I remember one run I had a few years ago where it dawned on me that a great many of my weaknesses seem to be anchored in one big one: I care too much about what others think.
I know that shouldn't have floored me, but it did.
Before that moment, I definitely would have labeled myself as a "people pleaser," but I don't know if I would have had the courage to admit that a huge motivation in my life was not necessarily "to be good;" nope, it was in actuality, "to have others think that I am good."
I have been seeing a good therapist lately who calls me out on my crap. I had forgotten this prior realization about myself. (It turns out, it's easy to stuff down weaknesses you are ashamed of instead of face them head-on.) Very early in meeting with her, she guided me to see that I have a LOT of work to do on where my motivation is coming from. I felt so embarrassed because even for her I wanted to appear to be a rightly-motivated perfectionist; but after a few days of thinking about it, I knew she was right.
This therapist is also kind, so also early on she threw me a bone and helped me see another big motivating factor underlying my perfectionism is a strong self-hatred. (How's that for being nice to me? Somehow, that made me feel better.)
When I took her intake test, I was feeling like I was in a pretty good place, compared to other hard times. Sure, I was pregnant with my third child and feeling pretty overwhelmed. I was up half the night with insomnia (and charlie horses), worrying about the world and worrying about my kids. In the middle of the night, I felt pretty inadequate as a mother, a wife, and human being. But those feelings would fade a bit by morning. During the day, I felt fairly stupid because my brain was so foggy. I felt untalented compared to my friends and people on the internet. I often felt a little "blue."
But I thought that was all mostly normal, because I knew what it felt like to be realllllllly depressed, and I wasn't that. After all, I was getting out of bed each day, doing my duties, being active with my life, interested in my children, and by all accounts finding moments of real happiness amidst the chaos. I wasn't starving myself, binging, or exercising to death. I wasn't wishing for death.
And yet, my therapist's first comment when we finally met was about how her intake test labeled me as highly depressed.
I know that also shouldn't have floored me, but it did.
"I'm 'highly depressed?!'" I asked her, laughing.
The rest of the hour was spent going through the test questions and my answers. Ultimately, we talked about how although my actions weren't necessarily "highly depressed," my inner-self definitely was, with my thoughts all cycling around a huge amount of self-hatred.
Have you been there? Are you now?
I think this shocked me so much because I thought I had done a pretty good job of becoming a recovering-perfectionist. I felt that a lot of my recent struggles had to do with being fairly numb and apathetic about my life as an effort to stay away from bad perfectionist tendencies. But in truth, I was holding on to a perfectionist mind-set and that was still destroying me from the inside out.
During another run later, I had a helpful realization about that perfectionist mind-set. So much of perfectionism for me is seeing others do something great, healthy, or inspirational and this voice comes on in my head.
It's the "Should" voice.
I see a young mother really being present with her kids at a fun activity and the voice says, "I should be doing that." I hear of a friend successfully returning to school: "I should finally start on those college classes." I read about a woman whose kids prefer playing games over screen time: "I should not let my kids watch any TV ever again."
"I should do more strength training." "I should eat less sugar." "I should read more to my kids." "I should be a size two." "I should eat all organic." "I should have more kids." "I should dress better." On and on and on and on.
This is not to say that all "Shoulds" are bad. Healthy "Shoulds" are very necessary in being good citizens, parents, friends, etc. Good "Shoulds" lead to better lives as we all need to be trying to be better and do better. Otherwise, we are missing out on what life is all about.
Perfectionism is when all those "Shoulds" become "Have Tos," and those "Have Tos" are more motivated by fear (fear of what others think, fear of being a failure) coupled with self-hatred. Give that voice enough presence in your thoughts and few years in the perfectionism incubator, and suddenly you are frantically doing everything in your life at full throttle. And nothing will ever be good enough.
I remember my first real experience with the "Should" voice. I was in 7th grade at the end of our first quarter. We had all received report cards and as we walked from the bus stop home the neighborhood kids were comparing notes. A well-admired girl in my grade got a lot of A's and people were impressed. I looked down at my report card and felt embarrassed that I had far more B's than A's. (There might have been seen some Cs in there.) I admired this girl too; I wanted to be more like her. I can say in hindsight now that I also liked the positive attention she received. (My therapist would be proud!) So I ventured to my first round of letting the "Should" voice direct my actions. Straight A's it would be from then on.
(Hysterical sidenote: Want to see a crazy transformation? Behold! My 6th and 8th grade photos:)
I am grateful for some "Should" voices, such as my heeding the call for change, listening to the voice saying that I shouldn't live this way the rest of my life. But I think the key to discovering which "Shoulds" are right and which are wrong is to rephrase them: Change those "Shoulds" to "Coulds."
"I could do more strength training."
"I could eat more organic."
"I could read some parenting books."
When phrased this way, they become more of a choice. So, if I do decide to incorporate more strength training into my week, it's for the right reason--my back hurts, weight lifting helps--instead of a "Have to" reason. If I choose to eat more organic, it is because I like the changes I feel when doing so. If I choose to improve my parenting, it's more out of love for them and for me, than from hatred for myself and my failings.
Paying attention to your thoughts is the first step in any therapy, I'm sure; that's certainly been the case with me. It's also darn exhausting. Experience has shown me it gets easier in time and with a lot of practice. Although it's very easy to slip back to the little "Should" voice, it is one of the best things I've learned to resist. It makes all the difference.