The Sickness of Perfectionism and Unplugging from the Status Quo

Content Warning: brief mentions of depression, anxiety, & suicidal ideation

Oh, what a month it’s been. What a year. Or a few years…

If you feel like you haven’t seen or talked to me lately, you’re not the only one. I’ve been hiding. Away from all the eyes who would notice something isn’t right, away from all the voices who want to ask why. I didn’t want anyone to ask me why while I was still trying to figure it out. But now, nearly exactly a month from the day, I think I’m ready to come back out.

For the past thirty days, I have not been ‘okay,’ whatever we define that word as now. I believe there was a culmination of events that brought me down to my knees, both personal and impersonal, but they were merely symptoms of a larger issue. Part of the reason why I want to write this is because I want people to know that they aren’t alone when things fall apart, and that you can still pick up the pieces when you’re ready to. I’ve been putting myself back together at least once a year (and possibly more) for the past thirteen years.

Sometimes it really feels like you’re trying to heal from a very serious chronic illness that no one else can see, and at the same time, you try to hide it because, well, shame on you for having these feelings when you’re so privileged, so blessed, so loved. I think the part of it that I hate the most is feeling so trapped. As someone who’s always moving, always creating, always thinking, writing, etc., when I get smacked over the head with these heavy feelings, I feel like I’ve been trapped underneath the rubble of my own proverbial Tower. The pressing weight of the steel and iron that somehow makes up our lives, the emotional smoke that stings my eyes and rips up my lungs, the radiating pain I feel up and down my entire body as I lay there underneath it all, violently wishing that I was lifeless, though my consciousness is there to remind me that I am, unfortunately, still here. And that all of my pain and wounds and scars are invisible to all who look at me, and no one can hear how many times a day I’m screaming bloody murder in my head, wishing that fire would come pouring out of my mouth because in that moment, it feels like the only level of catharsis I feel could make any real difference. There are lyrics off a Lilith Czar track that makes me laugh a little while trying to ignore how accurate it all feels: “In my head is like a murder scene / A self-inflicted lobotomy / It gets me off like nothin’ else / No one fucks me like myself / Sometimes I’d rather be dead / Than living in my head.”

Let’s rewind a bit, shall we? I don’t want to imply that these deep feelings could crop up so suddenly over a span of thirty days, though I’m sure it’s possible. No, I’ve been dealing with these beasts for a long time. Which is why I’m not quite scared of them anymore, anxiety and depression – just resentful. I don’t know how to make friends with two parasitic energy streams that can make me hate myself so much that I simply do not want to take another breath. And yet, I do. I keep breathing. But deep down, it breaks my heart that sometimes it hasn’t been for myself. I know the pain and torment that suicide causes for the living, and long ago I vowed to myself that I will never put any other human being through that (plus, I really like my animals, so I tend to stick around for them the most.) Also, if you’re struggling with that deep pain right now, there are people that can help. Please let us – click here.

I used to believe that I was doing something tragically noble by ‘protecting’ my friends and family from my struggles, thinking I was sparing them sadness and concern. Which, I was, but that isn’t always fair – I don’t give anyone a chance to help, even if they want to. All my life I’ve been taught that my emotions and feelings are my responsibility, which they are, but my mind instead decided to translate that as, because these are your responsibility, don’t drag anyone else into your mess. When I finally realized the true reason that I hide all of my struggles, I think it cut a little deeper. I was hiding because I didn’t want anyone to think something was wrong with me. I didn’t want anyone to tell me what I could or couldn’t do because of what I was going through. And I didn’t want anyone to think I was ‘less’ than. Because I’ve spent all my life trying so, so hard to be perfect. It was demanded of me as a young, white, privileged, intelligent girl. And that’s why I’m sick. Why we’re all sick, to some degree.

White supremacy guards the gate to the “American Dream,” and it demands at least two other things as payment for entry – meritocracy and perfection. People of color and other marginalized groups are already excluded by the color of their skin, their physical abilities, or their identity, which harms them constantly and grievously. The rest of us white, cis, able-bodied people already have one thing going for us, but we’re expected to pay the other two fees to get through the gate as well. This is what we mean when we talk about white privilege – white people are not already being excluded from something due to the color of our skin. We have one part of the key to get in without working for it. Now, in this system, we just have to work our asses off to grab the other two keys – a task that we try to convince each other is possible.

