mental health

Toss the Red Pen

To err is human.”

~Alexander Pope

Everyone with a perfectionist streak can pinpoint the exact point in their life where the habit burrowed into their brain. Sometimes it showed up early, developing from demanding parental figures. Other times it makes a later appearance, courtesy of managers or co-workers with an inability to compromise. As fear of disappointing someone (to say nothing of the repercussions) sets in, you learn to hold a microscope – much easier to spot flaws with than a magnifying glass – up to your work and life and pick up the specks of error before they go out into the world. Because mistakes? They’re not tolerated.

Where did your need for perfection begin?

I fall into that first group. The eldest child, I got to serve as the “example” for my siblings (don’t you love when parents trot that phrase out?). Throw in a natural aptitude in school systems ill-prepared to handle above average intelligence, and it’s a recipe for disaster. Adults LOVE success. I suppose you can’t blame them, but when they see it, they expect the pattern to stick. One straight-A report card sets precedence. Before you know it, you hear, “If you get a B, we’re sending you to Siberia.” And, intelligent or not, a child brain can’t process the empty threat behind the words. All you hear is the implied disappointment. And a perfectionist is born.

The first time I DID see a B on an assignment? I ended up in a full meltdown. Where I knew kids in my class tore up and hid D or F papers, I contemplated the same with something the average family wouldn’t bat an eye over. All I could see was a monumental mistake, though. My world came crashing down. Everything – my dreams, my hopes, my plans – ended. All because I fumbled too many answers on an advanced math quiz (setting up my hatred for the discipline for years to come). It never even occurred to me that I was working on skills two years ahead of my age. I screwed up, and I needed to go home and pack my bags for a nebulous destination on the other side of the world. (Incidentally, my math skills didn’t extend to the fact that one B couldn’t tank my average score)

And this defeatist attitude followed me to adulthood.

Mistakes equaled abysmal failure. Naturally, I fought tooth and nail to avoid making a mistake in the first place. That meant driving everyone around me up the wall. Why did I need to spend an extra ten minutes on something? No one wanted to take a trip to the library to check a reference for a paper. (Yes, yes – I attended college before Google took off) What idiot stays up until 1:00 AM triple-checking a PowerPoint presentation for consistency? Even worse, when I spotted something I missed, I felt an uncontrollable need to point the error out – to EVERYONE. As if the people in the audience gave two shits about a misplaced bullet point. I stored up the rolled eyes, snickering, and “are you kidding me?” expressions as evidence of my failure.

Since a kid, I’ve chased the concept of perfect, deciding that a lack of mistakes meant success. And, tied with it, I’ve frozen my brain with the fear of destroying everything by tripping up over inconsequential tidbits. It’s something I KNOW other people cope with. You wind yourself up over every big assignment. And when you send an email to your boss (or an editor or a prospective employer), noticing at the last second that you spelled something wrong? You feel a mountain fall on your head. You’re positive the universe paints it in neon, flashing lights. And, of course, the person’s going to laugh, share it with the rest of the world, and turn you down.

Because that’s how mistakes work.

Except – as I’ve started figuring out – they don’t. If they DID, no one would succeed. How many books, newspapers, or magazines do you read with errors? Editors miss things all the time. People type slower than their brains work. And the more you work on something, pushing your mind and body past the point of exhaustion, the greater the odds you’ll fail to notice a mistake sliding into your work. But you still have a job, right? You still earn your paycheck. Clients still approach you. Because THEY don’t pay attention to the minutiae you obsess over!

Courtesy of other people hammering the lesson into ME, I’ve been working to break this need for perfection. And while it requires gritting my teeth, breaking a sweat, and enduring the shakes, I’ve allowed myself to MAKE mistakes. (Not berating myself about them is taking more work, but it’s also part of the process) For instance, I write both of my blogs stream-of-conscience. While I plan the topics ahead of time, I don’t write, review, and edit them ahead of time. So if they come out sloppy, with weird errors, so be it. I need to calm down the shrieking in the back of my head that tells me I sound like an incoherent moron, but it’s the best exercise I’ve done. It FORCES me to allow mistakes into my life.

