Tag Archives: perfectionism

Speeding

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I’ve known for a long time that I don’t manage my empathy very satisfactorily. Several years ago, I found a couple of books by Rose Rosetree (here’s my first wince, because my own last name is Rose; too many roses!), Empowered by Empathy and Become the Most Important Person in the Room. (Here’s my second wince: from empathy to narcissism—becoming the most important person in the room! I’ve never wanted to be the most important person in the room. My lifelong ambition has been to become the invisible person in the room!)

I’m embarrassed to admit that these two books, which sound entirely woo from the author’s name to the titles, have been remarkably important tools for me.

Life is strange.

Empathy is “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another” (Oxford Online Dictionary). Whew. The definition, at any rate, is not woo! I’ve heard people use the terms empathy and sensitivity as though they mean the same thing, but they don’t. Highly sensitive personality types and empathy are strongly correlated, but sensitivity and empathy are not identical.

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Furthermore, being a highly sensitive personality is not the same as being histrionic. Histrionic personality disorder describes a person with a pattern of uncontrolled attention-seeking emotions. Highly sensitive people are generally not attention-seeking; rather the reverse! If you are interacting with a histrionic personality, you’re walking on eggshells, never knowing when outrage, offense or other extreme (and loudly expressed) emotions are going to be triggered. You’re also being drained and exhausted by the constant demand for attention and validation the histrionic personality requires. Think: Intense, unrelenting drama and trauma.

Highly sensitive people think, feel and process deeply; are insightful; are often introverted; are frequently highly creative; and often struggle with overstimulation and overwhelm. We’re more likely to deal with our trauma privately and silently from under the bed or within a closet.

But I digress … I was writing about managing empathy. Rosetree’s books are filled with various exercises designed to help people figure out how to use their empathy effectively and appropriately, which is to say control it.

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It may seem strange to a non-empath, but uncontrolled empathy is a recipe for mental, emotional and physical breakdowns. Unskilled empaths unconsciously push their own feelings, needs, and experience aside in order to absorb the unacknowledged or unwanted feelings of others. Hence, the need to learn how to become the most important person in the room, at least to ourselves, or even as important as everyone else.

Much of learning how to manage empathy boils down to managing our attention and presence. The exercises are ridiculously simple, and at first glance seem like a waste of time.

For example, one of the first exercises is to sit quietly and comfortably and do an eyes open and eyes shut two-minute counting exercise. The assignment is to create a habit of doing this a couple of times a day, just to remind yourself that you are you, having your own internal thoughts, feelings and experience, you are not someone else.

What could be simpler? It takes almost no time, it’s unobtrusive, and it seemed an easy thing to try.

It was easy. I sat in my comfortable chair, in my quiet workspace, the clock on the wall helpfully ticking off the seconds. No sweat.

Right. But the whole point of my space is that it’s mine. I don’t have to share it. Nobody is here to interrupt or distract me. I control the temperature, the clutter, the noise level, and everything else. Neither my empathy nor my sensitivity are challenged in my own space, which I have designed to be exactly the haven and refuge I need.

So I took the exercise to work. I obviously didn’t do it while I was lifeguarding or teaching. Somehow, I felt uncomfortable doing it during a break or while on desk duty, although technically there was time for it. There’s one place, though, where we’re all guaranteed a modicum of brief privacy.

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I waited until I needed to visit the bathroom, locked the stall door, shut my eyes and started my count.

There were other women in the locker room, chatting, changing, showering. They seemed a lot more important than me. I should be out there. I should exit the stall in case someone else wanted to be there. I should say hello, greet patrons and patients by name, run a paper towel over the sink to pick up stray hairs and other ick, make sure there’s no trash on the floor. I should make sure that middle shower that drips is firmly turned off. A young mother is looking for a baby changing station. She must be new to the facility and doesn’t know there’s one next door, in the handicapped toilet stall. What’s going on out at the desk? Do they need me? Is the phone ringing? Is someone having to cover for the ten years I’m in the bathroom?

My chest felt tight. I couldn’t breath easily. Anxiety overwhelmed me. I concentrated and got through the first 30 seconds of the exercise. At that point, I felt as though I’d been sitting there for at least an hour, and I was so stressed I felt sick. The compulsion to hurry, hurry, hurry and get back to work was overwhelming. I was either going to cry, vomit, or wind up huddled on the floor next to the toilet.

