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How Perfectionism Can Poison Progress After a Brain Injury

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Have you ever heard the saying “perfect is the enemy of the good?” This truism is never truer than when recovering from a brain injury. Unsurprisingly, many people who have a stroke, concussion, or traumatic brain injury describe themselves as “type A” personalities. Shocker, I know. However, perfectionism can be a huge barrier to progress.

At first, the perfectionist personality trait really helps the recovery process. These survivors attack their exercises with a superhuman zeal. They can keep this up for several weeks, ignoring everything else in their lives and focusing completely on their recovery. This is like the honeymoon phase of therapy. Every session is exciting and you are healing rapidly in those first few months. Visible healing is always nice and it starts this great momentum, but then it slows. Sessions become more arduous as your limiting beliefs start to take hold and you get into your disability process as well as your healing process. What this means to a perfectionist is “it has been a year and I thought I would be better by now.” Does this sound familiar?

A disability process is a lifelong journey of discovering limitations and deciphering when to challenge or accept these limits. Working hard, becoming very focused on your goals and attacking challenges in your life is not perfectionism. I think these things tend to get conflated, but true perfectionism often results in procrastination and paralysis. The perfectionist discards the process mindset in exchange for a results mindset that does not fit with the disability experience. It doesn’t mean you don’t try hard. It means you try hard as hell without immediate results.

The perfectionist in rehabilitation often burns bright in the beginning and then flames out fairly quickly, as a result of these four bad habits:

  • Intense focus on the time frame of their healing.
  • Inability to integrate former and current self.
  • Lack of mental flexibility
  • Lack of self-compassion

Putting a timeframe on your recovery and measuring your progress daily is akin to watching water transform from room temperature to boiling. Your focus does not make it boil faster. Let your doctor and therapist worry about arbitrary degrees for insurance reimbursement. You do not have to immerse yourself in the weeds. You have enough to worry about and it is more than a little frustrating to watch the needle move five degrees forward and ten degrees back. Recovery is not linear and time is a linear measurement.

Integrating your former and current self is a topic worthy of a lengthy novel, but for the sake of my attention span and yours, I will get to the point. I am not a fan of the “new normal.” It isn’t about forgetting who you were before your accident, but embracing yourself more fully and integrating some of the challenges and benefits of your current situation. Yes, benefits; you can learn the value of your life, who your friends are and rise above the BS of poor priorities.

The disability experience has long shadows, but it sheds light too. Mental flexibility is key to enjoying the life you almost lost and progressing into the life you want. However, it can be very hard to achieve. Sometimes as a result of the part of your brain that was injured and sometimes as a result of clinging to what your recovery “should be,” it can seem impossible. Maybe you thought if you worked single-mindedly on this one task it would become easier, but thousands of new barriers emerged. Tackle those barriers; make that other task a long term goal. Step back and have the mental flexibility to allow yourself to be both challenged and a challenger at the same time.

Self-compassion does not mean you are indulgent, lazy or destined to be swallowed by your couch. It is not self-pity and it doesn’t lead to self-loathing. It is the voice of your best friend, your kindest aunt and your truest teacher. It is the voice that says “Today was hard and I struggled, but that does not mean I am bad or that it won’t get better.” A little bit of self-compassion goes a long way toward achieving your goals. Instead of punishing yourself and feeding that mean little monster on your shoulder, give yourself a break.

You do not have to be perfect to be happy. We know this, but truly accepting this into your mind and heart is a process. I want to encourage you to imagine what happiness would look like, today, despite anything you perceive as flawed. Imagine that you are whole and content with all the baggage, the hurt and the broken pieces. Finally, lean into this fundamental truth:: You are imperfect and still worthy of healing and a good life.

This story originally appeared on Healing the Brain With Jane.

Originally published: December 27, 2019
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