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Posts Tagged ‘perfectionism’

You know when you really can’t be perfect? When you’re recovering from a brain injury!

Eight weeks ago I was in the car accident that gave me this concussion. Three weeks ago I was back at the doctor’s office because my symptoms were still so bad. “You need to go back on brain rest,” the doctor said.

But, but, but, I had never really gone OFF brain rest. I was so upset with this advice, even though it was obvious. Yes, I needed to rest even more. Yes, even though it was interfering with everything in my life. I spent about twenty-four hours being really upset while simultaneously trying to set everything up for what I knew I had to do while, you know, my brain was refusing to cooperate with me.

Since then, I’ve kept everything as simple as possible. I couldn’t shut all stress away, but I could certainly avoid the majority of it. I couldn’t meet the high standards I’m used to setting for myself so I stopped aiming for them. I settled myself into my new reality of Healing from Brain Injury as comfortably as I could.

I’ve developed this mental shrug. It’s for all the times (and there have been so many) when I think of how I would normally do something or how I ought to do something. And then I mentally shrug and say to myself, “Well, that’s not going to happen.” Some of them will obviously have small consequences, like I can’t deal with going to a new dentist right now so there’s going to be more plaque on my teeth when I do finally go and that will probably suck. But it’s amazing how many of those things don’t actually seem to matter all that much.

In being forced to simplify my life so extremely, I’ve realized how hard I am on myself when I’m fully healthy. I am so hard on myself! Even now, I think to myself, why did you miss that gathering, you are such a flake, or why haven’t you texted or called this person, you need to try harder, and then I catch myself and am appalled. I have a brain injury, you ridiculous self! I don’t have to go to any events or talk to anybody and I get a pass because BRAIN INJURY. I don’t have to say everything perfectly because BRAIN INJURY. I can’t figure everything in my life out right now because–yeah, you guessed it–BRAIN INJURY. I doubt I’m only being this hard on myself because I’m convalescing. I feel like my little shrug is going to be useful for a long time to come.

I try to go outside every day and walk with Nala. Sometimes we walk for over an hour. We walk surrounded by lush greenery, and if we walk far enough down the path we can catch a glimpse of Lake Washington. Sometimes we cut through the fern forest and pretend the car sounds are the wind blowing through the fir trees. Sometimes Nala tries to convince me to walk in the mud.

We walk and I feel more and more like myself again. I may have to avoid most stress, I may struggle with headaches and mood swings and fatigue, I may be unable to do many things, but I can walk.

20160920_181625

I’ve been asking myself who I am all these weeks. Who am I when I can’t write anymore? Who am I when I’m easily overwhelmed by stimulus and decisions and stress? Who am I when I must abandon my usual goals of perfection? Who am I in this new state, in this new apartment, surrounded by new people and places and things? Who am I when I can literally feel not like myself?

My life is stripped down to essentials, and I am too. I am relieved to find there is still someone there. Someone who is not defined by physical place or relationships to others or passions or hobbies or work. Someone who is not even necessarily defined by this moment’s particular thoughts.

I stare into space. I breathe. I shift to find a more comfortable position for this body I’m wearing. I breathe again. Time passes differently.

I’m still here.

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Lately I’ve been feeling like a bad feminist.

It kicked up a gear last month when my feminist book club read Feminism is for Everyone, by bell hooks. I learned a lot from the book, but the entire time I was reading it, I was thinking, “Wow, I feel like I’m really falling short, and I don’t even really understand how.” It talked about raising consciousness, and I’m pretty sure my consciousness is completely NOT raised. Whatever that means.

This month we’re reading Bad Feminist, by Roxane Gay, which is making for a nice change of pace. Roxane Gay is smart and insightful and funny, and she also seems like she isn’t perfect, which is reassuring since I am also far from perfect.

For example, I have this fascination with eye makeup. It all started when my friend was visiting this coast from Boston, and the friends he was staying with invited me to stay for dinner. It was a lovely evening of good food and even better company, but I kept being distracted by the woman’s eyelashes. She had AMAZING eyelashes. And I was sitting there at the table, wondering if she glued on fake eyelashes every morning or if she was able to work these wonders with mascara, and if so, why had I never been able to work similar wonders with mascara?

