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

STOP!

“Each person deserves a day away in which no problems are confronted, no solutions searched for.”

~ Maya Angelou

Have you ever reached a point where you opened your eyes and had absolutely no clue where you were or what you were doing? I’m not suggesting you lost consciousness, just that your brain completely blanked out and abandoned you. Not a fun experience, am I right? Especially because those moments like to come when you LEAST need them (exams, interviews, traffic lights). Your brilliant intelligence leaves you looking and feeling like a complete and utter moron. All because of one simple fact:

You pushed yourself too far.

If you have anxiety, you know there’s a limit to what your brain can handle. Trip that line, and the system goes down. Then you’re left struggling to put two syllables together. Same with depression: drop too far down the hole, and standing goes out the door. We KNOW this! Yet we still let ourselves get worked up to the edge, and we even trip right off the cliff, over and over again. And the payment is a system shut-down while the brain tries to reboot and make sense of the gibberish we’ve created.

Even without the struggle of a mental illness, you can overload your thought processes and crash your brain. Everyone has a threshold of tolerance, and so many of us push and work right up against that line. We set unrealistic deadlines, impossible standards of perfection, and bars so high that even Godzilla couldn’t reach them (if you know of a taller monster, feel free to sub their name). Exhaustion depletes our brains of resources, frazzles our nerves, and the body has no choice but to shut down.

Why?! Why do we do this?!

We’re clearly intelligent, and yet we forget the importance of STOPPING and TAKING A BREAK! Even a five minute breather to let the system cool down! We deprive our more cells of a chance to settle and reset before returning to the grind. We know the importance of that break, of stopping to reassess and think, but we ignore it and plow forward like an idiot. Then we wonder why our brain abandons us. It’s smart, that’s why! It’s trying to preserve function! Instead of letting us completely burn out and collapse, it’s enforcing the break we skipped!

This is probably a good time to mention this is one of those posts where you should do as I say and not as I do. I’m TERRIBLE at remembering to take a break. I panic at the very thought of stopping to breathe. If I pause…you know, I’m not really sure there’s logic applied to my thought process. I think if I pause, the entire world will collapse into chaos. So I work late. I throw myself into assignments until I’m cross-eyed and mind-blurry (a great frame of mind for working, I might add). Then I have to redo everything, taking MORE time.

And my brain goes into self-preservation mode.

I’m still learning the importance of taking my fingers off the keyboard and walking away. Closing my eyes, breathing, and letting my poor synapses collapse into overworked puddles. Which is hysterical because the times I DO take those breaks, I function better. My work flows better, and I FEEL better.

You’d think I’d have the system down by now. But that drive for perfection, the anxiety to get things done still raise their heads. It’s difficult to overcome. And so I get those blank moments of, “Where the hell am I?” Eventually, I might learn my lesson. I’m hopeful.

Uncategorized

The Neverending Battle

Perfection, to me, means you spend much too much time trying to be perfect.

~Walter Matthau

Truth time: I AGONIZE over these posts. I spend hours and hours thinking through what I want to say, how I want to say it, deciding whether to go with an image or a quote, coming up with just the perfect clever title (side note: I am terrible at titles – not just here but in my other writing), re-writing what I wrote, fixing the formatting, all before letting myself hit that Publish button. And, honestly, half the time I then go back and make edits anyway because I feel like what I said isn’t good enough, or I notice something was worded wrong. Why?

I’m a crazy perfectionist.

I am the kind of person who gets hives if there isn’t a dot above every “i” and a cross over every “t.” And don’t get me start about pictures that are just that nth degree off of center in people’s homes – we’re talking nails on a blackboard. I am that person who has their DVDs, music, and books in alphabetical order (books by author, of course – I’m not psycho…well, manga is by title), and woe-betide the prankster who dares to touch that system. When I hung the pictures in my house, you bet I used the tape measure to make sure everything was precise and even…and then I dared to let someone else move in, and everything went to hell. Now, I gave him a full course on how the house was laid out, where everything went, and how things were to be done. Did he listen? Of course not. He just did as he pleased, and I had to cope with absolute chaos and towels that weren’t folded right. It’s a wonder I ever agreed to marry him (there will DEFINITELY be a part of the vows where I promise to never look at his desk – for my sanity…and his continued existence).

I’ve survived, though – and, more importantly (to him), he has, too (with a lot of suppressed screaming and some additional tutorials). It still doesn’t stop my nasty habit of trying to inflict perfection on my day-to-day life. There is nothing quite so aggravating as finishing cleaning the entire house and watching one of the cats scatter food all over the freshly mopped floor. (Cats, by the way, while believing themselves to be the most perfect creature on the planet do not strive for perfection – fun fact) You want to really destroy a perfectionist? Ask them to sweep up cat litter with a broom and dustpan; that damn last line of litter dust NEVER goes into the pan! The spice jars have to be turned with the label facing forward, the plates and glasses have to be in a line, and don’t get me started on the labels from the Good Thins boxes in the cabinet. It’s order, it’s organization, it’s PEACE. When everything is exact and precise and PERFECT, then the world is set to rights, and everything is okay.

Perfectionism is a cousin of anxiety.

If everything isn’t JUST SO, then worry and nerves start to get into our way, and we start to go into our spirals of panic. It’s a coping mechanism (and I am the first to admit it isn’t a healthy one, but there you have it) to keep that hulking monster of fear and anxiety at bay. If everything is exactly perfect and in its place, then everything is OKAY. If I get 100% and straight As, then Mom and Dad won’t have any reason to yell at me. If I get into a good college and get a degree, then I’ll get a job and become a worthwhile human being. If I do everything I’m told and follow all of the rules, then I’ll never get in trouble. It sounds good, right? I certainly thought so, and it was the model I followed through my life…but it doesn’t work in the real world. Because no one else follows that model. Not everyone follows the rules or even cares about the rules. Not everyone cares about working to full potential. Mom and Dad will always find a reason to yell at you (parents are parents for a reason – it’s their job). You can do everything right and still fail. Perfect FAILS you. And then what do you do?

You set up a new standard of perfect, and… No, forget I said that. You start to realize that maybe that lesson Dad threw your way all those years ago (when you were too young and stupid to actually listen) was accurate: you don’t have to be perfect. Maybe you can let the picture be a tiny bit off-center. Maybe you can let your husband-to-be’s desk look like ground-zero of a massive disaster without yelling at him. Maybe you can write out 3000 words of that next book chapter without deleting all 3000 words and just acknowledge you’re putting sand in the box to build with. Maybe you can realize that people are genuinely idiots, but that’s okay; no one ever said you had to be one of them. You’re a crazy bundle of anxiety with a need to succeed – well, okay. So do it in your own fashion and make THAT your perfection.