The first one is meritocracy. We’re expected to prove how we’re ‘extra’-ordinary compared to everyone else, why we deserve things more than the person next to us. As kids, we watch how those who get good grades are treated versus those who don’t. We start competing against each other very young – comparing scores, being made to feel special when we score high and feeling like shit when no matter how hard we tried or studied, we still failed. In Sweden, kids don’t even start getting actual letter grades on anything until they’re in their sixth year of school, so around the ages of twelve or thirteen. (Warning: I make a lot of comparisons to my home country in my writings because in my eyes, their approach is simply healthier and more realistic. And it’s worked for them for a long time. There’s no reason it can’t work there.)

That’s when a lot of my self-hatred and anxiety began – in elementary school. To my benefit, I did learn my alphabet very early and started reading at a younger age than most. I used to wear this as a badge of honor (mainly because everyone else around me reinforced that it was) but I think I was just lucky to have a parent who cared enough and had the resources and time to teach me early – it was through no real effort of mine. Even so, teachers would praise me for how much I read, for how well I wrote. It made me smart, they said. Intelligent. And I believed them, being further reinforced with my ‘A’ grades in reading, writing, and literature. That’s where I excelled. Imagine my heartbreak when a steady flow of ‘Cs’ and ‘Ds’ started showing up on my report cards in the realm of mathematics. I love learning languages, but math is simply one that my brain, for whatever reason, does not understand. Sure, I have the common phrases down and can get myself around a bit (yes, I can add, subtract, multiply, divide, and do basic algebra…after some time.) But I wasn’t catching on like the other kids seemed to be. Suddenly, it felt like everything was in jeopardy. I remember having a small mid-life crisis in the fourth grade (can you even imagine?) I worried that maybe I wasn’t smart after all. Sure, I was still getting excellent grades in reading comprehension, writing, social studies…but my struggles in math weighed heavily on me. Every time we had our graded tests passed back, from fourth grade until I was a senior in college…I would place something, whether it be my pencil case or my water bottle, over the score so no one else could see it. I didn’t want anyone else to think I wasn’t smart. The only ones who knew my secrets, of course, were my teachers. And I still wanted to prove to them that maybe, somewhere underneath my inability to learn what they were teaching me, that I was still smart. So, I avoided asking them for help, too.

As an American teenager in high school, you’re pushed. And pushed. And pushed. I know I’m old to the kids in high school now, but I’ve never forgotten how real all the pressure was, and I can only imagine that it’s worse now. And I’m sorry that it is. Your parents want the best for you, and they were taught by the same system that traumatized them, in different ways. Most parents want you to get into a good college. They’ve been taught that it’s your best chance of making it in life. There are stipulations for that, of course. You need near-perfect grades. Perfect test scores. You need to show that you’re a well-rounded individual. You need to perform. They push you to do as many extra-curriculars as you can, so you do. If you were like me, your day started at 6:00 AM, because the bus came at 6:30 AM. After all the busing transfers, I would get to school around 7:30 AM. Classes started at 7:40 AM and ended at 2:45 PM. If I had softball conditioning or practice, that would be from 3:00 to 5:00 PM, at least. If I had a game, it was getting loaded onto the bus at 3:30 PM, playing a game at 6:00 PM, and not getting back to the school until 8:00 or 9:00 at night. I would try to work on homework when I got home, but I was exhausted, and usually up until 11:00 or midnight. Teenagers need at least eight hours of sleep. I was managing with six on a good night. And eventually, I had to drop two of the extra-curriculars I loved the most – orchestra and art – because I was told that the only way I could make it easier on myself to afford college was to attempt to get a softball scholarship. It broke my heart to let those go. And I fought it for a while. I wanted to try to do it all.

Slowly and surely, I fell back in the ranks of orchestra, because for some reason, music was run by meritocracy as well. You had to compete with the others in your section to get the coveted ‘first’ chair to be seen in front of the audience during performances. And, of course, those ‘chair tests’ were a part of your grade. I never had enough time to practice my scales and arpeggios because of softball and homework, but my passion for music has remained unchanged to this day. I loved it. I was relatively good at it. Did that matter? No. I was made to feel that if I wasn’t first, I was definitely last, and probably not worthy of even playing anymore. I’m sitting here at my desk in my office right now and looking at my viola in the corner – I still keep her clean and tuned and well taken care of. But right now, I can’t yet bring myself to pick her up and play her again, which brings tears to my eyes. Because I don’t feel like I’m good enough to anymore. That I don’t deserve to. I wasn’t first chair. I haven’t practiced in a long time. But I loved it. And the sickness of perfectionism has taken that away from me, too.

