A favorite saying of mine in session is to tell a client that everyone is fucked up in some way. Even the people that appear like they have it all together. Even me. I get variable responses when I say this – shock, disbelief, relief. But it’s true. I follow it up with expressing gratitude for the fact that because of the work I do and the stories I get to hear, I am reassured of this on a regular basis. This is important because it reassures *me* (more about this in a bit). Social media and frankly, our human desire for acceptance, encourages what I think of as presentation of the ‘highlights reel.’ There are like and heart buttons to express support of the good stuff. Stuff like a sweet picture or memory, good news, an accomplishment – and my personal fav, cute animal pics. Some folks use it to express and gain support for political thoughts or to comment on what’s going on in the world. No matter how you spin it, there are very few acceptable, non-shaming places to honestly and vulnerably post about crappy news, struggles, unmet needs, and updates you must awkwardly share.
I’ll give you an example – a few years ago, I got divorced from a long time partner. Not the sort of thing I’m likely to post about on social media because you know, boundaries…privacy. But still, people eventually needed to know, even those with whom I wasn’t particularly close. As you might imagine, there’s plenty of ways to celebrate milestones in a budding relationship but it’s kind of a downer to post about a breakup or loss. I tried not to make a big deal of it but I was left feeling somewhat passive aggressive – posting about my new single life, eventually dating, and leaving my former spouse out of the picture (so to speak). I never outright said I had gotten divorced unless someone asked because it seemed like it would draw undue attention to me and the subject. That left my clueless Facebook friends to dig (if they felt inclined) and draw their own conclusions. Not my ideal situation.
Giving Myself a Break – A Recovering Perfectionist
In a perfect world, I could share the news of my divorce in a status update and it would be no big deal unless I wanted it to be. Life is forever complicated. I have recently been sharing with my clients that I’m a recovering perfectionist. All throughout my 20’s, I would work really long and hard on writing and graphic arts pieces, often asking for extensions on projects or overpromising and underdelivering. I was working in an office and trying to finish my undergrad degree so this worked to my disadvantage. The problem was I knew that I could make something a little better by tweaking it a little more and I kept seeing all the ways to improve. By then, I was also starting to anticipate criticisms (constructive or otherwise) from bosses or professors. Driven by praise, I wanted to shine and impress others with my work. When I landed my first solid clinical job, I once told the CEO of the company, “I love doing my job so much that I’d work for free!” He must have LOVED hearing that. Unless he was healthy and supportive, of course.
Towards the end of my undergrad work, I had a flash of insight. We are sold the idea that getting A’s in a class is the only way. B’s are marginally acceptable and a C is basically failing. But that’s not how the system was set up – this was a skew from the original norm. In a grading system, A’s were intended for excellent work, B’s for very good, C’s for expected, D’s for less than expected and F’s were failing. Now, I also don’t believe in failure but that’s another post. This insight allowed me to see that it was impossible to be excellent at everything – I had to pick and choose. I could be very good or above average with a few more things but even that had limits. Most of my tasks and talents fell in the ‘C’ range – average – because there’s only so much time, attention, and energy in the world and I had to budget. I ended up deciding that I wanted to be an excellent psychologist, partner, and best friend (later an excellent parent), a very good friend to those close to me), and average at everything else. Everything else include stuff like cleaning, cooking, organizing, remembering stuff, fashion, home repair, etc. This let me off the hook for perfection in my own mind. I had an answer to the voice in my head that told me to ‘keep tweaking’ – it was, “Yes, but is this a smart use of your limited energy with the time you have available and the other things you have to do?”
The Law of Average
Does acknowledging your limits let you off the responsibility hook? A better question I hear is, “But will I stop caring about everything now?” as well as, “Other people are able to do ______, I should make myself do it too.” One part of the highlights reel is that we believe we’re getting a sense of what’s normal or average and then apply that standard to ourselves. But if you remember, everyone is fucked up in some way – if I didn’t tell you about my divorce, you may not have ever known about it. By the same token, everyone has certain strengths as well. By comparing yourself and the wealth of knowledge you have about your situation and your life, to someone else’s ‘highlights reel’, you are comparing apples to oranges. Reorganizing your priorities and values towards maybe 15% excellence, 35% above average performance and 50% for everything else allows you to make decisions regarding your guiding life principles. This will keep you on the road and allow for potholes. Celebrate the parts you do well and/or have put effort towards. They are likely different than what someone else has done. It is perfectly acceptable to have complementary skills and characteristics to someone you admire rather than imitating that person.
Beware of the Naked Man Who Offers You His Shirt
I’ve heard this phrase in many iterations – as an African proverb, a quote from an Indian entertainer, and a business author. You might also know it as, “Put the oxygen mask on yourself first.” The sentiment is the same – you have a responsibility to take care of yourself first before all others. This can slide a little for parents but not much (and yes, I am one). In case you don’t trust my years of clinical expertise and training as well as life experience, here’s my pitch for why you need to fill your glass first: a classic codependent example.
Partner 1 – Has anxiety with being criticized due to fears they are falling short in life, not doing enough, aren’t acceptable as they are, are too much to handle and if they are really known, will be abandoned. Proactively overfunctions by handling all the chores, doesn’t ask for much, doesn’t complain, tries really hard.
Partner 2 – Also has anxiety about all of the above. Because of different life circumstances, this person may believe they are also holding up their end of the relationship bargain by providing something essential for the household such as financial stability or childcare. May seem they they are taking more space because they handle emotions differently by asking for more, venting or complaining, or not pulling their weight.
Both people in this relationship are always tired, dissatisfied, and need more from the other. Both also believe that the other should give more and that would solve their problems. So who is in the right? Sorry, that was a trick question. They are both right and wrong (though I am loathe to use those black and white terms). The truth is, I see people in these stuck places all the time. Both partners are in what I like to call a ‘drought situation’ – they need water from the other but the well is dry. How can you give to your partner when you don’t have it to give?
The scenario above isn’t an exact representation of my former marriage but there are elements to which I can relate. In fact, I can relate even now with more insight and reflection because I still have work to do. I hope I am always a student of myself and of life because that’s insurance against boredom.
Where does this leave us?
We can always start with giving to ourselves. Many times, we look to others to fill our cracked cups. Inevitably, whatever we get drains out if we’re not also giving to ourselves. That leads those who give to us to feel that we’re an endless black hole of need – that no matter what they give, it will never be enough for us. And it’s true – if we don’t repair the cracks and start to fill our own cups, it is never enough to get it from others. Repair comes most speedily from psychotherapy. Change in therapy occurs when we reexamine old memories and core beliefs for the purpose of finding new insights and perspective. It’s always amazing to me that by looking at something in a new way that you never thought of, we can release its power. There is a purpose to digging up old painful stuff. There is hope. You’ll still be fucked up and that too, is okay.
What are your thoughts? How far along have you gotten with accepting yourself?
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Also published on Medium.