I was amazed. I felt ridiculous, but there was no denying my physiological panic response to pausing for two minutes to do the exercise, even when combined with a legitimately needed bathroom break. I exited the stall, humbled, horrified and fascinated, washed my hands, said hello to everyone, introduced the young mother to the baby changing station, and went back to work.

I haven’t tried to do the exercise again at work. I don’t want to feel that way again. I had no idea the degree to which I’m compulsively and unconsciously speeding through parts of my life. I know I hate to be pressured or rushed, so I take great pains to give myself lots of time as I navigate through my days. I thought I never rushed anymore.

This experience stirred up one of my earliest memories.

I was trying to help my mom. She had some problems with pain, and I got it into my head that it was my job to do as much physical work as I could for her so she would have less pain. Empathy in action. What this meant to me was learning to do things like sort the laundry, make the beds, care for the animals and my younger brother, etc. I vividly remember how important it was to me to learn to tie my shoes, not only so I could tie my own, but so I could tie my brother’s, thus helping Mom avoid stooping, bending or squatting.

I had a little rhyme I’d made up that I’d say to myself as I “helped” (probably I was in the way more than anything else—sorry, Mom!). I never said it aloud, of course, but to myself I would say, “Hurry, hurry, biff and burry,” over and over as I tried to make perfect hospital corners, tuck in the sheets, pick up toys, or measure out dog food. Even then, I was playing with words. I was about three years old at the time.

That rhyme brought back a flood of memories and feelings, all feelings of what I would now call panic or anxiety. Feelings of intense pressure to be good enough, big enough, fast enough, competent enough, perfect enough, strong enough to help those I loved, to really make a difference, to communicate the depth of my caring.

Speed. I don’t know how or why speed became so important, but clearly it did, as my body reacts so violently to even a two-minute pause.

Although I’ve largely extricated myself from rushing through my personal life, when I’m working or interacting with others that unconscious pattern obviously still rules, completely invisible until I tried this simple little exercise at work and uncovered it.

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As an intermediate step between doing the exercise in my own space (easy) and at work (impossible, at least for now), I decided to try doing it in my workplace parking lot. As I’m always early everywhere I go (that’s what books are for), I’m usually at work early. Now I park, turn off the car, and start counting. As I close my eyes and begin, I feel compelled to check the time again, though I just checked it seconds before as I turned off the car. What if I’m late? I can’t sit here in the parking lot. They’re counting on me at work! I can sit through the compulsion to exit the car immediately, but it’s uncomfortable.

I feel better with my eyes open, but it’s hard not to be distracted. People are coming and going, some staff, some patients, some patrons. They all seem more important than me. I feel obliged to smile and wave, exchange a friendly word, offer to assist those with mobility problems or poor balance. I can’t just sit here and ignore all those important people. I’m at work! Sort of. Almost. What will they think?

Closing my eyes gets progressively harder. My anxiety kicks in and I feel unsafe. I have to open my eyes to be sure I’ve locked the car. I hear people leaving, arriving, slamming car doors. I need to watch what’s going on around me. I need to see if there’s some kind of a threat. This is hypervigilance, and I’m familiar with the feeling. I need to get out of the car, leave the parking lot, get into the building and go to work. Why am I sitting here sweating, trying to get through this stupid exercise? I’m supposed to be at work!

All this on a sunny winter afternoon, in a small, safe hospital complex parking lot, where I’m heading for a job I love working with wonderful people, and I’m not due to clock in for another fifteen or twenty minutes. Nobody notices me sitting in my car. Nobody is paying me the slightest attention, and if they are, they probably assume I’m looking at or listening to my cell phone! For a whole two minutes!

Hurry, hurry, biff and burry.

I realize I can’t develop the skill to manage my empathy more effectively until I’ve figured out how to stop speeding when I’m around other people. I’m not sure how I’m going to pull that off, but I’m determined to find a way. The habit of speeding is a deeply rooted coping mechanism that spares me from the intense anxiety and panic that occurs when I try to take my energy and attention from those around me and focus on myself. As I weaken the habit of speeding, I’ll reclaim part of my life, including control of my empathy.