Art was a saving grace during those times when I was stuck in a building that I was legally required to be at for 7+ hours a day, dealing with my invisible ailments. I could pour and channel all of that into art, and I was so proud of the pieces that came out of me. Art felt like such a welcome reprieve in the halls of academia because art is simply something that cannot be graded. As long as you can incorporate the theme of the assignment a little bit – you passed. No one could tell me that mine wasn’t as good as someone else’s. In the art room, we were all equal, we were all encouraged to express ourselves, and everyone loved to look at and admire what others were doing, in their own way. The art room might as well have been the only space where we were allowed to be truly human, imperfections and all. Of course, the sickness of perfectionism slowly whittled away at that, too. Now I scroll through social media seeing the beautiful art that everyone else puts out and a small voice in the back of my head says, You could be that good if you bothered to practice anymore. No point in trying now. I still have my sketchbook from high school, and I guard it like a precious treasure. It reminds me of when I could. And maybe proof that I could possibly do it again.

My fear of failure and my sickness of perfectionism has been emitting its toxic sludge into every aspect of my life ever since I began school, the first ‘system’ we’re ever indoctrinated into. I was a messy child, let’s be real. Looking back on what was going on in my life during those formative years, I’m not really surprised that I was. Kids are usually messy when their minds are messy – messy minds come from messy lives. My parents divorced when I was twenty years old, and by all accounts, it was way overdue. My sister and I knew that it was coming for years. We just didn’t know when. Eventually we started to hope for it. But when I was young, I spent probably too much of my time focusing on how to do my part to keep the peace, and it appeared that the only answer was to be perfect. No mistakes. No tantrums. No crying. Nothing to make things harder than they already were. My room was my tiny, somewhat private safe space. And of course, it looked like it exploded with clothes and books and toys. It was the only place that I felt like I could exhale, and when I exhaled, I breathed out a mess. Because that’s what I had going on inside.

I didn’t realize that being messy was necessarily a bad thing until elementary school. Like my room, my desk was a bit haphazard. One morning, in first grade, we were asked to take out a worksheet that we had been working on for the past few days. I searched and searched through my desk, feeling my face start to get hot. If I couldn’t find it, I would get in trouble, and I was afraid to get in trouble. Getting in trouble meant I wasn’t a good girl. My teacher eventually noticed that I was the only one without a paper. She asked me where it was. I told her, my little body starting to shake, that I didn’t know. She opened my desk and announced to the entire room that I couldn’t find my paper because I was a ‘messy pig’ and proceeded to dump my entire desk onto the floor. In front of all of my classmates. My face was burning with shame, I bit my bottom lip as hard as I could to not cry, and silently picked everything up, trying to put it all in a neater pile with my shaking hands. The teacher continued on with her lesson as if nothing had happened. Once I put everything back in my desk, I put my head down and held my body as tight as I could so I wouldn’t cry and embarrass myself further in front of the class.

I was seven years old.

That was nineteen years ago. And I’ve been trying to hide ever since. I was safe if no one could see me. I was safe if no one knew what I was thinking. I was safe if I didn’t speak up. I was safe if I hid all my failures and disguised my mistakes. I was only safe if I upheld the demands of the “American Dream” and spent every day nearly killing myself to come close to something that can never be – perfect.

How has this affected my life since school? In the words of Kerri Kelly, you develop “a chronic fear of failure that drives you to do more, to do better. So, you micromanage. You fix. You prove and you people-please. You are always performing and assuming judgment. You set impossible goals for yourself and others. You criticize. You self-beat. You don’t trust yourself, so you don’t trust anyone. You live in fear of failure. You reject feedback. You can’t tolerate mistakes. You refuse to ask for help from anyone. You worry. You get anxious. You get sick. You burn out. You lose yourself.”

A list of utterly ridiculous things I’ve actually done due to this:

