RSS Feed

Search Results for: perfection

Perfectionism

I consider myself a recovering perfectionist.  I don’t think I can ever be cured of it, but I do what I can to keep this part from causing me unnecessary suffering.

Perfectionists come in many varieties.  I am not the type that is meticulous about my appearance or my house.  I don’t spend hours on assignments or projects trying to get everything just right.  I am more of the variety that cannot tolerate failing, being terrible at something, or making a mistake. 

I was one of those annoying students who thought that a C was failing.  I didn’t get many of them, but when I did I cried hysterically to my professor, begging for some way to redeem myself.  To this day, I think back on the one C I got in college and think, wow I wonder how my life would have been different if had I at least gotten a B in Anthropology.  And then the voice of reality kicks in and reminds me that it wouldn’t have made any difference.

It’s hard for me to do something I’m terrible at.  I once went bowling and played two games.  In the first game I scored a 16 and in the second one I scored a 31.  I’m pretty sure that most 5 year olds could score better than that.  And I’m sure that with practice I could improve my average.  But the thought of doing something where I am at risk of embarrassing myself is too anxiety-provoking, and it’s easier to choose something that I’m good at like tennis.

Making a mistake–particularly one where I am chastised for doing something wrong–is the hardest of all.  As I indicated in a previous post, criticism sends me into a spiral of anxiety, self-doubt, and shame that far exceeds what might ordinarily be expected from the actual remark, which might be something as innocuous as “I thought that ball was in.”  I never forget a mistake, and I try never to make the same mistake twice.

Blogging has been an opportunity to practice something that I do well–writing and talking about myself–along with something where I have no idea what I’m doing—promoting my blog.  While the writing part is going surprisingly well, the promoting part is a constant source of stress. 

For example, I did not realize that publishing multiple posts in a community in a short period of time constitutes spam, and when you do this the administer of the site will remove your posts.  Which means I broke the rules and have been punished accordingly.  Now I’m terrified of doing anything out of fear that I may unknowingly further violate protocol.

So I’ve decided to take a break from promotion and write a blog post instead.  This is the part I really like, anyway.  And I’m trying to remind myself that it is OK to make mistakes.  That no one knows what they’re doing before they do it.  That it doesn’t make me a bad person.  That I don’t have to be perfect.

And then I took an Ativan, because that’s what my psychiatrist told me to do when I’m having an anxiety attack.

In a Perfect World

I think I would really enjoy living in paradise.

Although I do wonder sometimes if it would get boring after a while. I know some people who live at the beach say they hardly ever go, even though they moved there because they love the beach. It is no longer the place they fantasize about escaping to; it just becomes the place they live.

I know I said in my last post that perhaps things can only be extraordinary when you compare them to something ordinary. Maybe that doesn’t just apply to paradise. Maybe that applies to everything. A beautiful day. An exciting win. A perfect date. Maybe things can only be wonderful if sometimes things are terrible. At least that’s what I tell my clients as a way to help them appreciate sadness, anger, fear, and heartbreak.

Still, I’d like to give it a shot, just to make sure.

For me, in a perfect world…

I would have a place in Hawaii and Switzerland. And it wouldn’t take an entire day to get there.

It would be easy to find someone to date. And he would never drive me crazy.

Federer would always win.

The weather would always be perfect for tennis. And when it rained, it would do so after midnight.

I would have enough money to get awesome seats at any sporting event.

UVA would win the national championship in football and basketball in the same year.

My family and friends would always be healthy, happy, and safe. And so would I.

Every morning I would wake up feeling like something exciting was going to happen.

No one would make me feel ashamed that I woke up at noon.

Every book I read would be the kind that I never want to end.

And when it did, there would be a sequel that’s just as good as the first one. Maybe a whole series, even.

And then the author would write another series and that one would be just as good.

My blog would be widely read.

Some big-time publisher would approach me and tell me they want to turn my blog into a book.