And the Apocalypse hasn’t happened. (Go figure)

I’m ruthless about my work. I review, and review, and review everything – determined to please my clients. And I do a solid job. I also exhaust myself in the process. And if they notice something that needs tweaking? I go into a full-blown panic. That ISN’T how a person’s meant to behave. It tells me I still have PLENTY of work to do on breaking this habit. People make mistakes – and then they move on. You can fix boo-boos without a problem. Everyone does. So why should I hold myself to a higher standard?

If you find yourself in the same anxiety loop because you misspelled a word, you know what I’m talking about. And you need to get to work on a similar exercise. Find something you can do that might lead you down the road toward a mistake. (I don’t mean deliberately make a mistake, but leave the door open) And if you see one? Let it be. You can fix it, if someone asks you to. But if they don’t? Hey, guess what? You don’t need to pack your bags for Siberia. Who knows? Eventually, we might even approach something close to normal with our thinking.

mental health

Another?

Rejected
Photo by Kulbir from Pexels

Given the choice between acceptance and rejection, no sane person would run towards the person with their arms crossed in an emphatic “NO.” (Let’s set aside for the moment the fact that no one’s going to consider me a sane person) That’s basic human nature. We covet approval. The Millennial Generation, in particular, arose from a need to get a gold star for everything. People don’t like getting a door slammed in their face, especially when they’ve invested time and effort on a project they’re insanely proud of. That immediate repulse sends a negative message into their brain that lingers for days (weeks, months, years).

But rejection? It’s healthy.

Yes, that statement sounds completely and utterly INSANE. Why would you EVER want to invite rejection into your life? It’s painful. It leads to mental anguish (not to mention the physical repercussions of that mental instability). And it sets up roadblocks on the path to whatever you’re struggling towards. I won’t deny any of those statements. Every time laughs, hangs up the phone, tears up your email, or slams a door (even if those actions are only metaphorical), you feel the physically bruised. Sitting alone in a room, you swear a spotlight goes up the entire world can see. (And, of course, there’s a speakerphone to allow everyone to listen in) Everyone out there ends up privy to your humiliation. It’s ripe fodder for the nasty voice in the back of your mind to remind you of how pathetic a person you are, what drivel your dreams are, and how you’re likely NEVER going to accomplish anything.

Each time you hear that variation of rejection, it goes to work on your mind and body. As they pile up, you get a fresh anxiety loop. And trying to push through that tornado to attempt something new? It’s pure hell. We’re talking a full-blown panic attack just to submit a short story to a new market! Ask your boss for a raise when they gave you that look the last time? You’re positive your heart will stop. Approach a gallery about displaying your work? You can feel the aneurysm. Given the option, you’d rather baby-sit an entire gymnasium of small children than go into a situation promising rejection. So WHY am I suggesting you step out of the gym and walk down the street?!

Because it’s the only way to defeat that knee-jerk anxiety reaction. You can’t push through the wall of fear and panic and misery without an outer layer of numb skin. And that means learning to step up and EMBRACE rejection.

Like a BOSS!

I thought I had the rejection concept down. Writers either learn to accept it, or they stop writing. You can’t take those form letters – or even the personally-written letters – to heart if you plan to make it. Famous authors ALL received scathing responses at some point in their careers. Odds were they felt the sting of the words, but they didn’t let someone’s opinion drive them into a shadowy corner. Instead, they charged forward, continuing to fight for their place on a shelf. It’s what I told myself. And my stack of rejections? I track them and count them as progress. So I assumed I was immune to the entire process.

Ha! Maybe in THAT part of my life. But in everything ELSE? Nope. I was boxed in by this horrendous fear of someone looking at me, laughing, and then divulging in a global voice everything wrong with me. The panic paralyzed me, preventing me from taking a single risk with my freelance career (ironic, considering I write there, too). What if I made a fool of myself? I’d have to admit defeat. And then the entire world would know. (We always think the planet’s aware of what we do – funny, isn’t it?) I couldn’t MOVE. And I spiraled into this depressive state, convinced I’d made a mistake from the very beginning. A mistake in pursuing my DREAM.