  • Went to work two to three hours before my actual shift started because I worried that if someone else got there before I did, they would find some mistake or something undone. So, if I got there before them, I could make sure everything was, indeed, perfect.
  • Woken up from a dead sleep at 3:00 AM because I couldn’t remember if I locked a door at work when I left. I got up, got dressed, got in my car, and went to the studio to check. Yes, the door was locked. I couldn’t bear the idea of mistakenly leaving a door open and having it be my fault if something happened.
  • As part of some last-minute plans, some of our close family asked if they could come over to sit in the yard at our house to watch fireworks. I anxiously pushed myself all day long to weed the yard, make things look nice, and clean the entire first floor of our house from top to bottom, just in case anyone needed to use the bathroom. I even cleaned out the chicken coop, not because I thought anyone would be going in there, but I didn’t want anyone to say that it maybe smelled (they’re chickens. They smell a little bit, regardless.) And I had no intention to do any cleaning that day. I was tired. But I shamed myself into doing it and pushing my body to do things it didn’t want to do just because I was afraid of being seen as messy or someone who didn’t groom their yard.
  • Have written an entire blog or article only to read it over and decide that I wasn’t qualified enough to be writing about said topic and worried that someone would call me out over lack of experience or some other imagined issue. I have no idea how many things I’ve deleted and erased because of this. (I have multiple degrees and over ten years of experience in the field that I write about – that’s why this is beyond ridiculous)
  • Have pushed myself to the point of physical burnout so that I don’t even have the energy to attend to the bare minimum of what I should be doing, which makes me even sicker with worry and anxiety with the things that are going undone.
  • Have stopped doing things that I truly love (playing music, creating art, writing for fun) because I’ve been indoctrinated into believing that if I’m not a prodigy, if I haven’t spent my whole life working at it, if I don’t have an audience to re-affirm that it’s good and worthwhile, then I have no business doing it.
  • Have been too afraid to talk about my personal struggles due to my role as a teacher and a counselor because I’m supposed to be the one setting a good example and having the answers, and I’m supposed to be the one who’s stable and well for everyone else to lean on. I want to help other people so much and I feel like they won’t trust me to hold them steady if they see me broken (instead choosing to uphold the fallacy of perfection, which is a river that feeds into the ocean of white supremacy.)

And that’s just a short list.

Clearly, I’m writing this from the other side of my revelation, but there are a few things that helped me get to this point, where I could finally see it all clearly for what it was and how this was the gargantuan root of all of my other symptoms and issues, and I want to mention/thank these sources:

  • First, my husband. Alex has known me since we were both fifteen years old, and as of this year, we’ve been together for an entire decade. He’s had an intimate, front-row seat to all of me for a significant chunk of time and has seen me morph and change as we grow up. He was one of the very first, and for a long time, only, person who has made me feel safe enough that I felt that I could fall apart in front of someone else. Whether it’s a weepy, sobbing mess or an angry, frustrated firestorm, he somehow has enough room for all of it and has never made me feel like I was wrong or that he couldn’t handle it. And he was the first to notice my anxious and perfectionist tendencies. I would have never thought differently unless he spoke up and said, “Why are you doing that?” or “Does that really have to get done right now? Why don’t you just rest? You don’t have to do that right now.” When the house gets a little haphazard, Alex has never told me that I’m dirty. Or that I’m messy. Or that it’s my fault that the house got out of sorts. He just laughs and says it’s both of our mess and that we’ll get to it when we do. And we do. My entire house has actually been more consistently clean than any of my previous spaces because there’s another person who’s here to tell me that it doesn’t need to be perfect all the time. The lack of pressure and fear has actually been more motivating. Isn’t that odd?
  • Secondly, my dear Scandinavian friends. Who knows where I would be without you and that connection to my ancestral homeland. Talking with you and learning about how your systems work in our home countries has been eye-opening and hugely comforting. The US wants us to view the ‘socialist’ countries with a wary eye because they want to keep us under the illusion that the systems they use ‘don’t work.’ It’s getting increasingly difficult for the US to back up that claim as the Scandi countries regularly and consistently rank the highest in self-reported happiness, health, contentedness, a sense of purpose, AND some of the highest GDPs in the entire world. And it’s so funny to me because it seems pretty apparent that all the US cares about is money. If we were to follow the guidance of Scandinavia, we could actually become wealthier than ever. It’s because if you take care of your people, they will be more productive. It’s been proven. People want to have a purpose. They want to help, build, create. The Scandinavian countries are not full of lazy people just because they’re given a lot of government aid. In fact, they’re consistently more productive than US workers. I want to thank my Scandi friends for holding me so tenderly, listening to me, showing me what’s possible, and giving me the nickname of their ‘pet American’ and ‘American refugee project.’ They’re determined to help me heal and possibly ripple some positive changes from across the big pond.
  • Third, I’d like to recommend American Detox: The Myth of Wellness and How We Can Truly Heal by Kerri Kelly. Most of us know by now that the systems and policies that run this country are not just unsustainable, but harmful. To get into the nitty-gritty of why and how we got here and how these systems make us sick in so many different ways is illuminating. I recommend reading it in small chunks because it can be a lot to digest and process at times. If you’re white, cis, and able-bodied, I want you to know that even though we get the most out of the system, it’s actually rather insidious with how it eats away at us in other, more hidden ways. We are being suffocated by it and yet we are the ones who are most likely to vote for it and uphold it. We are the demographic that experiences the most mental health issues than any other – we feel we have to prove to each other that we are white enough, cis enough, able enough to deserve the ‘benefits’ of the system, and so not only are we being pushed to breaking ourselves to fit within those parameters, we’re making it even harder for everyone else who isn’t white, isn’t cis, and isn’t of able body to survive, let alone thrive.

