I can’t do it all. No one can. But I’ve noticed that I feel a ridiculous, irrational need to accomplish every single thing I set out to do, and to do it to (near) perfection. No matter the task, I find myself in a state of devastating self-flagellation if I miss the mark or fail all together, especially when I feel like I let someone down. That’s the worst.
I need to point out here that I’ve never considered myself a perfectionist. That I am or might be I suppose is debatable, depending on who you ask. I mean, I am a Virgo after all, and if astrology is to be believed, I’m ‘supposed’ to be a perfectionist.
But what does that even mean? I’m far from perfect. Like FAR. Like, really far, far away from perfect. Like if perfect were the North Pole, I’m somewhere near Uruguay. But perhaps being a perfectionist has little to do with actual perfection?
I think, and I could be wrong of course, that regardless of how something turns out, it is the pursuit of this elusive thing called perfection that makes one a perfectionist. For me, it’s related to achieving. I’ve always held onto a belief that I am an over-achiever (in most things) because I developed the trait as a child in order to stand out. Being part of a big family with lots of competing personalities and two working parents, I have often described myself as a young person as having done anything and everything to stand out. To an almost comical degree. I had to differentiate myself, you see.
Who knows? Maybe that’s just the way I see it through the prism of my memory, or maybe it’s true. All I can say is, thank goodness I chose to stand out in the ways I did, and not in ways that might have ruined my life. I excelled in school, got straight A’s, was on the honour roll, won public speaking contests, placed first place in many a music festival, thought outside the box (I still do that) and marched to the beat of my own drum, etc.
My parents did notice me, of course, and always supported my many interests and talents, and they still do! Sidebar: I am the only grown woman I know who still sends her parents emails about any kind of praise or accolades sent my way. Sometimes, when I’m particularly proud of an article I’ve written, I send it to them. Pathetic, I know. But, see how ingrained it is in me? Sigh.
My parents raised four children through periods of unemployment, sometimes precarious careers, and the general ups and downs of raising said four children. Looking back, I’d say they did an exceptional job. And, of course they noticed me. They noticed all of us equally.
But, my point is that I developed this need in me a long, long time ago to excel at everything. When I was working my ass off in the restaurant industry, I had to get to the top! I had to be the best server, the most well-liked manager, the most respected, trustworthy, reliable and beloved employee ever. And when I fell down, and failed at those things sometimes, because of course I did because that’s an impossible bar for anyone to meet, I would beat myself up. I mean, really get down on myself. I would hang onto the failure (which by the way, was probably not failure in anyone’s eyes except mine most of the time) and let it destroy me from the inside out. I think at times, I even willed it to. I felt that’s all I deserved.
As I’ve gotten older and am an actual grown-up now (that’s what they tell me, anyway), the urge to achieve perfection has only become stronger. Which is ironic, of course, because in adulthood, the challenges are more difficult, the stakes higher, the goals and achievements bigger and more important, so failure is more inevitable. So, if my urge for perfection has gotten stronger, while the chances of failure have increased in frequency and scale, the chasm only grows larger and more implausible. Perfection becomes even more unattainable for me, and therefore makes weathering the near-misses, not to mention the catastrophic misses, only more devastating.
Whoa, that got dark real fast! Sorry.
As I was saying…basically I have issues with failure. As you might know, I’ve been going to battle with depression every day for about two years now (officially that is – I would argue it’s been stalking me for quite some time). I’ve noticed that I am very hard on myself. Really, very hard on myself. It’s part of the negative thought spirals I get caught in. I screw something up, like I don’t know, I miss a deadline, I’m late for work (like, really late), or I don’t budget properly and end up in very sticky, stressful situations, and the self-flagellation begins in earnest. Sometimes it happens even when I set the goal for myself! That’s the toughest, to be honest.
