I am often my own worst enemy. Well, enemy may be a bit strong of a word but my own worst critic certainly. And I am a very critical person. My expectations are unreasonably high both for myself and for those whom I love and want the best for and whose actions I think reflect upon me (Read: my children).
I’ve never thought of myself as a perfectionist but I probably am. It’s not that I expect perfection in everything because I know that’s just not logical. It’s that I think if something is going to be done, it should be done to the absolute best that I can do it, or better, no matter who is doing it. Yes, as best as I can do it, you read that right. Not as best as the person doing it, say my son, can do it, no. It needs to be at least as good or better as I myself am capable of doing it. And I am a notorious over-achiever. Except, that’s not quite right because I never think I’ve done a good enough job so it doesn’t need to be done as best as I can do it or better…
It needs to be done to the unrealistic standard I expect myself to be able to do it…or better. Or somewhere in between those two ideas.
The good news is that I KNOW I’m crazy, super-over-critical of myself and those around me so I can work to temper it. For years, I’ve worked to lay off my children and not raise neurotic humans who spend their whole lives feeling like they are never good enough. I’ve tried. But talking about all the damage I’ve done to my intelligent, hardworking, generous, caring first-born is a best left for another blog post. Or better yet, his future therapist.
However, it’s only been the last year or so I’ve finally starting cutting myself some slack. Like so many of the changes I’m working to make in myself and my life, this is a work in progress. As this first week of Fall classes start, I’ve had to do some serious self-intervention to mitigate a quickly approaching stress-meltdown. (Not even counting how much my husband has had to listen to me whine and freak-out this week). Stress is my number one enemy. It affects me physically, mentally, and emotionally. I stress quick and I immediately start funneling it into my very core where it becomes a stress pressure cooker waiting to explode.
Except I don’t envision it as a pressure cooker because I’m too much of a nerd for that. Instead, I see it as a warp core from the USS Enterprise (NCC-1701-D) with the accompanying Geordi La Forge voice screaming warnings about failing cooling systems and imminent core breaches.
The truth is, I walked into this new semester already stressed out. Summer was awesome and chaotic and went by in a blur. I never felt like I had the opportunity to ‘re-set’ and mentally prepare for the next set of classes. I’m only taking 12 credit hours which is the lowest I’ve ever taken but the workload for the classes I’m registered for is notoriously heavy. Additionally, I’m working on an Honors research paper that is going to require serious work hours. Workload, I can handle. I’m really good at being organized and I’m naturally good at academics. The stress comes from the fact that I’ve reached the point in my American Sign Language journey where natural talent isn’t enough anymore.
And the greater truth is that I’m struggling. There are great big flaws in my production skills and more importantly, there is some major disconnect between my knowledge and my ability to apply that knowledge. I can tell you what needs done all day long. I can watch someone sign and know what was done well and what wasn’t. If given the time to plan and prep, I can produce quality product. But set me down in a room and tell me to have a conversation and I barely sign myself out a wet paper bag.
So, I’m stressing. First, because I suck at not being good at something. Second, because I really suck at making myself do things I’m not good at. Third, I’m frustrated because I really want to be good at this. Fourth, I’m afraid we aren’t going to be able fix my issues, that I’ll never overcome these stumbling blocks. And lastly, and presently the thing that has me the most discombobulated right now, is that I’m required to produce crazy amounts of product for several of my classes this semester. Having to submit what I know is bad product stresses me out.
Because deep down, I’m a perfectionist.
Right now, I’m my own worst enemy. I wage an internal battle every time I start to work, employing all my coping techniques, stress-reduction techniques, and anti-emotional-spiral techniques just to get started. Basically, I’m trying to force-feed myself a chill pill. It’s a struggle.
The primary goal right now is for me to focus on a bigger truth, which is:
I’m probably not as bad as I think I am. Seriously. Yes, I have things to learn and things I’m doing wrong and yes, I am struggling. But I guarantee I’m making it a bigger issue than it is. Because I’m super, crazy-over-critical and a perfectionist.
So, right now, instead of allowing the crazy, critical Jennifer to spew her fear and negativity over the situation, I’m focusing on a few things to help me get a more realistic perspective on my situation and alleviate some of the self-induced stress I’m manufacturing at light speed.
Everyone is a Beginner in the Beginning.