Until someone made the remark that you NEED to look for opportunities FOR rejection. It sounded absurd and horrifying. Why in the world would I WANT someone to tell me no? I was supposed to be looking for a YES. The answer? Because the fear of that “no” was holding me back. And once I confronted the horrible “No Monster” head-on, I’d realize it wasn’t as terrible as I’d built it up to be in my mind. Instead, I could move on to the next potential no, and the next, and the next. Because the reality is, there’s a good chance somewhere in there is a yes I didn’t realize existed.

Dumbest thing I’d ever heard.

And I ignored the words for a long time. Well, I ignored FOLLOWING the words, anyway. They stuck in my brain. And when I finally hit a corner, with nowhere else to go, some tiny brave part of me decided it was worth a shot. I put myself out there for a rejection. I knew the odds were high I wouldn’t get the job. Guess what happened?

I didn’t get the position. And the world didn’t end. I also didn’t feel anywhere near as badly as I thought. For one, I’d prepared myself for the “no.” Two? The cataclysmic repulsion I’d built up in my mind didn’t occur. Instead, the response was a polite refusal with a request to keep my information on file for the future. I can live with that (it’s not something I’d rehearsed in my mind). More importantly? That heavy shadow I’d been dragging around? It got a little lighter. Maybe only a touch, but enough for me to notice.

It’s made me start the snowball rolling. Before, when I saw something I KNEW would yield a “no,” I passed it by. Now? I push myself to go for it. If it’s a no, it’s a no. All that means is that I’m back where I started. Okay, that’s not hurting anything. I can’t go BACKWARDS by trying. And I think that’s what they meant. I’m not one of those people where everything rolls off my back (not yet – maybe not ever), but at least I’m not cowering in the corner anymore. And while I’m still working on that first “yes,” I am at least working.

You can do the same. It takes WORK to push through that wall of anxiety (believe me). You need to give yourself multiple pep talks to knock on that first door. But the next door? You need less chatting. And your shoulders stay back a little easier. And I’m predicting that – down the road – you reach a point where you don’t even knock; you simply walk in with a smile on your face. How far that mile marker is, I don’t know. But if we don’t start hitting those doors NOW, we’ll never know.

mental health

Pumping the Breaks

“I may not have gone where I intended to go, but I think I have ended up where I needed to be.”

~Douglas Adams

Mention the word “vacation” and everyone sits back and begins to think of their perfect retreat. Some people picture tropical beaches, complete with an iced beverage and glittering white sands. For others, it means a mountain trail to a quiet lake, roaring waterfall, or a rocky overlook. Maybe it translates to days running around an amusement park, standing in line for the newest roller coasters (or waiting for your phone to let you know you’re clear to enter Galaxy’s Edge). And a break can even end up as something as simple as sitting on a porch or deck, enjoying your view of choice. That’s the EXPECTED reaction to the word.

But for some people? It’s anything but.

Ask some of us what “vacation” means, and we shake, hyperventilate, and break out in hives. Take a break from work? Are you serious? Turn off the phone, step away from email, and pretend there aren’t any responsibilities? Pretty sure that only occurs in movies – and it usually doesn’t end well when it DOES happen. What if something critical happens and you miss it? Maybe someone will see your Out of Office reply and decide you’re lazy or unmotivated. (A dedicated worker would snap to respond at any moment of the day or night – accepting work on vacation) And what if you’re somewhere with NO internet signal? (They exist – I found pockets of them) The chances for a lack of work skyrocket. The anxiety spirals set in, and you run screaming from the suggestion of a vacation – almost as if someone suggest you spend a week in a torture chamber.