The end of last year was pretty good for me in terms of my mental health. But I was still having some issues at work. I’m telling you guys, coping with mental illness in the workplace is hard. Not insurmountable, but just hard. Anyway, because I’m very open and honest with my manager about my struggles, and she happens to be extraordinarily compassionate and reasonable, we worked out a schedule to help me cope and not set myself up for (what I perceived as) failure – for the last couple of months of the year, I was able to work from home more often, my hours were shifted so that I could start later, and I used up some vacation days to have shorter weeks. It really did help. It made a tangible difference. I am so grateful to my manager for that gift. I’m telling you, I won the manager lottery.
So, now that it’s the new year and I’m working with a clean slate so to speak, I set a goal for myself last week, which was to go into the office every day. I know that sounds ludicrous, like why is that so hard, Ange? You’re doing so much better, aren’t you back to ‘normal’ yet? Trust me, it was a challenge.
And, I did it!! I made it into the office every day for five days in a row! The last two days I was late, but we’re not concentrating on that. It was a little victory and it made me feel good about myself and gave me some momentum going into this week.
Well, I set a different goal for this week, and by Tuesday I had fucked it up. And man did I crash. I crashed hard.
Listen, some days it truly is a victory for me to simply get out of bed. For real. And some days (more days than not, I’m happy to report), I feel like I’m rockin’ my life! I have productive days, when I feel good, I do good, creative work, and I feel like myself. But I still have bad days and I know it takes some people in my life by surprise because they have gotten used to ‘healed, cured Ange.’ I can hear the surprise in my mom’s voice when I tearfully tell her that it’s not a good day and can’t really explain why. I cancel plans with friends and opt to stay in alone and do nothing but sleep, cry and watch movies and don’t tell anyone lest they think, resentfully, that they have to take care of me. Or when I start crying for no real reason with my boyfriend and he is understandably concerned and confused. And so, the battle continues.
Which brings me to this idea of perfection. I don’t feel like I consciously strive for perfection, I really don’t. But when I fail, or feel like I fail, I’m really hard on myself. I always just do my best. And it just so happens that sometimes my best is amazing! And sometimes my best is just physically getting to work, and sometimes my best is everything in between. But the last couple of days I’ve been really hard on myself. I’ve been berating myself in my mind, telling myself that I suck, I’m a failure, I don’t deserve anything good, I’m pathetic, unlovable and no one should have to ‘deal with’ me and my stupid mental illness. You can see how quickly and drastically the thought spiral can get out of control.
This all started because I couldn’t get out of bed one day this week. Well, I did eventually get out of bed and made it into the office to get my laptop so that I could go back home and work there. But, the point is that I had a very difficult time just getting out of bed to face the world. That’s it! It happens to mentally healthy people sometimes! Especially in January! We are currently experiencing the most depressing time of the year. I’m not any better or worse than any other human trying to just live life.
I’m still learning every day to be patient with myself, to forgive myself for my mess-ups, and to be kinder to myself. It’s the only way I’m going to continue to get better. I can’t do it all, and I certainly can’t do it all at once. I can’t boil the ocean.
I’m not really a ‘resolutions’ type of person, but this year, I did write out a list of things that I want to remind myself of as I live out 2020 (and going forward in general). One thing on that list reads ‘don’t seek perfection, but growth.’ Apropos of this post, and for context, the other top three are:
- Be more patient with myself
- Ask for help when I need it
- Continue to share my mental health journey
Resolution or not, I think those are good guidelines for anyone. Even though it’s still really hard some days, and even after all my growth and healing and progress, there are still times when I’m knocked on my ass. The key, I’m learning, is to just gather the little bit of strength that’s left in me, pick myself up and put those coping skills I’ve learned to use.
I’ll share this secret with you: I have a mantra that I’ve just recently started repeating to myself when I’m feeling the pull of darkness, and it’s this – the self-doubt and negative self-talk are a lie my illness whispers to me. It’s all a lie, and I know the truth. I am strong and I will be healthy again.
Here’s to us making it out of January (and the rest of winter) unscathed! And please, take it from a master in the art of self-flagellation, you are doing a great job at life. You are strong and worthy and loved.
Ooooooh, I think I just stumbled upon my new mantra!
Don’t worry, I don’t mind sharing 😊