Category Archives: perfectionism

Time and Perfectionism

Time, or lack there of, fuels my perfectionism. We’re conditioned to believe we have less and less of it, which is driven into us over and over again by advertisements. I don’t own a TV because, frankly, advertisements make me feel like crap–and that’s the point. I avoid advertisements anyway I can, but this subtle reminder–that time is decreasing–is all around me.

For example, on my way to the library today, to work on schoolwork, I saw a delivery truck for McDonald’s, a man typing on his blackberry in the elevator, cars speeding everywhere–all reminders that I need to do more with less. Instead of wasting time cooking a meal, I should just pick up something quick at a fast-food restaurant. Instead of trying to relax on my commute, I should be sending an email or text or something from my blackberry. Instead of biking–a longer, more enjoyable form of commuting–I should get a car so I can get from point A to point B quicker.

All this is happening in my unconsciousness; I’m not consciously telling myself I should forfeit a healthy meal for a crappy one, in other words. But when I start craving lunch and all I can think about is grabbing something quick so I can get right back to work, it’s pretty clear to me how the actions and choices that we (society) make as a whole affect me, negatively.

What’s more, the people who are highly-revered in our society are those who do more with less. Those who make efficient decisions, sacrificing themselves and the world around them.

And it’s the people who try to live consciously who really suffer. I want to have time to make a healthy, home-cooked meal; I want leisure time; I want to commute to places responsibly. And yet, somewhere inside I’m telling myself that unless I work 60 hours a week and make $80K (so I can buy crap I don’t want or need) I’m inferior. Unless I sacrifice my ideals and beliefs for cultural norms, I’m a failure. No matter where I go or how much I try to shield myself from advertising and consumerism, it’s still there, all around me–and I have to be a part of it, even though I really don’t want to.

***

I went downtown the other day to people watch. I sat in the same spot for about an hour, watching the business professionals go about their day. It was stressful for me because everyone looked stressed–never quick enough, never good enough, never smart enough plastered on their faces. I felt sorry for them (in the same way that I feel sorry for myself).

At one point two men came out of an office and lit up cigarettes. They smoked in silence for awhile until a bum passed by and sat down next to them. The men moved away as the bum snickered at them. I could see them laughing at the bum–or what I perceived as laughter, at least. Anyway, right there in front of me were two extremes: the business professionals conformed to cultural norms while the bum rejected them; the business professionals educated, the bum not (presumably), etc. But how different are they?

I’m not convinced there is that much difference, but I’m positive that I don’t want to be either of them.

Perfectionism: Past, Present, and Future

Like most kids, I experienced lots of changes when I entered middle school. Most of my good friends from elementary school attended different middle schools, and that, coupled with the enormous pressure to fit in, meant a lot of change for me. I had to find a new clique–and fast. And I could no longer just be me. I had to be something different, something better and more profound. Suddenly, I desired popularity–everybody had to like me and seek me out for friendship.

Again, I wasn’t the only one experiencing change, but taking genetic factors into account, I believe change was harder for me (boohoo, poor me). I scrutinized, analyzed and reflected on everything I did, every move I made. Sixth grade was a very difficult year, and it was probably difficult for a lot of my peers. It’s a normal process for kids to go through, but for me, it was the start of my perfectionist tendencies–and the beginning of Social Anxiety Disorder.

I took every “failure” hard. When I didn’t get picked first for dodgeball in gym it wasn’t because I didn’t know the person picking very well or because I may not have done very well athletically the last time we played dodgeball, but because I was inferior, ugly, and altogether unlikeable. If I didn’t get an A+ on a math test I failed, and I had to do better the next time. I felt terrible when I didn’t get invited to a movie or to sit at a certain table at lunch or to a birthday party–all because of my inherent, negative qualities that everyone could see. I took everything personally. If I wasn’t first, I was last, and, more often than not, I was last. If I knew I couldn’t win at something, I wouldn’t even try. I stopped putting myself out there for friends, focusing less on things I couldn’t control and more on tangibles that I could control like my appearance and test scores.