I would be packing right now instead of procrastinating. And I would have put away my laundry last night instead of sleeping with all my folded clothes next to me in the bed.

I would be excited before a trip instead of stressed out about all of the things that I have to do before I leave.

I would not be depressed after the trip was over because there would be something new and exciting waiting for me when I got home.

Today I woke up at 6 am, which is crazy for me. I was all excited and couldn’t fall back asleep. There’s lots of good tennis on at Wimbledon today. My mixed doubles team plays tonight, and we have a good chance of winning. And all I have to do today is pack for my trip tomorrow, where I will get to play more tennis and spend time with my niece.

Maybe it’s not a perfect world, but we can still have moments of perfection. And this is one of them, because Federer’s match is about to start.

Mantras

IMG_0531

It is in our faults and failings, not in our virtues, that we touch each other, and find sympathy. It is in our follies that we are one.

– Jerome K. Jerome

Last semester I had a client who was talking about how a close friend seemed to be taking an interest in her, but she wouldn’t let herself believe it. Even though she wanted to believe that someone could find her attractive and desirable. Part of that whole undeserving thing I talked about in a previous post.

Lately I’ve been trying to help clients come up with mantras to counteract their inner critics. In this case, her inner critic kept saying, “Why me?” Why would he like me? What do I have to offer?  To which I replied, “Why not you?”

So this became her mantra. And I liked it so much, it has become one of mine, as well. Along with other mantras that I have come up with to counter my inner critic.  Here are a few of them:

1. Why not me?  This mantra now replaces the oft-repeated “Who do you think you are?” To think that you can find the one decent guy who is not in a relationship. To think that you can find an agent. A publisher. Readers. To think that you can improve your rating in tennis.

Other people do it. It’s not beyond the realm of possibilities. Might as well tell myself this instead and see what happens.

2. Everything’s going to be OK.  This may sound overly Pollyanish to some, but for me it is a source of comfort. After all, this is what we say to babies and children to calm them down. And as you know, I am a new parent, just beginning to learn how to soothe my inner infant.

3. I’m doing the best that I can.  This is to counteract my inner critic’s relentless evaluation that I suck. I can’t function without sleep like “normal” people. I can’t make it through a semester without crashing and burning unless I vigilantly focus on taking care of myself. My blog isn’t widely read. I can’t cook. I throw up when I play tennis. I don’t make enough money.

But I really am trying. And I’m trying to be OK with effort rather than results.

4. The purpose of life isn’t to be productive.  I was sick for my entire vacation this week. Five days in my house doing nothing but watching bowl games and knitting. No steps. No meals with friends. No tennis. No New Year’s celebrations.

My drill sergeant has tried to bully me into being productive, admittedly with some success. But for the most part, I’ve been able to tell myself that my only task at the moment is to get better. To rest. To care for myself. Regardless of what other people do when they’re sick. My life is worthwhile, whether I get my laundry done or not.

5. I’m just like everyone else. No better, no worse. I’m still a recovering perfectionist, but recovery is progressing quite nicely. Through blogging I have found that the kindness I receive in sharing my perceived flaws means as much to me as the compliments I get from my perceived successes.

So what’s your mantra? If you don’t have any, feel free to borrow mine if they help!

Self-Disclosure, Part 2

self-disclosure part 2

Therapists are in that category of people who aren’t supposed to be real–right along with teachers, priests, and parents. They shouldn’t be at UVA football games talking smack with Tech fans. They’re not supposed to have divorces. Plural. (Usually one is acceptable.)  And they certainly aren’t supposed to struggle with anxiety and depression. Even my niece was surprised to learn that psychologists who treat depression can be depressed, and she’s only 8.

Freud is mostly to blame for this. He thought psychoanalysts should be a blank screen onto which patients projected all of their repressed sexual and aggressive urges while he sat behind them smoking cigars and snorting cocaine. And even though I wasn’t trained as a psychoanalyst, in grad school they discouraged us from using self-disclosure and from crying in session. (I really have a problem with that last one. I can’t help it. Sometimes I’m really moved by what clients say.)