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Often, as I write and post these essays, I do so with a mixture of amusement and chagrin. Amusement because being human is amusing. We’re all so convoluted, so illogical and complex and flawed and beautiful and ridiculous. Chagrin because many people think it’s not quite nice to tell the truth, to reveal our flaws and weaknesses, to talk about sitting in a toilet stall or the mess inside our heads, to reveal our dirty laundry. My rebellious streak is showing. Again. Maybe it’s not nice. I don’t much care, having no particular ambition to live up to “nice,” whatever that means!

I do care about honest connection, and to participate in that it’s necessary to tell the truth and risk being seen. I know I’m not the only person with dirty laundry, or the only person who sits in toilet stalls or flees there for a moment of privacy! I’m pretty sure I’m not the only person speeding in some way, either. Perhaps many or even most of us have a treadmill in some shadowed attic of our psyches to which we’re chained, be it an addiction, a compulsion, a to-do list that’s never satisfied, or any other behavior that steals our time, attention, energy and power.

I don’t want to live like that. Do you?

Speeding. Fumbling for the brake pedal. Hurry, hurry, biff and burry.

My daily crime.

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Confidence

I’ve been considering confidence for some time through the lens of minimalism. As I transition from clearing unneeded objects from my life (relatively easy) to clearing unwanted behavior patterns, habits and beliefs from my life (hard!), I follow the same basic tenets: How can I replace two or more similar but limited internal tools with one multi-purpose tool?

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I’ve always had a messy relationship with confidence. At this point in my life, I’m confident of my own worth, but have no confidence that anyone else will view me as worthy. Truthfully, this doesn’t bother me as much as it used to. Aside from a few close and longstanding relationships, I don’t much care what most of the world thinks of me. I realize now that most people aren’t spending a minute thinking about me at all. Most of us are primarily preoccupied with ourselves!

I see confidence as a choice. The Latin root of the word means “have full trust” (Oxford Online Dictionary), and trust is certainly a choice. Confidence, like success, can be tried on like a hat. What I discover is that choosing confidence for a day or even an hour significantly diminishes my internal clutter.

If I choose to be confident, perfectionism is no longer relevant. Neither are shame or anyone else’s expectations, judgements or criticisms. Defenses and pseudo self are no longer needed. Outcomes cease to feel like a matter of life or death. I don’t need to win, be right or exercise my outrage. I don’t need to explain, justify, or make sure everyone understands what I’m up to. Choosing confidence means letting go of all that, which means reducing my mental and emotional clutter, which means more peace, more time and more energy.

As I’ve been thinking about confidence, I’ve also been teaching swim lessons at work to children from infancy to nine or ten. I discovered as a teenager that to work with children is to learn more than to teach. That was true when I was a teenager in the pool, in hospitals, in schools, as I parented, and now, again, in the pool.

I suspect confidence is built from a combination of nature and nurture. Some people seem to be inherently more confident than others. On the other hand, it’s not hard to mutilate a child’s confidence. Sustained criticism will do it. Careless language will do it. Refusing to acknowledge a child’s wants, needs and feelings will do it. Mockery and teasing will do it. Rigid and unrealistic expectations will do it.

I can tell within five minutes if I’m dealing with a confident or mistrustful child. Confident kids may be shy, hesitant, or wary of a new environment and a new person, but they’re willing to trust, explore and try. Mistrustful kids cry, act out, refuse to engage, or (most heartbreaking of all) stoically endure, rigid with tension and terror. A child who shrinks from my touch and cowers in fear of being dragged bodily into deep water and left to drown has certainly been forced by someone they trusted to do things he or she was not ready to do.

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As a swim teacher, I notice how much effort and energy mistrust costs us, not only the one lacking confidence, but everyone around them. A mistrustful, frightened child requires constant reassurance and encouragement. Their fear makes them more at risk in the water (and elsewhere) than their lack of skill. A confident child may frequently need to be hauled up from water over their heads by the scruff of the neck, spluttering and coughing, but as soon as they’ve snorted the water out of their nose, they’re ready to try again.

At the end of the lesson, all the kids are tired, but some are tired because they wriggled and flopped and kicked and bubbled with such enthusiasm and willingness they wore themselves out, while others are exhausted from lack of confidence and the firm belief that they can’t. Carlos Castanada said, “We either make ourselves miserable, or we make ourselves strong. The amount of work is the same.”

