Saturday, March 31, 2012

Dethroning Perfectionism

Disclaimer:  This post contains material possibly best left for a therapy appointment.  Still, it's what's going on.

Several weeks ago I was shopping in Goodwill and took a close look at their books, which I've only recently started doing.  The book selection is often quite incredible, and yet, when in that Goodwill mentality, paying $3.99 for a hardcover and $.99 for a paperback somehow suddenly becomes a process of prioritizing the Really Good Ones above the ones that are good but feel not worth even that price.  Never mind the hardcover children's book I purchased over the winter holidays which had about six pages in it and cost twenty dollars.  When searching among deals, it becomes a discriminating exhumation of the True Deal.

So I was walking along with my head angled down to the right, reading every title.  In the non-fiction section, I saw everything from the hilarious Cat Haiku to the blaming 100 Things Women Do to Mess Up Their Lives.  Or is it 10?  Googling the author right now I see it is 10, but by those ridiculous standards, I'm clearly guilty of more than that.  Anyway, I took a few more steps and a paperback practically jumped off the shelf into my hands.  It was the book Never Good Enough: How to Use Perfectionism to Your Advantage Without Letting It Ruin Your Life by psychologist Monica Ramirez Basco.

In the past six months I have begun considering myself a recovering perfectionist, as I get a handle for the first time on the underlying reasons why I periodically overwork myself, so enjoy (most of the time) crossing every t and dotting every i, and can at times be quite hard on myself for not doing so.  No small part of my motivation to look at this in myself is my noticing that my five-year-old has been known to adjust the angle of a throw rug on the floor before leaving the room.  Ack.

So while standing in the book aisle, I quickly flipped through some of the early chapters.  The first thing I noticed was that the book contained some self assessments that had been filled in by a previous owner.  Ouch.  I considered writing down the title and going somewhere to buy the book new.  I said "recovering," remember.  But I pressed on, read the introduction and after the phrases "unreasonable expectations" and "extremely high goals" flashed by, I knew this book was coming with me.  For .99.

My reading style tends to involve having a few books going at once, usually a novel and some kind of non-fiction, optimal-for-personal-reflection kind of book.  Recently, for example, I just finished the third book in the Outlander series, a racy, action-adventure historical time travel set of novels, as well as Here If You Need Me by Kate Braestrup, a memoir about the death of the author's husband and her personal journey into the ministry.  I enjoy flights of fancy balanced with serious, introverted focus.

So I began reading the perfectionism book the next day on the bike machine at the Y.  The first amazing thought I read involved how perfectionists often try to make things perfect as an attempt to ward off or lower anxiety.  Whoa.  Anxiety?  What anxiety?  OHHHH...right, the anxiety of being seen as a total fraud, not good enough, and all the other things that may have actually been slung in my direction in years long gone past, but now were things I just perpetually remind myself of, quietly but surely. 

This was a new idea, that perfectionist behavior has a purpose, other than just being reflective of the Right Way to Live.  I had been at points in the past despairing about whether I might ever dethrone the set of standards that are entrenched in my everyday life.  I had long since stopped expecting others to live by the same standards (most of the time), but I was thinking I would be forever bound by the rules, had no choice about them.  No dishes may be left in the sink.  The bed will be made every morning.  Things must happen on time, and in a certain order, and by the way, find a way to actually like this ALL THE TIME so you can be perceived as cheerful, for God's sake.  This is the Right Way to Live, and people are paying attention. 

The thing about perfectionism, and its dear friend multitasking, is that people do pay attention.  Others sometimes envy the productivity, the clarity, the sureness, the deafening relentlessness of needing to get things right, that results.  It has a lot of benefits and I get a lot of at-a-girls from working so hard at everything I do.  However, it's companion reaction by others is that we perfectionists can also be intolerant, controlling, and unable to relax while that picture is hanging slightly unevenly on the wall.  It implies a Right Way.  So we are not always fun to be around.  "Too intense," is a phrase I recall someone using to describe me when she didn't want to insult me outright. 

So surely it remains a tall order, to keep the good and negotiate the bad in all of this.  But, suddenly knowing that comparing the relative stress of giving a reasonable timeline for a job and hoping it is acceptable to the client, to the stress of being judged by the invisible queen who breaks into my soul and metaphorically runs her gloved fingers over the tops of my doors looking for dust, snarling and cackling about how I am "Nothing, nothing!" is a no-brainer.  I now perceive the choice.  