But even Freud and my grad school supervisors did not say I should be a blank screen in all areas of my life. I guess it just felt safer to do so because I am terrified of judgment and criticism. That’s why I want to be perfect. That’s how my inner critic is able to manipulate me. That’s why I have developed such good empathy skills: if I can tell that the other person is upset with me, I can change my behavior before they have a chance to say anything.

I started this blog as a way to test out Brene Brown‘s claim that having the courage to share our vulnerabilities with others leads to engagement and meaningful connection. Some posts are still scary to share, but those seem to be the ones that people are the most thankful for because it makes them realize that they are not alone in their struggles. And it has made people who I don’t know very well feel closer to me. There’s this positive energy between us now when we interact. Sometimes they share their own vulnerabilities, which further strengthens our relationship. It really is a nicer way to be in the world.

After almost a year of blogging, I am finally taking the plunge by telling students about my blog. This is the one place where I have been reluctant to share my vulnerabilities because it could potentially undermine my credibility. But it will also serve as evidence that the people who they perceive as having their lives together are dealing with the same issues they deal with. Normalizing their experience, as therapists say.

But normalizing our experience takes practice. We need to be reminded over and over again. We need to repeat it to ourselves with every thought, feeling, and action that makes us worry that we’re crazy. And while everyone doesn’t need to blog about it, it certainly helps me to accept myself as is. So self-disclosure is as much a gift to myself as it is to anyone else who enjoys reading my blog.

 

Mistakes

You know how I hate making mistakes? Well I made a big one last week, and now my inner critic is in full force. I am having a hard time forgiving myself, so I thought I’d blog about it.

Intellectually, I know that everyone makes mistakes. But my inner critic tells me that everyone else is allowed to make mistakes. I, on the other hand, am on strict probation: one mistake will lead to dire consequences–failing, getting fired, going to hell, losing everyone’s respect, etc. I don’t know what I’ve done to warrant this zero tolerance for errors, but it must have been pretty bad.

I am trying to put things in perspective. I try to remind myself that, although some people could judge me harshly, God does not have a zero tolerance policy for errors. God knows that I am not perfect and does not hold me to the standards that my inner critic does.

I gave a sincere apology for my mistake. I didn’t lie, get defensive, or evade responsibility. I acknowledged what I did wrong and that I am aware of the consequences of my error. That I am committed to making amends. While this should move my transgression into the somewhat healthier guilt category, I am still feeling quite a bit of shame about it.

My inner critic wants to make sure that I am taking this seriously. That I am not one of those people who superficially apologizes without being genuinely sorry. That is one of my pet peeves, and I don’t want to be a hypocrite by doing the same thing. So I keep reminding myself that this is a big deal–which only serves to reactivate the cycle.

I am trying to call to mind all of the sage advice on forgiveness, perfectionism, and letting go. Advice that I, myself, have given to other people. It seems to help them. Why doesn’t it help me? Why am I not improving faster? I envy people who can read an inspirational quote on social media and feel better. People who are simply able to turn off the obsessive soundtrack of shame in their head. Or who listen to a different soundtrack altogether.

So I am also trying to remind myself to honor my own timetable. That self-improvement is not a race that I have to win. In fact, I’d settle for a participation award. I tell myself that at some point in the future, perhaps even later today, I will be able to put things in perspective. And if it takes longer than that, I’m talking to my therapist on Tuesday.

Luckily, tennis is on all day today, which I am hoping will be an effective distraction until I have my moment of clarity.

100th Post!

One of my favorite books of all time is What Alice Forgot, by Liane Moriarty. It was our most popular book in our Remedial Book Club; we actually had a meaningful discussion about it for the entire meeting. Ordinarily we talk about the book for 30 minutes–mostly about who would play the characters if the book were turned into a movie–and then we eat, drink, and gossip about people in the tennis community for 2 hours.