Confidence, I’m pleased to report, can certainly be repaired, and not only in those of us who are nicely mature! Confidence is contagious. I have a four-year-old in one lesson who spends a great deal of time comforting and reassuring another child who lacks confidence. The confident child encourages the mistrustful one, demonstrating skills first to show they’re fun and easy, and promising “Miss Jen will keep us safe.”

From the lofty eminence of adulthood, I can reassure a child that I will not break trust with him or her in the water, but a peer is in a much more powerful position with such reassurance, particularly a peer who is willing to go first. A child whose confidence has been injured is at a distinct disadvantage in all areas of life and learning. Building confidence is possible, but it takes time, consistency, and patience with kids whose trust has been violated in the past.

We can’t learn if we believe we can’t. Being willing to try or to learn requires a teacher who never sees failure and only focuses on progress and effort, no matter how small. A child who is afraid to blow bubbles in the water gets praised to the skies if he or she can be coaxed to dip their chin in the water. Even if that’s the only progress they make in a lesson, it’s a huge step for a frightened child who lacks confidence. Blowing bubbles will come when the child is ready. I’m confident of that, I repeat it aloud with confidence in front of the child and his or her parents, and invariably, a lesson or two later, that same child is blowing bubbles with great glee, in between accidental inhales of pool water. Buoyed by praise, celebration and high fives, the child develops some confidence, but it took the other kids in the lesson, the swim teachers, and watching staff and parents to do it.

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Lack of confidence is very expensive, and very cluttered. Confidence, the single quality of the feeling or belief that one can rely on someone or something (Oxford Online Dictionary) can replace a whole host of ineffective and energy-consuming thoughts and beliefs.

It’s obvious to me that consciously choosing confidence is the simplest thing to do. As has frequently happened in the past, children show me the way, and I do my best to return the favor, not only as a teacher, but also as a parent, friend and coworker. When others believe and trust in us, we are empowered. When we believe and trust in ourselves, we are empowered.

Broken confidence can be repaired. In fact, it must be repaired if we are to thrive. Not everyone in our lives deserves or earns our trust, of course, but if we are unwilling to trust ourselves, we are truly lost in the darkness without a guiding light.

Building confidence in myself and others. My daily crime.

“Confidence is going after Moby Dick in a rowboat and taking the tartar sauce with you.”
Zig Ziglar

Success

In the last 24 hours I’ve had an Aha! moment that represents one of the biggest breakthroughs of my life.

I have always defined myself as a failure. This morning, before 7:00 a.m., I became a success. Just like that, in one blinding moment of epiphany. I lay there giggling to myself like an idiot. I’ve been doing that all day, in fact.

Standing in the shower, I had another staggering revelation. I suddenly realized when and why I created the identity of being a failure in the first place. It happened when I was very young, before I had the language or ability to understand or explain what I was up to. All I had at that age was my heart, intuition and empathy.

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We had a troubled family system. Bad and scary things were happening that I could not understand. My reasoning was that failing to please was Bad. Pleasing was Good. If I chose failing to please, if I flaunted it, if I accepted it, I would be Bad and others could be Good, and therefore loved and safe.

Of course, I didn’t think of it in any kind of logical or adult sense. What I did have, however, was a great ability to love that even then was unconditional, deep and tender. I loved, do you understand? Only that. Just love and the willingness to do whatever it took to protect my loved ones.

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In those dim years of childhood I embraced being a failure and forged the bars that were to keep me in that prison for 50 years. Failing to please was Bad and terribly painful, but I was comforted by the abilities of others to please and therefore be loved. I believed becoming a lightning rod for displeasure shielded them.

As an adult, I had two children of my own and made exactly the same choice. I endeavored to shield and protect them from physical and psychological harm, no matter what it took. They could not understand, and I could not explain my choices to onlookers because I was protecting so many different people on different levels. I could not tell the truth. There was too much at risk and the truth was too damaging to all of us. I was afraid of the repercussions on those I was trying to shield.

My sense of failure was reinforced at every turn. I was told in words how disappointing and inadequate I was, but far more powerfully, I understood it from nonverbal communication and from the choices of those around me. Once again, I comforted myself with the knowledge that I was doing the best thing for those I loved with my whole heart. I didn’t much care what happened to me if my loved ones could only be protected and happy. One day they would understand not only my choices, but the depth of my love.

The years rolled by. The children grew up and suddenly were adults. They expressed confusion and a sense of loss because of some of my parenting choices. I explained, confident of their understanding.