Why? Programming, what else? Way too many of us spend years working in careers where “vacation” ends up a taboo subject. Sure, you have vacation days or hours as part of your benefits package. But the reality is Management DOESN’T want you to use them. (Paying you for NOT working? It’s not something they’re fond of) That’s why you see that disapproving expression when you submit your Time Off request. Sometimes you get the bonus of a sigh – as if you’re asking for a promotion to Owner of the Company. And some places make you jump through elaborate hoops to get that time off. You may need to submit your request MONTHS ahead of time. In other places, you have to find someone to cover your shift – even AFTER you’ve followed the other rules. And you may even have to compete with more senior employees for time; if someone else decides they want a week off? You’re out of luck.

The system is designed to KEEP you working.

And (as a hard-working employee) that’s what you do. It’s not like you get many hours off, anyway. (At least, I usually didn’t) Then you grit your teeth when Management stands up in meetings, talking about the importance of self-care. And when you finally get a precious vacation here and there? You take phone calls from work. Or you walk back in (because you know better than to go too far from home). Your brain learns that you’re not supposed to do anything EXCEPT work. Until your anxiety starts screaming any time you’re NOT working. It’s a sadistic system, and it’s rampant in the careers out there.

The worst part? I STILL fight with this concept. And I’M my boss now! I call the shots and have the right to take a vacation whenever I want. But when my husband and I started discussing plans for a break, that familiar anxiety was waiting for me. I didn’t feel right leaving everything behind. It got to the point he made me PROMISE not to work while we were away. No checking (or answering) email. No new writing. No phone calls. I was to RELAX and turn my brain off. (Such a novel concept)

I felt like an outright criminal. An entire week without focusing on my job? Seven days spent away from my computer? My brain braced for lectures, frowns, disapproving glares. None of them came, of course. And around the third day, I realized how STUPID that system is, and how much damage it did to my mental health.

I lost SO MUCH enjoyment on vacations in the past, constantly feeling chained to my phone and needing to check in with my job. Whenever I found a moment of tranquility or joy, that stupid piece of technology would break in and ruin everything. But this past week? That never happened – because I refused to let it. So I got the chance to laugh, NAP, and reset my system. You know – the things you’re SUPPOSED to do on a vacation. Making that promise was the best thing I’ve ever done.

And the world didn’t end!

If a client feels I’m lazy for taking a much-needed vacation? I don’t want to work with them. But someone that wants to work with me will respect my time off. That’s the way the working world SHOULD function. If people want us to thrive, they need to allow us time away to unplug and regenerate. Sitting over a laptop in a panic attack – even on a beach – isn’t HEALTHY! Why don’t corporations understand that? People DIE every year from stress and overwork. And it’s due to the system they’ve created.

Yeah, I’ve broken free from the insanity at this point. But not everyone can do the same. If you’re not self-employed, you need to feel empowered to stand up for your vacation time. (I can’t advocate breaking the rules they’ve set; you don’t want to get fired) When you punch out of that clock? TURN OFF YOUR PHONE! You’re NOT available any more. They have plenty of other employees they can contact for an answer. And while you’re at it? Unplug your brain. Your work worries will wait for you (don’t worry about that). When you sit back at your desk, you can pick them up again. But for the time you’ve carved out? You don’t need them.

It’s WELL past the time that we took back our vacation time. We are NOT robots with endless programming. And management structures need to understand that. Preferably before they land their top employees in a hospital – or a grave.

mental health

Flattery

Photo by Tara Winstead from Pexels

Yes, I’m about to trot out an old saying: “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.” If you’re anything like me, you heard the phrase for the first time as a child. Say, when your little sister starts wearing the same outfits as you, joins the same swim team, or attempts to read the same books (despite a five-year age difference). You voiced a complaint and your parents pulled out that old gem to attempt to quell your indignation. And you ignored the sage advice because NOTHING’S more annoying than someone copying everything you do (especially little sisters).

So you missed the lesson.

