We all want the best for ourselves: we want to feel great, be always right, do exceptional work, have flawless relationships. And if you struggle with sleep, you probably want to be a perfect sleeper again, too.
perfectly normal desire – to want the best things to happen to us – but when it comes to getting the desired outcome, it’s not helpful. Our desire to achieve perfection grows and so does the pressure and self-criticism. At some point we feel it’s not worth to start if we can’t reach a perfection.
I work a lot with my perfectionism. And while it still appears here and there, I’m no longer a perfectionist when it comes to sleep, and this helped me overcome insomnia tremendously.
How are perfectionism and insomnia connected?
Let’s talk about the nature of sleep here. Two things matter:
1. When you chase sleep you get less of it
Sleep is beyond our control, no one can fall asleep at will. Sleep happens when there is no pressure and no desire. But the moment we begin to try hard to sleep it disappears.
2. Perfect sleep doesn’t exist
“Perfect sleep” is an unachievable ideal. Don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that it is impossible to have sleep that you want, I am talking about the painful and frustrating chase for something we can’t directly control. Let me explain.
Ask 10 people what is an ideal sleep for them and you will get 10 different answers.
- To one person is it to get 8 solid hours of sleep
- To another one it could be waking up refreshed and positive
- Someone might try to get lots of deep quality sleep (whatever that means)
And it doesn’t stop there! The ideal of sleep can change from one day to another. Today, the perfect sleep could be defined by how fast you fall asleep, tomorrow it could be about how refreshed you feel, the day after – it’s all about quantity of hours.
This is what makes “perfect sleep” an illusion – it is subjective and arbitrary. It is a moving target.
As long as we keep chasing the outcome, it will get further away from us. In other words,
Perfectionism is what makes you stuck
How to overcome perfectionism
Okay, “overcome” might be a strong word, as I believe striving to perfection as such is not a bad thing in principle. I believe that at some point in life that trait helped us achieve good results, do a great-quality work. But remember, sleep is the opposite of achieving or performing. Sleep is not something that we do, but something that happens to us, passively. To sleep better, we need to let go of achieving perfection.
How can we do that? How can we become non-perfectionists in sleep? There are roughly three stages I went though myself.
Stage 1: All-or-nothing thinking
That’s what we usually begin with. Perfectionism creates the illusion that there are good nights and bad nights, nothing in between. And naturally we want all the good nights and have none of the bad nights. All or nothing; fail or pass. But guess how much pressure it creates for us?
This type of thinking creates an emotional rollercoaster: you jump between being victorious and being miserable. When you catch a “good wave” you feel like the problem is over, you celebrate this result. But when some night goes not the way you expect, you quickly spiral down to the dark place. Sounds familiar?
Many people get stuck in this stage (including myself, I spent months in there), but it is possible to move to the stage 2.
Stage 2: “Spectrum” thinking
I’m sure you heard of that one. Not all things are black or white, there are many shades of grey in between. I invite you to explore the width of the spectrum.
If you take two “good” nights they won’t be the same. Two “bad” nights aren’t the same either. It’s all relative. Let me give you an example.
👉 If you can choose between 7 hours of sleep and 6 hours of sleep, what would you choose? Okay. How about 6 hours and 4 hours? What about 4 hours and 2 hours?
👉 What if you had to decide to have a full night of solid sleep and wake up completely unrefreshed or to sleep 4 hours and feel great the next day?
👉 How about choosing between a night where you sleep 1h feeling anxious all that time and 1h but feeling peaceful?
And you can go as detailed as possible here, even if it comes to the nights with no sleep at all. It’s all relative. Whatever night you had, there will be always something “better” and something “worse”. No matter if you slept zero or a solid night, it’s still on the spectrum and the spectrum is infinite (because there is no such thing as perfect sleep!)
In some way spectrum thinking is about lowering the bar for the definition of a “good” sleep. Suddenly, a night of 4h doesn’t sound that bad, if you’d have to choose between that and, let’s say, 2 hours. (Depends on what is important to you). When things aren’t black or white, it gets a bit easier to let go of desire to control sleep.
Stage 3: “Normalizing”
For me, the path didn’t end on shifting to the spectrum thinking. To stop worrying about sleep for good, I needed the ultimate leap.
Going a bit ahead, this is not for someone who is still in the “All-or-nothing” stage. It takes time to get to the stage 2, but it takes three times as much to get from stage 2 to stage 3. It’s a long journey, I warned you 🙂
For the lack of a better word, I call this stage “Normalizing”. If “spectrum” thinking was about lowering the bar, “normalizing” is about removing that bar completely and letting go of evaluating your sleep.
When we normalize any sort of nights and any experience, we begin to feel at peace with any outcome. And this is the key to ending insomnia. No more bad nights, no more good nights, there are just nights.
I know you might be thinking about having to like or enjoy all the nights, but it’s definitely not about liking. I find it impossible to force yourself to like something, because we can’t control this. Normalizing is about accepting any outcome, and you might not particularly like it and perhaps sometimes would wish it could be different, but you take it anyway.
And it’s also not about making nights of less sleep a “new normal”, it is about giving yourself a permission to have them. They are no longer considered “bad”. Same with “good” nights. When we remove the labels, we aren’t chasing good nights, we simply let the night be a night, no matter how it will be.
And when it is done genuinely, you find yourself sleeping more and more. You stop celebrating your sleep, but you also stop thinking about your sleep. You have no idea how you fall asleep, you just do. No night bothers you anymore because whatever it is, it is now acceptable and normal. The chase is over.