I realize now my explanations sounded ridiculous, but not because I failed.

I had a lifelong reputation for being dramatic and hypersensitive, which effectively erased my credibility within the family. I had no intention of burdening my sons with old family dynamics and problems that existed long before they were born. I didn’t want to hurt or betray anyone. I didn’t want the boys to have torn loyalties or make them feel they had to choose sides.

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Anything I could say, calmly, neutrally and without emotion, wasn’t even loud enough to get their attention. Trying to convey the authentic truth of my experience would have sounded (I imagined) hysterical and unhinged or, even worse, made them feel they had to take care of me. Come what may, I was never going to ask my children to parent me.

They could intellectually understand my explanation about the choices I made as a parent, but they couldn’t emotionally understand, exactly the outcome I worked for all those years! To them, it just sounded like Mom, talking too much, being embarrassingly emotional and making a big deal about nothing. (She does that.)

Do you see the exquisite irony? My explanations sounded ridiculous because I had succeeded in shielding them so well they had no idea what I was talking about. That was the flip. I didn’t fail at all. I succeeded.

Can you hear the Gods laughing? I can.

When I realized the unintended consequences of my maternal protection, it certainly caught my attention, along with changing my relationship with my kids in deeply painful (for all of us), and, I fear, permanent ways. I have never known such grief, but privately I chalked it all up to another failure of mine and a grief I deserved.

My failure label stayed firmly in place, as solid a part of my identity as my blue eyes or wild hair. It never occurred to me that I could take it off.

Until yesterday. Yesterday, another loved one I have protected made it clear to me how successful I’ve been in protecting him as well. My stoicism, my unrelenting commitment to healing and understanding, my fierce independence, and most of all my love and unwillingness to be disloyal or reveal unwelcome truths that might upset others have been so successful that the truth of my experience sounds like hysterical, made-up, unkind, exaggerated nonsense.

It was the kids all over again.

This time, though, I finally got it. I finally understood that I have succeeded, not failed, in everything I wanted to do out of love for others. Every single thing! I have failed to please, yes. I’ve failed the expectations of others. I’ve failed to be perfect. I’ve failed to keep the family glued together. I’ve failed in trying to force others to be happy and healthy. I’ve failed, most miserably of all, at protecting others from themselves. But none of those failures are real. None of those things were my job or within my power in the first place. They were impossibilities, not failures.

On the other hand, I have succeeded at failing! I did manage to attract negative attention so that others were at less risk. I did carry and sometimes express the emotional burdens of those around me who couldn’t deal with their emotions. The role I chose as a scapegoat did, in a fucked-up kind of way, help keep the family functional enough that we all survived. My “failures” made others look more successful by contrast. My willingness to be the problem child, the dramatic one, helped keep my loved ones out of the line of fire, at least a little bit.

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As a parent, I succeeded. I raised two sons. They are not perfect. I made mistakes. They have baggage to unpack like all the rest of us. Their wounds, however, are different than mine. They were not hurt in the same ways I was. I successfully shielded them from the bombs and grenades that shattered me. I believe they know they are loved and worthy, and that I am proud of them.

What I’m most proud of is my success at loving. Just that. Loving myself and loving others. Nowhere along the way have I lost my ability and willingness to love, absolutely, completely and unconditionally. I love my family of origin. I love my children.  I see now we don’t always get it back, the unconditional love, respect and loyalty we lavish on others. That’s okay. Invisible love, refused love, unrecognized love and unreciprocated love is still love. It’s The Right Thing To Do. It’s the only thing to do. It’s the best I have to give.

As for myself, I feel reborn. I am not a failure. I have never been a failure. I have succeeded in loving and doing my best against all odds. I accept that others may not understand my actions and choices or believe in my love, but that’s their failure, not mine.

This day has revealed to me that every ten minutes or so I call myself a failure, no matter what I’m doing. For the first time in my life, I’ve paused to examine all those so-called failures and discovered .  . . nothing. My identity as a failure is nothing more than a mindless habit. It’s my automatic apologetic response when I cook the bacon too long, don’t properly anticipate my partner’s wishes, want to go to bed early, am standing in the way (nobody ever stands in my way—it’s always me that’s in the wrong place!) or blow off doing an hour of exercise.

I have successfully mastered the art of failure. Bored now. I’m going to go be successful.

My daily crime.

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