For me, having been chased by this royal pain for decades, this beacon of light feels like...hmmm...what?  Power.  Freedom from the queen's dungeon.  A considerably lighter load.  Despite that fact that I still value high achievement, examining and dismantling my perfectionist thought is increasing both my joy quotient, and the amount of actual credit I give myself for what I do well.  If the goal of working hard has been to reduce my ever-present anxiety, this explains why no amount of good work over the years seems to have quelled my undercurrents of self-doubt.  I remember in college telling myself I somehow convinced professors to like me so they would feel guilty if they didn't give me As.  Anyone else have wild self-talk like that? 

Finally, one of the tyrannies of being a perfectionist is that there is no rest.  Even resting can involve waking up in the early hours to jot down lists that magically come to your attention even while asleep.  And does anyone else only rest when sick?  I remember a former supervisor telling me after several years of big projects, "Kate, you may be the most productive employee I've ever had.  My fear is that one day you will wake up and not get out of bed."  On the one hand, no one can argue about you not doing enough when you're sick, unless on the other hand your curse is that your family thinks getting sick results from you not doing a good enough job of taking care of your self.  Just sayin', perfectionism is all about no escape.  It's no-win.

So here's to rethinking our own quiet and self-damaging thoughts, and to the idea posted on my blog to the right of my blog posts, for the month of March:  Don't let the perfect get in the way of the good.  Paraphrased from Voltaire, and "perfect" for any occasion. 

Thursday, March 29, 2012

"What do you do?"

I spoke on a panel this week at my alma mater, the University of Maine School of Law, about "alternate" uses for a J.D. degree, specifically in the field of policy.  J.D. means Juris Doctor, or, Doctor of Laws - a law degree. 

I graduated from law school in 1997 and have never practiced law.  It was no small thrill to be invited back in the context of being seen as successful in my professional life, when for fifteen years, and as recently as last week, I have been asked, "Are you sure you don't want to be a lawyer?"  Clearly, I am still not meeting some cultural expectations even after all these years.

I went to the panel, which turned out to be a panel of two people including me.  I had spent some days thinking quite seriously about profession and personal identity.  I am a self-employed consultant engaged in various avenues of work including violence prevention, organizational development and capacity building.  That mouthful said, my current largest contract involves writing lesson plans for law enforcement officers-in-training at the Maine Criminal Justice Academy, which doesn't fit neatly in any of those aforementioned categories. 

In the past, I spent eight years working as a trainer and educator at a domestic violence resource center, worked as a researcher looking at gender equity issues relating to girls in the juvenile justice system, staffed the Maine Domestic Abuse Homicide Review Panel out of the Attorney General's Office, was a Crime Analyst and Reserve Officer at the Augusta Police Department, worked on a team of professional writers to create scripts for a proposed children's television series in the style of Broadway for kids, and on it has gone.  Who does that make me?  I have felt very connected to, and passionate about, all of these jobs.  I'm pretty driven.  I have worked at many of them as if my life depended on them, as if I was them.
I remember when I was in my early twenties and met a man who was perhaps fifteen to twenty years older than me.  We'll call him Scott because that was in fact his name, and when we started talking I asked him "What do you do?"  He answered, "What I do for money is work at the post office.  I'm really an artist, a painter."  And I'll admit after all these years, I had to struggle for a moment just now to recall that his money job was at the post office.  I saw his paintings, and own two of them, and that is how I remember him. 

Another incident about profession and self-identity that stands out in my mind is a day I was in my office at the domestic violence resource center and a co-worker came in and exclaimed, "You have a doctorate degree, we should be calling you Dr. Faragher!"  I laughed and said thanks but no thanks.  While I am proud of and grateful for my education, I have never led with it.  My own humble approach to having a J.D. is not something I wanted to recommend to current law students over other approaches, but I did encourage them to think about how they view their law degree.  Is it a ticket?  To wealth, credibility, security?  Is it a death sentence?  Does it create obligations due to student loans or the expectations of others?  Is it a tool?

I see my J.D. now, and really all of my jobs since graduating college and law school, as things I have done, not who I am professionally.  While I certainly wore the mantle of "domestic violence lady" for some years, and continue to feel passionate about creating culture change regarding gender violence, this work has not somehow marked me for life.  Speaking to a group of questioning law students on Tuesday reminded me that the longer I retain my "free radical" status, even in relation to a high-powered education, or work I love, the more likely I am to do my best work and to receive the next exciting opportunities I may desperately want or need.  Working at interesting jobs is only ever a part of weaving an interesting life.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Getting Connected by Breaking Up with E-Mail

I do not carry a smart phone, and my flip phone is not conducive to texting. I do know how to text and occasionally do it, but I don't like it. If it is still around when Noah is older, I will surely change my feelings about it at that point.