So, where am I going from here? As a recovering perfectionist?

            Clearly, the way I was going about my life before isn’t going to help me or anyone else now. I am choosing to unplug from the demands of the system. I don’t want to play that game anymore. I’m too tired. It took too much from me. So I’m taking it back.

  • I’m more strongly embracing the concept of mutual aid, something that my Scandinavian friends know well. It is a practice and politics of collective care and responsibility, a concept coined and explored by Peter Kropotkin, an anarchist socialist, though some of the best examples are the Black Panthers and the Young Lords. It’s about building a community’s capacity to meet each other’s needs regardless of our current system. It’s a radical act of taking back power and taking care of each other. I know my role in my community and I’m brainstorming ways to make that more available to those who are in need of it.
  • Prizing dignity over scarcity, especially for myself, because until I know it in myself, I can’t show others by example. Scarcity operates from a fear-based mindset. It says that you’re never doing enough, never achieving enough, that you must compete against others, judge others, stay in control, stay busy, and fight to survive. Dignity is resilience. It’s knowing that every day is different, that your needs will be different each day, that the people around you likely have different needs than you do, and being able to respond to those needs without fear or criticism or judgment. Dignity is also gratitude, because when you let go of what you don’t really need (the next trending item, the next spiritual retreat, etc.) you free yourself up creatively to see what you have and how to use it in new ways. If you can’t use it, you can likely find someone who can – and maybe they have something that you can use. The government is really going to hate us when we start bartering. Dignity comes from a personal sense of wholeness and peace with what we have and who we are – and if we all felt secure enough in ourselves and what we have, we wouldn’t be trying to hurt each other all the time.
  • Continuing from the point above, if I want to embody that, I have to start taking care of myself first and dismantling any lingering mental or emotional patterns of perfectionism. I’ve really decided to start back at square one with basic needs. I posed the question to myself, “Okay, how would you take care of you if you were the parent of your little kid self?” Maybe it’s cringe-inducing but try to work past that. You don’t have to tell anyone what you’re doing. I make sure that we have a bedtime routine, which includes a shower, lotion, spraying some lavender oil on my bed, and reading until I get tired. I make sure that we eat three meals a day with small snacks, if necessary (and better if they were my favorite snacks when I was little.) My husband and I have started taking a bike ride every morning (a perk of working from home) so I get time outside, moving around. If we can’t take a ride, I at least go walk with the chickens and ducks around the yard, because spending time with them is calming, aside from being outdoors. I took a long look at my daily ‘should’ (to-do) list and picked out the bare-minimum tasks. I forced myself to pare it down to a maximum of five ‘absolute’ tasks in the sections of home and work. If I complete just those few tasks every day, I can take a deep breath and know that I’ve at least maintained, especially when I have a low energy day. And the gift of that is if I do more than what I need to do, I can feel good about doing a little extra that day, when my energy allows me to. It also frees up a lot more of my time now that I’m not worrying and searching for something to force myself to do in the name of perfectionism. Quiet time is what feeds creativity, and I know this for a fact because when I finished my work at school, I was bored as hell. From that ‘boredom’ so much art and creative writing and ideas were born that simply would have been pushed to the very back to make room for the fear, anxiety, and pressures of ‘productivity.’
  • Once I feel like I’ve been able to recover and integrate, I want to use all of my privileges to help others unhook from the system as well. I’ve been there – minimum wage, abhorrent hours, being behind the line of fast food, trying to deal with customers who are just as fed up with the system as you are, but subconsciously deciding to take it out on you instead of the system itself. I will figure out ways to support you and hold you until we can buck this system once and for all, for our collective benefit.

This country is well within our collective Tower moment, and I think it started with the literal falling of the World Trade Centers in New York. We can choose to do things differently and reject the paradigm that we were born into. We can choose to help each other rather than view everyone around us as the enemy when we’re all just trying to survive. We can choose to listen to those who are actually living in it than the demagogues who are living above it, profiting off of our places in the system. I know everything is uncertain. And maybe we’ll all blow up before anything really changes. But awareness has to be the first step. We can’t do anything until we can see things clearly for what they are. And this is where we are.

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