The book is about a woman who falls off her bike in spinning class and loses her memory of the past 10 years. In her current life, she is about to turn 40, has 3 children, and is going through a bitter divorce. After the accident, she thinks she is 29, madly in love with her husband, and is about to have her first child. The book also follows the stories of Alice’s mom, sister, and grandmother, all of whom are in the process of letting go of grief. In addition to being hiLARious, the book also makes you reflect on who you have become and what you thought your life would be like.

I am now in the process of filing for divorce, at my husband’s request. I am glad that I waited until he was ready, because now he understands why our marriage can’t work. I have a better appreciation for the significance of rituals. Even though it’s just a formality, since we’ve been apart for almost 4 years, the legal aspect of it has reawakened my grief about losing him. Of all the people I’ve been with, he is by far the one who was the most stable, reliable, and trustworthy. It saddens me that this wasn’t enough to make things work.

I will be 45 in a few months, and I would have never predicted that this is what my life would look like. Although it is still sad and scary to be alone at times, I am thankful for this opportunity to get to know myself better. I am still experiencing compassion fatigue from my last relationship, and I really want my next one to be different.

I’m currently reading The Art of Empathy, by Karla McLaren. It’s the first book I am aware of that teaches hyperempaths like me how to keep from burning out. I’m hoping that this will help me be more intentional about my next relationship. I’m hoping that it’s possible to break the pattern of relationships that you’ve grown up with and that you’ve followed all your life and to start anew.

Since I have reached my goal of 100 posts, I thought I would also take stock of my blogging life, which is much more positive. This blog is the first time that I’ve shared my writing with others, and I am so proud of what I have written so far. Even prouder than I was when I finished my dissertation.

I’ve been trying to write on and off for about 10 years now but only took it seriously a few years ago. Until then, I never realized how demon-filled the writing process was. Every time I sat down to write, Perfectionism, the Inner Critic, and the Drill Sergeant were all there to meet me, reminding me of how much I suck. So to commit to blogging 3 times a week–and to share the most vulnerable parts of myself in every post–is a huge accomplishment.

However, now that I’ve learned more about publishing, I am forced to accept that the odds of writing a best seller are not great, and even if it does happen, it won’t be any time soon. I’m not going to give up, of course, because I never give up, but I’m trying to focus more on the process of writing rather than the end result.

I’m trying to approach blogging the way I approach tennis. I’ve made $60 in prize money, which was several years ago when I won the 35 and over singles division of a tournament. (I was also the #1 rated 35 and over singles player in Virginia that year!) But I spend hundreds of dollars a month on tennis, so as a money-making enterprise, it’s a failing business.

But that’s OK. I’m not doing it to make money. I play tennis because it’s fun, because it challenges me, and because I have made wonderful friends. Although my romantic relationships have been a disappointment, my friendships have far exceeded my expectations.

Blogging is also fun and challenging, and I enjoy getting to know my readers and other bloggers. And it’s way cheaper than playing tennis. So I’m going to set another goal, which is to write another 100 posts by my blog’s first birthday, which is September 24.

Hope to see you then!

Grace

I’ve received a lot of comments from readers lately about being too hard on myself. Which is a little scary, because these comments were in response to posts where I purposely avoided criticizing myself. But perhaps people know me well enough by now to know what I’m thinking, even if I don’t say it out loud.

It’s hard to be honest about how these comments make me feel, because I don’t want to seem ungrateful. But if I’m afraid to say it, that probably means I should say it.

When I read comments that are meant to be supportive, I feel a little angry and defensive. I feel like I’m being told that I’m failing at self-improvement. The words forgiveness, self-compassion, and self-acceptance are in almost every single post, so it’s not like I don’t know that’s my problem; I’m just not getting better at them fast enough, apparently.