I understand from talking with mothers of older kids that the culture of e-mail has changed. The younger generation finds it cumbersome and outdated and prefer messages to be instant and abbreviated, texted or Tweeted. I remember a friend telling me a great story about how the best way to reach her son was to call his cell phone but not leave a message. He would almost immediately call back, whereas voice mails and e-mails would elicit no response at all, and even texts were touch and go. The rules of the game are constantly in flux.

I continue to use the Hotmail e-mail address that I have had since at least the early 1990s. I have a gmail account that I use for some things as well, but Hotmail is still my main gig after all these years. My consulting work and personal contacts happen through that address. I read articles at the gym sometimes about how using Yahoo or Hotmail accounts scream out that I am a technological idiot and unable to function in today's communication landscape. Not true, but I don't care. In some ways, image is not at all what I am about. And since I've not yet in six years had to advertise that I am looking for more consulting work, it obviously isn't making people run screaming to the hills.

And yet, e-mail has meant a lot to me over the past couple of decades. While I don't hear people bragging, exactly, about how many e-mails they receive on a regular basis, I certainly have gained satisfaction from how successfully I have used e-mail to cultivate and maintain work relationships, to stay in touch with friends, and to engage in political activism and consumerism. Somehow, the number of e-mails I receive and am able to deal with became a Measure of My Worth. Has anyone else felt this, even while slaving away for a fourth hour at messages that took someone one minute to write and generated hours if not days of work or thought? Having a full inbox is a great way to feel important. Never mind that at least some percentage of e-mails include notices from the Gap telling you about their newest 30% off online sale. Somehow this too becomes, "How special I am, to be included in the select millions who get to shop this exclusive sale online."

And yet, e-mail is also is a burden. Those attachments. The endless threads when people choose "reply all" and make you see every single RSVP. The things that never would be said to you if you were face-to-face with the person instead. The viagra ads. My husband comes home at 9:00 p.m. with a wild look in his eyes, after having been at his job since 6:30 in the morning, driving back and forth between the two elementary schools at which he is the Principal, responding to crises with students, parents and staff all day long, skipping dinner and working straight through to the evening School Board Meeting two towns away, but none of this was enough, because he didn't get to check his e-mail and surely has 85 messages from the day that require immediate response. It's a burden.

I don't know what, exactly, changed my relationship with e-mail, but four weeks ago, we broke up. I had not been frustrated with it, had not felt it had treated me unfairly, but one day, I woke up and had had enough. I knew it owned me, and I got mad at it. I responded thoroughly to every personal message. I "unsubscribed" relentlessly. I deleted. I got my inbox down to zero by the end of the day. That night I slept the sleep of a happy child. Peace and freedom.

And I have gone to bed every night since then with my inbox empty. Not empty as in, e-mails stuck in dozens of folders to respond to later, but Empty. Emp-Ty. As in, no one loves me as much as I love myself, Empty. And the funny thing is, in the years before now I sometimes would have gone weeks without e-mailing my best friend, or sending that great photograph to my Dad, but I've had four wonderful weeks of e-mailing regularly with the people who matter the most. And despite the fact that I still receive advertisements, online petitions, and newsletters, I am not overwhelmed by them. Rather, I actually feel connected again, to myself and others. Now, wasn't the point of e-mail in the first place to have the possibility of instant connection?

In my life, at least, e-mail has been lovingly shown the door, appropriately resized and qualified. Now that I've got a bigger stake in my life and time than it does, hmm, I think we might actually be friends again.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Pizza and a Movie

Two weeks ago I instituted Friday night pizza and movie night at home. That night I made pizza crust in the afternoon, and we ate pizza and watched "Dolphin Tale" about a dolphin that gets her tail wrapped in a crab trap line, has her tail amputated, and receives a prosthetic tail. Noah loved it all, food and film. Then we discovered that the dolphin featured in the movie, "Winter," actually lives in a marine aquarium about 20 minutes from where we'll be staying on our Florida vacation in April, so Noah is ecstatic. The best part of the film was being able to watch Noah across the room, every emotion showing on his face as he experienced moments of tragedy, joy, and peaceful fulfillment. Even when he hid his face with his hands I saw he was riveted.

