Things I wish I knew when I was struggling with my perfectionism
I'm an avid reader and the type of person who will research the crap out of something...and yet...recovering from perfectionism felt like I was trying to chase a ghost (maybe I'll think of a better metaphor on another day). Was this my real problem? What was really going on with me?
I thought that my perfectionism was something that could be solved by managing my expectations, setting SMART goals, adopting healthy habits.
I thought that everything would go away if I just found the perfect bullet journal that would keep me from procrastinating and that would keep my perspective in check because I tend to forget how much I actually do in a week and then I beat myself up because I wasn't "productive".
I thought my impostor syndrome was just a matter of telling my brain, "it's not real!" And to write down 5 positive thoughts for every negative thought that I had.
I thought the problem was that I failed to get into the habit of meditation. I thought the problem was my lack of self-compassion.
I tried affirmations, I tried cognitive behavioral therapy, I tried faking it till I made it. But I never made it. Nothing was ever enough. I was too emotionally numb to connect with affirmations. CBT worked, but partially. It would be enough to defuse my self-destructive thoughts, but it didn't save me from the general self-loathing and pressure I put on myself to perform. While self-compassion did help, I didn't know how to get more of that, or make more of that. All I could do was to speak to myself the way I'd speak to my sister. We tend to be hard on ourselves but we can have compassion for others. So I would pretend I was comforting my sister instead of myself, and that sort of worked.
And then...there's the stuff I learned from mindset gurus. "You got the power, just make the decision!" And so I would tell myself I was making the decision that I was good enough, but that didn't make me feel better. Instead, I felt that there was something deeply wrong and broken because I could not get my brain to cooperate.
Now that I know better, I am calling BULLSHIT on the mainstream advice I see online. We rarely acknowledge that perfectionism is a coping mechanism that we develop because of TRAUMA. We fail to have this conversation because we think trauma is only war, violence, death, rape. Everyone has trauma. Give yourself 5 minutes to write down the things that have corroded your sense of self. The ones that will jump at you tend to be constant, and over time they become embedded in our psyche and they come out as our inner critic, eating disorders, depression, anxiety, you name it. But we don't talk about mental health that way, because it would be too much to bear.
The conversations about perfectionism are framed around how it can mess up our PRODUCTIVITY, and not how it can just mess us up, period. Perfectionism did a number on me, and I have done plenty of self-healing that I can speak freely about this today without crying (though sometimes I still tear up, because I remember how awful and lonely it was and it hits me like a bag of bricks that I endured that much).
- prevented me from believing that my non-STEM skills mattered (anyone who grew up listening that Math>Arts, but sucks at Math might relate)
- prevented me from seeing what was good about me, which was a question I could never answer. All I could say was that I never gave up, so my sense of self was reduced to my ability to put up a fight.
- made me extremely reliant on logic. I put my emotions on the back burner, and this disconnect prevented me from acknowledging my emotions. I remember thinking that the only way I could survive high school was by numbing my emotions...I tried to be as apathetic and indifferent as I could. So guess what happened whenever I was dealing with something difficult? I couldn't cope. So I repressed. And repressed some more. And I bottled that next to my shame of not being able to cope, because I thought emotions were a weakness.
- blocked me from accessing my intuition, which is the friggin' direct line to creativity and imagination. The older I got, the less I could imagine a future (for myself, for mankind...) so I became even more detached (because what's the point of the present if there is no vision for tomorrow?)
- enabled a bunch of self-destructive behavior, like doing things well enough but not that great because I was simultaneously afraid of failure AND success. Yes, as much as I wanted success, I was also afraid of it. So I constantly felt stuck, even though on paper I was doing well but I knew that I was selling myself short (the "mediocre" output of a perfectionist is equivalent to the average output of three people - a fact I just made up but you know it's true lol. I have enough stamina to power a tiny home).
Perfectionists can't change the world
There's another sinister side to this perfectionism complex. I am not well versed in the subject as I am still in the process of untangling myself from that web, but perfectionism is the tool of the oppressor...
As Audre Lorde said, we are not single issue people. My perfectionism also prevented me from engaging in any activism, and this was something that I only understood last year. I was too concerned about my survival, and my so-called "finding my purpose" was just my ego trying to maintain my privilege. I've been standing on the sidelines this whole time, thinking that "their" issues were not really my problem. But if you were awake in 2020, you know that that's not how it goes. Not saying racist things is not the same as being anti-racist. Having Indigenous friends does not mean you are an ally. I was not equipped to deal with any of that because I didn't have a healthy relationship with my emotions.
As I kept exploring my limiting beliefs, I could not believe the garbage I found hiding under pretty covers. I was simultaneously oppressing myself and upholding the status quo...colonialism and sexism is sneaky AF. Here I was, thinking I was "woke" and when I started doing the work I kept bumping into some patriarchal BS that I subconsciously absorbed without questioning.
So, the immense pressure I put on myself to succeed was not something that was "just in my head", it was put there by a culture that values burnout, a culture that still believes women are third class citizens, a culture that values whiteness, euro-centric standards, a society that is slowly and steadily corroding our rights so we develop a fear that the only way we can thrive in this cesspool is by stepping on other people and doing whatever it takes to get ahead. And then we pat ourselves in the back for our "self-starter, go-getter, results-oriented" attitude...(rolls eyes sarcastically).
Whenever I read articles about perfectionism that are centered in my ability to produce, focus, or make decisions, I really want to punch someone.
While a lot of my perfectionism was my way to cope with my shame, my perfectionism was also rooted in the belief that the only way I could survive and get ahead was by imitating the white man. There. I said it! I was running a race I was never going to win! When you subconsciously adopt the dominant group as the group you want to be a part of, you disown the parts of you that make you different from the dominant group...so I rejected aspects of myself. I did all of this UNCONSCIOUSLY and of course no one had a problem with this because I was acting in ways that upheld the status quo: seeking intelligence, prestige, financial gain, status, while spitting on the feminine that didn't serve me.
This, my friends, is the real fucking problem with the impostor syndrome. It's not about telling your silly brain that you deserve to be there with the boys. The root of the syndrome goes deeper than that.
I call bullshit on all of this, and you bet your ass that we'll talk about it in my course. You don't need to imitate anyone to make it. You don't need to constantly play this game where you distort yourself to fit in. That is exhausting AF. All you need is to summon your true self to life, the true self that is not burdened by any of this toxic programming. THAT'S how you kill the impostor syndrome.
#sorrynotsorry Sheryl Sandberg, but I am not leaning in anymore. Have you gotten the impression ANYWHERE on this page that my problems were due to my lack of doing or my lack of leaning in? I bet that if you look at your life, you'll also see that you've been doing plenty, even if that plenty has just been to survive and keep your soul intact.
"It's all in your head, just manage your expectations"
THAT'S THE HALF-TRUTH THAT THEY KEEP PEDDLING AND WE KEEP SWALLOWING.
You don't need to lean in. You need to step back, turn around, go into the rabbit hole, and just like Alice you need to take back your power from the Red Queen and her court and call it for what it is - JUST A PACK OF CARDS.