And, since it’s impossible to always be number one and in total control of everything, I began to withdraw. I withdrew from sports because I was no longer the most athletic person. I stopped hanging out with certain friends because they were smarter, better looking, or funnier than me. I stopped raising my hand in class because whatever I had to say was never good enough.

I told myself I didn’t really want the things I so desperately wanted. When I didn’t get invited somewhere, I always found an excuse why I didn’t want to go in the first place. This not only made me feel like shit; it fueled my perfectionism, as well. If you tell yourself you don’t want something that you really want, it only fuels the desire. So, by telling myself I didn’t want to go to the movies with friends, for example, this only intensified my desire to connect and be included.

Even when I found a clique to hang out with, I still didn’t feel accepted. I had to always be on guard for the slightest signs that my new friends didn’t really want to be friends with me–they just “allowed” me to hang around because they felt sorry for me or something. Every word, every look, everything they did, I analyzed. And when you look at everything that closely, you’re bound to find something–and I did.

Over time, the things I found built up until I couldn’t trust anybody anymore, and I dumped all my friends.

***

Perfectionism is an ugly beast which has dominated most of my life. It started in middle school; its voice developed in high school and college, growing stronger and stronger; and it continues to control my life today–even in this very moment. As I write this, the voice in the back of my head is saying–

No one likes you or your little blog. You can’t write and, besides, nobody cares about your thoughts anyway. You should just give up.

***

So, now that I know all this, the obvious question for me is how do I control this perfectionist voice? I don’t think it’s a matter of control. I’m never going to be able to control my thoughts. Thoughts come, thoughts go. It’s up to me, though, to decide if I grab a hold of those thoughts and give them power or not.

For example, just yesterday I had some negative thoughts regarding my therapy appointment–

You’re not making any progress in therapy, they said. Your therapist is getting frustrated. Eventually he’ll quit on you; so you should quit first to avoid getting hurt.

When they came I immediately told myself to STOP! In that moment I made a choice not to let my thoughts drag me down. Instead, I focused on something else, and eventually the thoughts went away, losing their power. This obviously took a lot of awareness and practice, practice, practice on my part. Honestly, nine times out of ten, I let my thoughts get the best of me. But I am learning.

Changing my thoughts changes the way I feel, countering my perfectionist tendencies. It will take time and considerable effort, patience and persistence. The important thing is that I don’t give up because that’s what my perfectionist voice wants: to be fueled by my own pessimism.

judgments, criticisms and star trek

I’m afraid of judgments and criticisms, real or imagined. I take them hard, at their face value, and I carry them with me, forever.

For example–

  1. 17 years ago a kid on my school bus said I looked different (not in those words, of course), and I still believe I look different, in the exact same way.
  2. Ten years ago a classmate said I was stupid because I couldn’t verbalize my thoughts, because of my anxiety. Now, whenever I have trouble connecting with my thoughts, I tell myself I’m stupid.
  3. Two years ago a co-worker said I wasn’t approachable because I never smile. To this day, I still feel like I’m unapproachable, in every single situation, and I put immense pressure on myself to smile.

To me, all judgments are objective truths. I know that sounds irrational–and it is–but sometimes my logic is irrational.

In a Star Trek episode I watched today, Data found it puzzling that human beings feel the need to compete with one another. Counselor Troi clarified by saying, “Humans sometimes find it helpful to have an outsider set the standard by which they’re judged.”

“To avoid deceiving oneself,” Data said.

That’s exactly how I feel. The way I see myself is based not only on actual judgments, but on how I believe people perceive me. I use imagined, or hypothetical, judgments to paint a picture of myself, so I don’t deceive myself. They keep me in check, and they fuel my perfectionism.

I don’t want to be judged so I visualize how people could judge me in a given situation, and then try to “correct” my behavior so I don’t fall prey to those very judgments.