Even the greats, the prodigies, had to start at the beginning. Granted they may have progressed to greatness much quicker than most, at one point even Mozart had to learn the scales. This is the most helpful concept for me because I tend to expect that I should automatically produce excellence at what I do, even if I just learned it. Partly, this is due to my personality, but it’s also a lot to do with the fact that I do pick things up really quickly and do well at them. I am a quick learner and for those things that I have an affinity for, I understand them intuitively on many levels pretty rapidly. Couple that with a propensity not to try things I’m not naturally talented at and you’ve got yourself a pretty skewed sense of what real learning looks like. I wish I could remember who or where I got this idea from, that it’s ok to be a beginner, everyone is a beginner in the beginning because it has been the most effective tool in my arsenal at disassembling the unrealistic expectations I set for myself.
Not Everyone is a Prodigy and That’s O.K.
Seriously, it’s ok to not be the absolute best in your field. Those better than us serve as challenges to push ourselves to improve and there always is or will be someone better. I am pretty self-competitive. If someone is better at something than me, I work to improve myself to be as good as them, even if I never am. They unknowingly act as the catalyst I use to push myself. I don’t always enjoy not being the most knowledgeable person in the room but what I gain from it is definitely worth the sacrifice to my ego. In reality, on those occasions where I am the most knowledgeable one in a learning setting, I find myself frustrated. In those settings, I feel the challenge to push myself isn’t present, I don’t feel the need to work harder, and in the long-run my skills suffer for it.
Making Mistakes is Part of Learning.
I don’t have an issue with making mistakes except when I’m doing something I’m passionate about and have worked hard on, such as my ASL skills. Making mistakes is not only part of being human but it’s probably one of the most important learning tools available. I learn so much from the mistakes I’ve made if those mistakes are corrected by someone in the know. This is actually an area I’m struggling with currently. So many of my early mistakes in ASL learning were not corrected and now they are being corrected all at once. It’s demoralizing to carry a 4.0 and be told I’m doing great for two years and then suddenly turn around and everything (sensationalized, both here and in my head) I’m doing is wrong and needs to be corrected. I understand the not constantly correcting students during the beginning and intermediate levels is meant to not crush their spirit but for this girl, it would have been so much better than the current reality. I just keep reminding myself that the lessons I’ll learn from having these mistakes corrected will be no less beneficial for their frequency.
Knowing is Half the Battle.
I know I stress and over-criticize even if I don’t always remember it right away when I start to do it. In knowing that I do this, I’m able to self-correct this behavior. When I find myself facing challenges, stressing, beating myself up, etc. I can stop and take a breath and ask myself, “Is this situation really this bad or am I just making it out to be this bad.” In those instances, where it’s my own nature that is causing the stress, I can take steps necessary to gain a more realistic perspective of the situation. Frankly, this category should have been the first listed because the things listed above are some of most important steps I take to self-correct; however, it worked better to put it here at the end because understanding that I’ve done this to myself again is typically only possible once I’ve reached a pretty high level of stress in spite of the efforts listed above. Once I’m aware that I’m in a bad place, I can go back to those same ideas and employ them to relieve some of the pressure I’ve put on myself. It’s a cycle that repeats, albeit a bit less frequently the more I work through it.
In addition to these important mental strategies, I also find it necessary to watch my diet. Sugar, especially, causes me to have hormonal imbalances and mood swings, which makes dealing with stress more difficult. I also have to closely monitor my schedule to make sure I haven’t overcommitted myself. It is absolutely imperative that I get my ‘me-time’ to recharge my extrovert battery because, as a natural introvert, it can run dry pretty quickly.
In spite of all of these coping techniques that I recommend because they really do work, I don’t ever see myself being a laid back, come-what-may kind of person. It’s just not me. I’m naturally a Type-A, overachieving woman who has high expectations. This isn’t a bad thing! Even though it gets me in trouble from time to time, it also has gotten me so many places in life I may never have gone. I don’t expect my personality to change nor do I really want it to. I just don’t want to be an anxiety-ridden stressed-out monster along with it.
I think it’s possible to be ambitious and strive for the best in all things while still being able to accept that the world and the people around me are what they are, and what they are is often vastly different than what I expect them to be. And that’s ok.
Just like it’s ok that I’ll never be perfect at everything I do.