Instead of constantly focusing on doing the most you can, acknowledge the pain of not knowing what your health will look like from day to day, and look at your overall trajectory. You may have days when you feel well and accomplish your goals, days when you struggle, and every type of day in between, but if you’re making progress in terms of adapting to your symptoms, learning new ways of thinking and accepting yourself as you are, you’re succeeding in life.

In life with any type of health condition, emphasizing progress over perfection can help you become more in-tune with your strengths and abilities. Maybe you can’t seem to muster up the energy to get the dishes done, but you successfully calmed yourself after a panic attack in a way you couldn’t just last month. Maybe you’ve noticed yourself struggling physically, so you made yourself an appointment with a specialist instead of pushing through pain and discomfort.  Maybe you found yourself crying after a rough therapy session, but you know you had an important breakthrough that will ultimately help you. And maybe you’re implementing lifestyle changes that don’t look like the changes in your friends’ lives but that help you better manage your health. If you’re making progress in terms of your health or self-acceptance, you’re setting yourself up for a more fulfilling life — which can be far more rewarding than trying to force yourself into “perfect” health.

Your health isn’t static, so holding yourself up to an arbitrary standard of perfection may make you constantly feel like you’re never measuring up to the person you aspire to be.  When you focus on the progress you’re making and celebrate the small victories in life with your health condition, though, you may feel like you genuinely love where you are in your life — not where you could be.

Getty image by Brian A. Jackson.