Thus began my fascination. It started with mascara experimentation, but after some months I branched out to an interest in eyeliner and different colors of eye shadow. And a few weeks ago I took a field trip to Sephora and obtained this fat eyeliner pencil that is a modern wonder of cosmetics.

Flawed Feminist

Flawed Feminist

And every time I play with eye makeup, I know I’m probably being a bad feminist. I’m propagating a certain ideal of feminine beauty, and I guess as a feminist I’m supposed to deliberately subvert that ideal, and I don’t. I get almost as annoyed when people imply I shouldn’t wear makeup as I do when people imply I must wear makeup. I want to look the way I want to look, and I want to wear what I want to wear, and I don’t want to care about the messages I’m sending or the subconscious misogynistic ideas I’ve no doubt internalized over the years. And so I wear makeup when I feel like wearing makeup.

Also, when I’m on a date with a guy, I allow him to pay. I’m pretty sure a good feminist would not do this. My rule is never assume, but accept graciously. I cannot pretend that this is motivated by anything but self-interest. I don’t want to get into an argument about who’s paying for dinner (conflict adverse, me?), and also, it’s really nice when someone buys you dinner. The allure of free food and being fed, which to all rights should have died down after college, remains strong. The allure of being treated remains strong. It’s also super unfair, and I know this, and yet. I accept graciously.

Even my language is suspect, and for a writer, this is inexcusable. I like to say and write “you guys.” I like to say, “Man.” I know a good feminist would never say or write these things. And I do try to avoid this gendered language sometimes, especially in tweets. But there aren’t any good alternatives! I’ve tried “you all,” but I’m not from Texas and I’ll never be from Texas. “You people” is horrible. “Friends” sometimes works, but not always. And the best substitutes for “Man” are all profanity. So I have to choose between saying “Man” and swearing a lot.

I imagine if I had my consciousness raised, I wouldn’t do any of these things. I’d effortlessly never say “you guys” and I wouldn’t wear any makeup EVER EVER and I’d insist on going Dutch every single time. So where does this leave me?

I guess it leaves me far from perfect. But that doesn’t mean feminism isn’t important to me. That doesn’t mean being a feminist isn’t part of my identity. I think what it really means is that I’m human and flawed and complicated, and aren’t we all?

You guys, I’m a bad feminist. But even so, I’d rather be a bad feminist grappling with these issues than not be a feminist at all.

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Oh, 2013. How glad I am that you are almost over. You had your moments, many of them, but you sure didn’t spare the punches either. You taught me many new things and reminded me of many things I already knew.

Photo Credit: MomMaven via Compfight cc

Here are some of the ideas I’m taking with me into 2014:

1. Things often take longer than you think they’ll take. Especially things you really care about or that are particularly unpleasant.

2. Stress takes its toll on the physical body.

3. Perfection is frequently impossible. Doing one’s best is a more realistic target.

4. Meaning in life is created by relationships, engaging work, and an ability to reframe adversity.

5. Feelings are always okay. It’s what you do with them that you have to be careful about.

6. The gift of true and unconditional listening is rare. Shower those who give it to you with affection and appreciation.

7. The temptation to lie is data about you and your relationship with the person to whom you want to lie.

8. Sometimes pretending you belong even when you feel like you don’t will get you pretty far.

9. Knowing who you are is magic akin to knowing a true name.

10. Sometimes other people are wrong.

11. Learning to recognize the difference between things that are true about yourself and things society has told you are true about yourself can help you achieve things you never thought were possible.

12. The food in France is really, really good.

13. Home is a little white dog, a piano, a place to create, and good times with friends.

14. Asking is a good skill to cultivate. So is saying no. So is generosity.

15. Being imperfect makes you more approachable.

16. Failure is a part of life. Sometimes it feels like it is a larger part of life than you would like. That is the time to embrace it even more strongly. You are learning, you are growing, you are taking risks, and you are the active driver of your own life story.

17. Change takes a long time and is often uncomfortable and difficult. You will need all your courage and belief in yourself to pull it off. Including the courage to fail and pick yourself back up to try again.

18. I can listen to Moonface’s new album Julia with Blue Jeans On over and over again and I never get tired of it.

19. Repeat after me: You can’t make everybody happy all the time. No, really. You can’t. Nobody can.

20. In times of darkness, it is the ability to find the pinpoints of light that keeps you going.

21. Sometimes I am lonely. But I am not alone.

What have you learned this year?