The phrase dates back to the early 18th century. And while plenty of people twist it into a sarcastic meaning, the origins centered around an unintentional flattery. A person adopts aspects they see in another because they feel they’re POSITIVE. And while it ends up getting viewed as imitation (and usually in a negative light), the intent’s far from it. Younger siblings adopt the mannerisms, habits, and looks of those around them because they ADMIRE them and want to BE them. And while it’s obnoxious to walk into the mall with a “mini me” trailing behind you, it’s an artless form of flattery. (Yes, I know – no one goes to the mall anymore. It used to be a thing, okay?)

These days, everyone’s obsessed with being unique. And I’m entirely for finding and being yourself at all times. But when you exude that kind of confidence, it attracts attention. People turn their heads to watch you walk by. They see things they’ve never thought of. And you INSPIRE them to try the same thing. It’s imitation, sure, but for the RIGHT reasons. And getting defensive about it helps no one – least of all a person brave enough to climb out of their shell. Yet that’s what seems to be happening most of the time.

Everyone develops their social media presence. And – I get it – you work hard to carve out a different space from what already exists. Then you see something SIMILAR and lose your mind over it. (Note: I’m not referring to outright plagiarism here. I DON’T support that in any way, shape, or form) Suddenly, you’re attacking that person, crushing their self-image and turning them into piles of anxiety. All because they took a few of your IDEAS for inspiration. Imitation that FLATTERED the work you did in the first place. And now it’s a quivering pile of misery and depression.

Good job.

I’ll pull from my writing roots here for an example. I participated in a critique group ages ago, before I found the beta-readers I have now. I was still learning the ropes and figuring out the best way to write up my critiques to make them beneficial to the writers. And then I received one of my critiques back. The way the writer broke everything down? It was beautiful. Not to mention providing all of the information I needed to fix the short story. I took their format, made some tweaks for the way I read/edited, and I started using that for my critiques. And I couldn’t wait for the chance to review on of their stories and show them how I’d adapted their template.

Well, that opportunity arose a few weeks later. And, holy hell, you would have thought I committed a crime. They didn’t even pay attention to a word of my critique. Instead, I received a scathing message about how I’d STOLEN their review format. They were going to report me to the head of the group, get me banned, tell every other writer they knew so I wouldn’t find a welcome in any other critique group – it went on and on. Being the fragile newbie writer I was, I couldn’t apologize (or cry) enough. I felt WRETCHED. And I slunk away. I didn’t attempt to find a new critique group for YEARS.

And I did NOTHING wrong!

First, their precious format? No copyright. (And if you DO copyright that kind of thing? You’re a colossal moron) Second, I didn’t plagiarize it. I modified it to work with how I reviewed stories. I LOVED the way they set things out, so I adapted it to work for me. Third, stealing? That implies something malicious. And my intent was far from negative. Exactly like my sister, I was looking up to someone I admired and attempting to follow in their footsteps. And – as much as I hate to admit it – like I did to my sister, they slapped me in the face for my innocent imitation.

People can genuinely demonstrate flattery. They pick out things they admire, enjoy, or find intriguing. And rather than roaring in defiance, I think it’s important to pause and look for those possibilities FIRST. There’s no such thing as an original idea. EVERYTHING exists out there already. Does it have your unique twist on it? Probably not. But the same holds true for someone else. And if you look close enough (take off your angry eyes), you’ll probably see it. Odds are YOU took inspiration from someone – whether you want to admit it or not. Weren’t you trying to flatter them?

Someone somewhere looks up to you. And as long as they’re not photocopying you (with the exception of siblings – you’re out of luck there), what’s the harm? A little bit of imitation isn’t going to kill you. Destroying them, though? You could damage someone in ways you can’t imagine. It took me years to regain my writing confidence. And daring to trust another writing group? I felt like I was stepping in front of a firing squad! I suffered a horrific anxiety attack when I submitted that first short story.

While I’ll allow that there are exceptions to everything, imitation’s not worth getting your blood pressure up. Even if someone’s doing it out of sarcasm, they’re not going to keep it up if you don’t react. Keep being you – 100% – and smile. Accept the flattery and move on.

And remember that siblings WILL grow up…eventually.