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I am somewhat of an expert in self-flagellation. Most everything that passes through my mind must first pass a filter of intense judgment and critique. This makes thoughts heavy and tricky and tangled; judgement takes a lot of brain power.
I practice challenging these judgments as they come, or at least noticing when I can’t stop them. But the filter that generates these hypercritical thoughts was set up so long ago, a lot of the time I’m criticizing myself without even realizing it. This obsessive cognitive pattern is super useful when it comes to being a perfectionist high-achiever, but the hidden cost to this sort of setup is that eventually, you burn out big time.
You fizzle. You drain yourself of the energy you used to be excellent at everything you set your sights on. All you’re left with are the mechanisms of critique and constant evaluation that led you to work so hard — only now you aren’t working hard. You’re struggling to complete a single task, let alone perfectly execute a endless stream of them. So being burnt out ends up feeling like as much work as getting everything done was, except now you’ve lost the social capital all that achievement granted you.
Now you’re just lazy and aimless, and your brain won’t ever let you forget it.
I faced a series of these burnouts after leaving for college at 18 and returning one week later due to a total nervous breakdown. I gave myself very little recovery time in the aftermath of that, taking on an accelerated half-semester class and a part-time job as soon as I figured out how to eat and tell time again. These should have been healthy distractions to help keep me busy while I was recovering, but I instead took them to be my recovery incarnate. Succeeding at them proved that I wasn’t some helpless crazy girl Bell Jar-ing her way through early adulthood.
So once I aced the accelerated history class and had a ring full of keys for my dog walking gig, I took 19 units at a community college. Then I started freelance writing and interning at Ravishly. I thought this was a sign that I was doing great; I was succeeding at a lot of things! My sister was hospitalized and I couldn’t go visit her because I had an OCD meltdown about the train crashing while I was on it that was actually about my 19 units of coursework suffocating me to the point of collapse. But I was doing so well! So I dried my tears and kept going.
By the end of the summer of my first year out of high school, I was working full time as a features editor, drumming up the initial plans for this column, and wedging online and evening classes into any gap in my schedule I could find. My literal schedule, yes, but also the arbitrary set of ever-harder-to-reach goalposts that signaled my worthiness to breathe air and take up space.
That schedule was very, very full.
By now, that schedule expected me to be in a longterm relationship, living outside of the California Central Valley, and applying to grad schools while I worked on my first novel and perfected my ancient Greek. Maybe Latin if I felt like switching things up, because it’s important to remain flexible.
It did not even sort of work out that way.
From November of 2016 (GEE, I WONDER WHAT THE ONSET MIGHT HAVE POSSIBLY BEEN?) to the spring of 2017, I was absolutely batshit crazy. That is not hyperbole — it’s fact. I climbed onto a panic rollercoaster and couldn’t find the exit for 6 months. I woke up every morning in the middle of a panic attack.
I dropped all of my classes, over and over. I was put on academic probation. I had to give up the illusion of visiting my primary care provider for antidepressant refills and admit that I needed to see a psychiatrist. I started EMDR therapy in earnest and stopped apologizing to my loved ones for needing it. I had to pause the sprinting achievement marathon I’d made my life into and adapt myself to something that better resembled endurance mountain climbing with plenty of breaks and snacks. And still, I resisted and aimed for nothing short of Everest.
Even though I knew I would only continue this cycle of achievement and burn out, I couldn’t help falling back into the old thought patterns that I’d been working so hard to heal from.
You see, even with all these learning opportunities, all the months spent at rock bottom, all the wounds incurred crawling my way back up — those experiences were nothing compared to the burning need I felt for perfection and control. You have to think very highly of yourself to think you can be perfect, but you also have to hate yourself enough to feel that desperate motivation to aim for the impossible. You must approach all things by thinking, “I am the best there is because if I am not, then I am nothing. I am either perfect or I am worthless, and the only way to prove I am not worthless is to be perfect.”
There are a lot of reasons why people do this, and I couldn’t tell you exactly why my mind works this way — but I don’t doubt it has something to do with a turbulent home life where love, affection, and safety were often conditional. The only way to ensure
deserving receiving them was to be perfect. So that’s what I did, and that’s what I kept doing. Even after it led me to crash and burn, over and over again. I’d pick up a few new coping mechanisms and breathing techniques in between burn outs, but mostly with the intent of using them to make myself better and less flawed so that I might avoid the embarrassment of mental instability.
Even though I talked about how destructive this force had been in my life (and the internet really liked what I had to say), that deeply rooted need to feel wanted and worthy still hinged on how close I made it to perfect. Intellectually, I understood that my perfectionism was —is— toxic and unhealthy, but emotionally I believed that the reason my life and mind felt so chaotic was because I had yet again failed to be perfect.
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Even though I knew I would only continue this cycle of achievement then burn out, I couldn’t help falling back into the old thought patterns that I’d been working so hard to heal from. I’d hop onto the school website and load my course wishlist with even more classes than that nightmare 19 unit semester. I’d fantasize about being well enough to finally single-handedly start that Fresno Queer Culture club I was always daydreaming about, and maybe even go back to full-time editorial work, and start practicing my Spanish, and move to a “real” apartment with a bathtub in it, and "graduate" from therapy, and…
And then my whole world came crashing down around me. The facade of control I’d spent so much energy maintaining was ripped from me.
My parents split up and my father died in the suddenly un-sudden way that many addicts do. My lifelong attempt at perfection did not keep them together. It did not keep him alive. It did not save me from pain or trauma or life-altering loss. If anything, it made me even more vulnerable than I already was. And it wasn’t because I hadn’t been perfect enough; it was because being perfect didn’t even fucking matter. It was a scam, a distraction, and an infuriatingly needless waste of my time.
I did not return to school this semester like I’d been planning to. I came back to work slowly but surely, and I postponed a big project without feeling bad about it. I spent lots of extra time at home and can still only handle seeing people who are not my immediate family members maybe 2 times a week, max. Sometimes I forget to eat. Sometimes I eat too much. Sometimes my brain gets overwhelmed and separates itself from my body. Sometimes my brain is so strongly connected to my body that I get migraines and throw up. A lot of the time it lives in this liminal numb-ish state in between, where everything hurts but not enough to feel real.
The judgment filter in my brain still likes to tell me all the ways in which these things stray from the True North of Perfection. But now I just think about what an insensitive asshole my value system must be in order to expect more than what I have to give right now.
I've just been to hell and back, and perfectionism doesn’t even want to know how I’m feeling? To quote President Knowles-Carter: "Boy, bye." That is not the sort of doomed venture I want to invest my limited emotional capital in.
What am I invested in? Doing my best. I’m doing my best right now, and that’s good enough. I’m also investing in “good enough” because I know that I’ve actually always been doing my best, I just hadn’t ever recognized it as good enough until now. I don’t have it all figured out, but I’m doing my best.
I am doing my best, and that’s good enough for me.
OCDame is a column about chronic mental illness by Jenni Berrett. While she’s no doctor or counselor by any means, she does have extensive experience in being batshit crazy — which she doesn't think is as bad a thing as the world would lead you to believe. Each week she puts that ongoing experience to good use by writing things that have been stuck inside her heart for too long in the hopes that they will help unstick somebody else’s heart too.
Find more articles from OCDame by clicking here. You can also shoot Jenni an email (at any time and about any thing, just so long as you remember the whole aforementioned Not Being A Doctor situation) at firstname.lastname@example.org.