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Last Thursday I was eating my lunch when I heard a horrible crunching sound in my mouth. I pulled out a small piece of white porcelain, confirming that yes, I had just broken the crown with which I had so much trouble two years ago.

I spent some time shining a flashlight in my mouth and staring at the damage, followed by some aimless wandering around muttering “Okay” at periodic intervals. After calling the dentist and making an appointment, I ended up laying on my study floor with Nala and staring at the tree outside the window.

I wanted to lay there looking at that tree forever.

My Tree

My Tree

A friend of mine posted on Facebook that he didn’t seem to have energy to do even simple tasks, but he was pretty sure he wasn’t depressed. I suggested it could be related to anxiety. I was speaking from personal experience.

The last two months have been among the most stressful of my life, coming at the end of perhaps the most stressful year of my life. And it turns out the symptoms of high stress that you hear about are actually true. They include:

1. general fatigue/exhaustion (I was so tired on Friday, I got lost in a familiar part of town.)

2. lack of ability to focus (my speed of reading has fallen drastically)

3. muscle tension (in my case, particularly in the back, shoulders, and neck)

4. less effective immune system (I’ve had the flu twice in the last three and a half months)

5. insomnia

6. memory loss/unreliable memory (Two weeks ago I double booked myself. I still can’t believe that happened. I am usually a scheduling goddess.)

7. easily overwhelmed

8. tension headaches

9. appetite changes

10. easily triggered fears/worries

I haven’t wanted to write about any of this for a number of reasons. But on Thursday, I felt like breaking my crown was too much; it was the last straw. I considered lying there and contemplating the tree forever. It seemed like a pretty good idea, until the thought wiggled its way into my consciousness that I should write about this. And eventually, buoyed up by this thought, I got up.

As a child, I was taught to try to be as perfect as possible. If I was going through a hard time, I was supposed to hide it.

But this belief contributes to the problem. Not only is it isolating, but it strengthens the idea that if we don’t handle everything perfectly, we are failures, when in reality we’re just the same as everyone else. Everyone has struggles. Everyone goes through hard times. Everyone has moments when they stare at a tree (or the road or the ceiling or the screen or their feet or the dark when they can’t sleep) and want all the difficult things to go away because they seem like too much.

So I’m going to be honest. I’m tired all the time. I prioritize my to do list carefully every day because I can’t get as much done as normal. Nala is always at the very top of that list, and everything else comes after. Sometimes it takes me an hour or more to figure out how to respond to a typical situation or request. I can’t always be there for my friends the way I want to be, and sometimes I have to cancel plans.

I’m not depressed. I love life, I love the world, and I am optimistic about my future. I have so many projects I want to work on, so many books I want to write, and so many people I want to spend time with, some of whom I haven’t even met yet. I get frustrated by my energy levels because I still want to do all the things.

But realistically, there is only a certain amount of stress any of us can handle before it begins to affect things. And I am past that amount. I look forward to a time when that’s no longer true. Hopefully it will be here soon.

And in the meantime, sometimes I will spend some time staring at my tree.

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In my ongoing quest to stop being a perfectionist and instead just be a human being, I have found the following strategies to be useful.

1. Get a dog. Dogs don’t care if you’re perfect; they only care that you love them.

Portrait of a Devoted Doggie

2. Reframe the idea of perfection. Decide it is impossible, or decide it encompasses more than a single rigid definition, or go all philosophical and decide that imperfection is perfect in its own way.

3. Spend time around people who appreciate your natural strengths.

4. Spend time around people who are okay when you falter.

5. In fact, spend lots of energy finding awesome people with whom to surround yourself. This helps with all sorts of things if you are paying attention.

6. Distinguish between situations in which you must present yourself professionally at all costs and those (often in your personal life) in which you have some more leeway.

7. For the latter, force yourself to be honest. Especially when you really don’t want to admit that you need help or that you’re having a rough time.

8. Accept that not all people are going to understand or believe your honesty. Change your response to this from a panicked “I must seek their approval at all costs” to a shrug. Be grateful for those who are supportive. (And if none of those exist in your life yet, go back to number 5 and try some more. They are out there.)

9. Remember that you are one person and that therefore you cannot do all the things. Even if other people want you to. Even if you want to.