This morning as I was driving to work, I realized something about my reaction to these comments. I realized that they are hard to take in because it’s hard to take in love–love from others, love for myself, and love from God.

I have spent the last week in an email exchange with a loyal reader and friend who is trying to convince me that I don’t need to work so hard to earn God’s approval because God already loves me just as I am, in all of my glorious imperfection. I know that’s true for other people, but something in me resists believing that it’s true for me.

You would think it would be a relief to hear the thing that you most want to hear, but it often isn’t. You don’t want to let yourself off the hook. You don’t want to risk being too full of yourself. You might get complacent. You might become a sloth–which is a deadly sin.

That’s how the Inner Critic is for people like me. It’s like an abusive partner who does everything it can to make you feel bad about yourself as a way to keep you dependent on it. It uses the language of morality and turns it against you.

In therapy I address this part by telling clients that once they leave my office, the Inner Critic will try to undo all of the progress we have made. That perhaps it is even talking to them now while we are in session, telling them not to listen to me. It helps to let them know that I know all of its tricks.

I also tell clients that accepting love is a gift, and rejecting it hurts the giver. These clients are highly motivated to do good, so it is often eye-opening to reframe self-criticism as a form of rejecting others.

When I thought I could blog my way to self-acceptance, I assumed that sharing my vulnerabilities with the world would be sufficient. It helps, but it’s not enough. Without feedback from others, it’s still just me and the Inner Critic, duking it out.

In therapy, I tell clients that they are worthwhile as many times as it takes for them to believe it. Maybe that’s how blogging works, too. I will continue to write about what my demons say, and readers will keep telling me that I’m being too hard on myself, and I will get pissed off, but eventually I will believe them. Maybe one day the Inner Critic will lose its power to make me feel bad about myself.

Maybe God works through blogs, too.

Obsessiveness

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I’m kind of obsessive. I can’t blame people for being annoyed with me. Sometimes I annoy myself.

I’m an excessive planner.  For example, because of my GERD and exercise-induced asthma, I’m constantly obsessing about what and when to eat. Last night I made rice at 1 a.m. while I worked on this post because it will save time and decrease the likelihood that I will throw up on the court tonight.

Sometimes obsessing is a memory device. Like I’ll repeat a sentence that I want to say over and over until I see the person. Writing it down helps, but I can’t always do that–like when I’m driving. Lots of obsessing while I’m driving.

You know how I said that blogging is my new boyfriend? Well, I’m kind of a stalker girlfriend.  I will check my blog stats repeatedly–hundreds of times on the first day I publish a post. Thank goodness it can’t break up with me.

Sometimes I obsess like it’s a hobby. I might obsess about my next blog topic.  Or what my strategy will be in my tennis match. Or when I can schedule my next haircut and if I want to try something different, like get bangs.

Obsessing is the most painful when it is fueled by the inner critic or drill sergeant or perfectionism. Then it’s this relentless voice pointing out all my flaws (Your arms look fat in that picture!). Or when I’m not being productive (Get out of bed and do something!). Or how stupid I am for making a mistake (You shouldn’t have dated that loser!).

There are things that help. I take antidepressants, which also help with anxiety. And when the obsessing gets out of control, I take Ativan. I used to obsess for days rather than take the Ativan, but my psychiatrist reframed taking it as a way to have control over my anxiety. And I’m all about having control.

I also practice mindfulness meditation.  You’re not supposed to judge how well you meditate, so I will just say that I obsess about random things for 95% of the time while I’m doing it. But it seems to work, nevertheless.

I tell myself the same things I tell my clients. I remind myself that I don’t know what will happen and I can’t prepare for every possible scenario. To take one worry at a time. That no matter what happens, I will be able to cope with it. And that I have an excellent memory and won’t forget.

Most importantly, I try to accept that this is a part of who I am. Some people may not have to deal with obsessive thoughts, but everyone has to deal with something. This is my thing.