After watching "Dolphin Tale" I became pretty concerned about this new tradition. While I adore movies, finding ones we deem appropriate and harmless for Noah is not easy, and I was not confident I would find anything else that did not involve talking dogs or modern adult male comedians trying unsuccessfully to become the newest Stooge. The breakneck pace and violent or sexualized humor in most animated movies is also not what I want Noah watching at 5-years-old ("Ponyo" was a great recent exception that we saw a year ago or so). "Bambi" was hard enough with his mom dying, but at least it happened off camera. I was horrified when we stumbled into an evening last year that involved the movie "Up" in which there was more hand-to-hand combat fighting than a lot of war films I've seen. Yes, the balloons were a stunning effect, but I thought "Die Hard" was more relaxing an action film.

So last week I scoured the family videos in our local store, wholly unsure of what else I might find. Because Noah loves nature, I gratefully scooped up Disney's "African Cats" and "Arctic Tale," two documentary-style, narrated films focusing on animal families and their wild lives. They too were emotional for us to watch, as animal mothers struggled to help their babies survive the perils of predators and changes in habitat. And animal fathers were ousted, did battle with each other for dominance, and generally either stood aside or attacked their children. I cringed across the room as Noah calmly and lovingly accepted the lessons about the cycle of life, the food chain and the rules of survival in the natural world.

And it's Friday again. This morning I asked Noah what kind of movie he would like to watch tonight, thinking I would have to start getting the classic musicals like "Mary Poppins" and feeling once again like this whole parenting thing is fraught, fraught! "Non-fiction," he said without hesitation. "I want more non-fiction about animals. Ocean animals, this time."

Even in these small ways, this little creating of a joyful and fun weekly tradition, parenting takes me into the deep of my own fears every day. How much information about the culture and world is enough? What is too much? At 5, what can Noah handle? A colleague and friend used to ask me about Noah by saying, "How's the man-cub?" It's all right there all the time, the boy and the future man. Like the cheetah and polar bear mothers, I want Noah to understand about the world, while also being safe to develop what it will take to thrive in it.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Pausing to Consider the Next Bite

It does seem as if I have read a lot of apologetic blogs and Facebook posts lately, from people who have not been keeping up on the their blog posts as they feel they Should. I have no apology for my hiatus, partly because I assume no one could possibly be checking this blog since it has been almost two years since my last post. True to form, my favorite way to achieve and succeed is with low expectations up front.

My last post indicated the start of a new consulting project. I think of it now as the start of a very long two year race to the finish line, which I finished last September. It was a time full of working late nights and weekends, trying to work around parenting and partnering. Moments when I felt like I could do it all, and moments of deep exhaustion and nothing but will power getting me through the time. But I finished the project. And remain glad I did it, although it was a compromise of other things I hold dear.

I thought in September I might immediately jump into some creative writing projects, with the new free time. I quickly understood I would be decompressing and enjoying the space around me instead. A drive to lighten my workload has also caused me to seek the deeper freedom and peace that can only come from examining the root causes of my years of overwork. So I have taken that personal investigation on as well, in the past months.

And the big change, Noah began Kindergarten in September. I anticipated this with a mix of feelings, which included joy and nervousness, mostly. I did not feel deep fear of him Leaving Home, because his experience with a two-day Pre-School the previous year had been so positive. At each new step, he seems to be reading and wanting it. I wish as a younger person I had felt so ready to bite into life like it was my own crisp waiting apple.

He loves school, he is like a fish in water. He goes 5 days a week, from approximately 8-4 - a long day. The "academics" of Kindergarten are coming easily to him and as it is a blended K-1 classroom, he is doing some 1st Grade work. The social part of school, along with the art, music, phys. ed., he enjoys immensely. When I struggle with my worth as a parent I look at him owning and enjoying his life and know that he is thriving.

And at 5, he still loves to snuggle, to read books together under a blanket. I remember once when I was pregnant with Noah and we didn't know if I was having a boy or a girl, someone said, "Well, the great thing about boys is that Boys Love Their Mothers." I feel that every day, even this morning when he was mad at me because I asked him not to wear 5 shirts to school at the same time.

The past few weeks, emerging from a winter that for Maine was not much of a winter, weather-wise, I am at a crossroads myself. I have shed a lot of psychic weight this winter, by looking so far back into my history. I have had two weeks in a row of getting my e-mail inbox to zero by the time I go to bed each night. I have worked out at the Y almost every day. My consulting work is at a great level and I am enjoying the work. So what is next for me? I feel myself reaching for the fruit, looking for that perfect apple.