What’s more, more often than not, “correcting” my behavior means mimicking how others act. I need to fit in so bad because I don’t want to be judged, I can never be who I am. I can never be me. I just stay in the background, avoiding people and keeping my mouth shut.

Finally, this form of thinking–trying to guess future judgments–takes me out of the present moment and causes undue anxiety. By not being present, and instead focusing on the future, I take myself out of a non-threatening situation (because these thoughts usually come when I’m either doing nothing or something mundane) and put myself into an anxious, hypothetical situation, which causes anxiety and stress that would not be there.

my perfectionism

  1. Internal: I hold myself to ridiculously high standards
  2. External: I hold others to ridiculously high standards
  3. Social: I believe others are holding me to ridiculously high standards

If I had to guess, I’d say that most people suffering from social anxiety can probably relate to at least the first and the third types of perfectionism. We think people are judging us, and so we hold ourselves to an even higher standard. We really just want to fit in, even if it’s not right for us.

For example (and this is an example of the first type of perfectionism), I have this idea of what “normal” is. It’s having friends and a job and a relationship–and balancing (perfectly, of course) my days with each of them. In this ideal, I go to work in the morning, talk to friends on my breaks and maybe see one after work, and then go home to my girlfriend or wife for dinner. All the while, being social, enjoying myself, and keeping busy. After dinner, we hang out in front of the TV, or we browse Facebook, or we go out with friends. This is how “normal” people go about their day. It’s jammed full of one social event after another.

I don’t want to live like this (and I can’t), but to a certain degree, I hold myself to that ideal because I want to fit in. I think I should be living that life, and since I’m not and maybe never will, I feel like shit all the time.

I hold myself to impossible standards I don’t even want to begin with.

This type of perfectionism is not limited just to social events; once it became a part of my life, it multiplied itself exponentially, touching everything–what I major in in college, what I do with my life, what type of food I eat, etc. What’s more, our consumption-driven society exasperates my perfectionism, as well: we’re affected by so much–bombard with so many different advertisements, so many different people telling us what we should buy and who we should be–it’s almost impossible to make any decisions without outside influence–and that influence is what influences my standards.

Even though in some cases I’ve made decisions for me, I think most of the time, I’m conforming to the standards of society. Whether I like it or not, I’ve always just wanted to fit in. I just want to be a statistic, lost in the crowd.

Further, I’ve missed out on a lot of social development, and my peers seem adept at certain things that I struggle at. They can smile when someone says hello. They can make small talk. They can laugh and joke. I can’t keep up with them. They’re perfect, and I’m not. I really need to go through like a social skills training program or something.

With regard to the third type of perfectionism, I feel like I have to conform to everyone’s standards. I have to be everything to everyone. I can never be me.

In fact, I don’t really know who I am anymore. I’ve gone through life trying to please others so much, I’ve forgotten who I really am. I’m lost in various characters and roles–roles I can’t really portray because they’re not really me. No wonder I’m anxious: I’m trying to be something I’m not. But who am I? If I strip away the labels (anxious, depressed etc.) and the roles I conform to, there’s nothing left because I’ve forgotten who I really am. There’s probably just a scared sixteen year old waiting for his mother to come back. Waiting for someone to take care of him (me) again.

As for the second type of perfectionism, I wouldn’t think many people suffering from socially anxiety can relate to it–but I really don’t know. I can relate because after I get passed the first and third types, I start judging others.

When I start feeling comfortable in relationships the judgments come out. This doesn’t happen very often, as I don’t feel comfortable with very many people. Parents, psychologists, girlfriends, to name a few. … Actually, let me rephrase: my mom, my current psychologist, and my current girlfriend. That’s it. Those are the people I judge. When they don’t live up to my expectations–usually the expectations I set for myself–I get angry. Some of it is projecting, and some of it is just me being pretentious.

I sometimes wonder if I actually did live up to my expectations more, would I be more pretentious? Would I just hold everybody to the standards and ideals I think everyone should live up to?

Sorry, I know this post is all over the place; I should revise because it’s not up to my standards … but then again, maybe I shouldn’t …