Perfectionism: My Enemy, My Ally
Flawed and Feeling - CRAP!
I believed from a very early age that if I worked hard and excelled at things, I would settle the discord within my family.
You see, my dad was an alcoholic, one that tended towards stony silence when sober (and when something annoyed him that he wouldn't talk about) and melancholia when drunk. My mother was a great mom, and by many accounts she was also a great friend, nurse, and colleague. The problem was, she tended to ignore my father's alcoholism and pretty much encouraged us to do the same. Ignoring his alcoholism, however, did not mean that the problem didn't exist - it just meant that we got to be great pretenders.
I was also the oldest in my family, which gave me sense of great responsibility. I felt I needed to keep an eye out, like some sort of twisted bodyguard, for my younger, mischievous sister. I became very protective of her, and when she protested against it, the fight would be on and rightfully so. I admire her now for her independence, though I see much of it in my youngest daughter today. I also believed that I had to be the role model that my sister could look to for how to get things done right and avoid conflict.
But when you're young, and you're trying very hard to keep things calm and settled in your life, you believe the darnedest things. That was what I chose to believe, and while I've shed certain beliefs I had when I was little, it's hard to eliminate certain behaviors.
I've become very talented, for instance, at chasing my own tail, trying to get everything done that likely couldn't possibly get done in a 24 hour time frame. Even God rested on the Sabbath, right? Not me - let's cram as much activity in as humanly possible til I drop like a stone into my bed, completely drained, only to recover and do it all again the next day. I think I've become the person people can count on to get things done, and generally done quite well. I like that feeling.
It's a little like a drug, that feeling. It becomes addictive, to an extent. As a result, I find myself diving headlong into one activity after the next—and if I have any sort of down time, I find something to fill it with.
That has led, at least in part, to me living with anxiety and depression, particularly when I don't reach my own lofty goals. It has led to me sleeping quite poorly; I told my therapist that while I don't have problems going to sleep (again, I hit the pillows and my family says that within minutes, I'm snoring), it's the staying asleep that's problematic. If I wake in the middle of the night, my mind starts whirling in much the same way as an old-school rolodex; the cobwebs from sleep are gone, and while I may be able to drift off in fairly short order, the mind continues to work almost in overdrive.
Four hours of sleep a night simply won't sustain you, and it's led me to realize that my desire to keep busy has also left me more flawed and feeling; a lack of sleep ends up making you a throbbing raw nerve at times, and emotionally, you could become a mess.
I continue to reach for getting everything done, on time, and done to my highest level. How can I continue to do that when running on an average of about four hours of sleep a night? Coffee can only bring you so far before your body says, "Good luck - we're shutting down for a while."
But perfectionism ain't all bad.
Perfectionism Isn't Sustainable
Certain Gifts Perfectionism Has Given Me
My perfectionist tendencies may have given me a significant lack of sleep, but they have also provided me with a lot of good things, too.
Things like encouraging my students (and my own children for that matter) that you shouldn't give less than your best in anything that you attempt.
Things like allowing students the opportunity to redo something that I know isn't their best work. We have off days all the time, and given my clientele, to expect them to achieve to the maximum possible in everything may just be too hard, particularly since they are just discovering how to balance school, jobs, relationships, and rest. How can they always achieve what's expected and more? These are teens, and they haven't had the life experience to learn how to compartmentalize certain things in order to keep reaching for their best. They can't achieve perfection, any more than I can.
These perfectionist traits are, at times, tough. I've had to learn how to be a little more forgiving with myself, and with others. You can be really a pain in the butt when you're trying to apply your own perfectionist traits to a younger audience pumped with hormones and wanting sleep or food, so you have to learn quickly how to be forgiving with them.
Ultimately, learning to be more gentle with myself and others is likely my perfectionist traits' greatest gift. It's not an easy thing, but I'm learning.