10. Realize you can’t control everything, and that perfection doesn’t automatically equal happiness.

11. Actually, not only does perfection not equal happiness, it sometimes equals stress, burn-out, dysfunctional relationships, isolation, and despair. Remind yourself of its downsides when you’re having trouble letting go.

12. Embrace the cheesiness and tell yourself you love yourself. Tell this to yourself even more when you think you’ve fallen short.

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I am tired of apologizing.

Expressing empathy and sympathy? I’m all over that. But I’ve spent way too much of my energy apologizing for things that have nothing to do with me.

And you know what? I’m not sorry.

  • I’m not sorry that I may have different priorities than other people .
  • I’m not sorry that I have things I want and things I need.
  • I’m not sorry that I want to be treated with respect and consideration.
  • I’m not sorry for the life choices I’ve made, even if people don’t agree with them or understand them.
  • I’m not sorry that I don’t want to discuss my financial situation with strangers.
  • I’m not sorry that I have a different sleep schedule from the norm.
  • I’m not sorry that the ways in which I spend my time are not obvious.
  • I’m not sorry that I notice and sometimes point out sexism and misogyny in media.
  • I’m not sorry for my own opinion and assessment of myself.
  • I’m not sorry when I choose to say no.
  • I’m not sorry that I can’t be perfect.
  • I’m not sorry when I refuse to take on other people’s issues willy nilly.
  • I’m not sorry for the existence of my emotions.
  • I’m not sorry for standing up for myself.
  • I’m not sorry for communicating.
  • I’m not sorry for being complicated.
  • I’m not sorry that we don’t have every single thing about ourselves in common.
  • I’m not sorry when people won’t take care of themselves. I feel sad about it, because I know how bad that feels, but I am not responsible for the choices they make and the pain they put themselves through.

This is what it looks like to not be a people pleaser. You start apologizing a lot less frequently. Instead you communicate, and you compromise, and you take responsibility for yourself and your actions, and you surround yourself with people who are willing and able to take responsibility for themselves and their actions, and when you screw up on occasion, you apologize and make amends, and everything works out a whole lot better.

Stop apologizing for yourself. Start living instead.

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“There’s always been a bit of the Princess archetype in you,” she said. (And she’s totally right; there always has.) “And I thought you had manifested that for yourself, that your life was settled and you had gotten your happily ever after. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to, but I didn’t see you.”

In her talk on vulnerability, Brene Brown says that the word courage comes from the word coeur, French for heart. What is courage? She says it is telling the story of who you are with your whole heart: in other words, allowing yourself to be seen, choosing the authentic. It takes courage to tell our stories. It takes courage to be honest and open. And it takes courage to infuse our artistic work with truth.

Coeur.
Photo Credit: Miriam Cardoso de Souza via Compfight cc

She also mentions the importance of having the courage to be imperfect. And let me tell you something about the Princess archetype. It’s not all bad: it includes a healthy dose of positivity, some chirping birds, romance and adventure. But it also contains no space for imperfection. The Princess in the fairy tales is perfection in essence: she is beautiful and charming, she is talented, she can sing and play music and dance and speak twenty languages, she always knows what to say, she has a sweet disposition, and she never ever feels angry or tired or upset. She can only feel fear when she is in danger as a plot device to allow the prince/knight/fool to rescue her, self-actualize, and win her as a prize. And she is always brave and smiling.

Being the Princess means not being seen for yourself.

I have been the Princess. I have tried to be perfect in every possible way. I have worked to be attractive and charming and to always set people at ease and know the right thing to say.  Whenever I have made a mistake, it has meant falling short of impossible standards. I have tried to please everyone and hate admitting that I need anything at all.

And yet, it has only been through surrendering the Princess archetype that I could begin creating the life that I want. It has only been through searching for people who don’t need me to be that Princess that I could finally be me, with everything that encompasses. It has only been through finding my coeur to begin to tell my story that I could create authentic connections with other people. Being able to see other people and being seen yourself, as it turns out, go hand in hand.

When I think of all those years I was trapped in the tower of Princess-hood, I feel very sad. Now that I’ve rescued myself, I try not to be perfect with appropriate imperfection. I don’t always smile. I am not always brave. I sometimes put my own needs first, and I am allowed to ask for things. There is space for me to have emotions. The world doesn’t end when I can’t always be strong.

It feels very strange to not be a Princess. But also very right.

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