Since blogging has helped me accept other aspects of my personality, I thought I would try blogging about my obsessions. Sometimes it helps just to say them out loud. And it’s an added bonus when readers say they can relate.

I still obsessed all the way home about what to eat before and after tennis tonight and how to end this post, though. Oh well. I guess practice makes perfect.

A Just World

I am having deja vous.  Before last term, we had not had a student death related to a car accident in over 10 years. Yet once again, another student died in a car accident earlier this week. Like the student last term, this student was very involved and visible in the community, was known for helping others, and was on the verge of graduating with a bright future ahead of her.

We tell students that there is no right or wrong way to grieve. But some coping mechanisms are more hurtful than others. She was probably driving too fast. People shouldn’t drink and drive.  Stupid people die. 

When I was a graduate student, one of my favorite theories was the Just World Hypothesis. Because we want to believe in a just world, when something bad happens we assume that the person must have done something to deserve it.

I often hear just world explanations after a sexual assault. She was making out with him on the dance floor. She went back to his room. She didn’t fight it so she must have wanted it.  

The Just World Hypothesis is closely related to the problems with free will and blame. In order to preserve the belief that we control our destiny, we are willing to take responsibility for things that we don’t actually have control over.  

I can understand the need to believe that if you make the right choices you will be safe from harm. I want to believe this, too. Usually my attempts at control manifest themselves in perfectionism and excessive guilt.

I don’t know how much blame a person should be held responsible for. I don’t know how to make sense of all of the suffering in the world. But I know that the more I blame someone, the less compassion I have for them.

So I try to approach suffering in the same way I try to accept my feelings: it doesn’t have to make sense. I don’t have to know the reason why for suffering to exist. And I try to have faith that when something bad happens, I will be strong enough to handle it.

Judgment

There are certain personality types that are sensitive to being judged, and I have one of them.  It takes very little criticism for me to feel ashamed that I have done something wrong.  Sometimes I interpret neutral comments as criticism.  And in some cases, I’ve even interpreted positive feedback as criticism.

Once my first husband was talking about a picture of Alicia Keys and commented on how she had big hips.  I replied with, Are you calling me fat?  Which really annoyed him.  I kind of thought it was funny but true.  Even if I get what is intended to be a compliment about having an athletic build, I take this to mean that I look fat.  This is why it’s better to refrain from comments about women’s bodies in general.

Although I have never had an eating disorder, I can relate to being obsessed about my body.  I also have a similar personality to the types of people who develop anorexia.  I am prone to anxiety and depression.  I am perfectionistic.  I am highly motivated to avoid harming others, even if it means hurting myself.  And I am so sensitive to criticism that I never forget a mistake.

This is why I am drawn to Buddhism–especially the practices of mindfulness and compassion.  I find comfort in the idea of letting go of what I “should” be thinking, feeling, and doing.  That I can accept whatever is true of myself at this point in time, without judgment or criticism–even if it’s something that I hope to change.

I often point out to clients when they are using judgment words to describe their feelings.  For example, if you say I feel pathetic, the word pathetic is not a feeling.  There is no emoticon for pathetic.  Sometimes it’s actually hard to come up with a feeling word.  Usually when you can’t think of one, you’re probably feeling ashamed.

Even when we’re successful in describing our feelings, we often get judged for them.  For example, if I say I feel depressed, someone might say You shouldn’t feel that way.  You should be happy because you have so much going for you.  This is meant to make me feel better about myself, and perhaps it works for some people, but it never works for me.

Sometimes I have tried to point out to the person that they are judging me, but people who judge others are often sensitive to being judged.  So they usually get defensive and say they were just trying to be helpful–that I’m being too sensitive.  So then I judge myself for being too sensitive.

But I am all about controlling what I can control.  Today, I realized that I can’t control whether someone else chooses to practice nonjudgmental acceptance of my feelings.  I can only control what I say to myself.

I can also choose not to share my feelings with people who judge me.  I think I’m going to start doing that, too.