Sunday, February 10, 2013

Perfectionism as a Gift?

I guess I'll start this post like every other, with an apology to myself and to my readers (i.e. family) for being the world's most inconsistent blogger. I've written several posts in my head in the month-plus since I've blogged, but as it turns out, mind-posts are much harder to read than real posts. Another apology: I may or may not be listening to Radiohead's "Creep" on repeat, very loudly, as I write this. And finally: this may be the cheesiest thing I've ever written and posted publicly. Gag if you want.

I'll just say it. Perfectionism is kicking me in the butt this semester. 

After I left the chemistry program at Berkeley, I didn't really know what to do next. School was gone, and I didn't have a job. So I decided to spend a year trying not to think about it. I still wonder what the cashiers at Andronico's thought of me when I'd routinely go there at closing time and just buy whiskey and cat food. Some days I would refuse to get out of bed before noon, because I couldn't stand to see other people being productive, walking to campus, driving to work, going for a run. Going about their day with purpose. Okay, so I'm painting a bit of an unfair picture -- I was tutoring during that year, volunteering, and taking private classes. And fine, I even used to run. And I might have begrudgingly enjoyed a  sunset or two over the Pacific. There were more than a few good days in that year. But the point is, I felt like a disaster, and I didn't have a clue what I was doing with my life. Nothing makes me more miserable than lack of purpose.

One of the things that got me through that year from hell, improbably enough, was Arabic grammar. Day after day, I'd go to the campus library, the main stacks in the D-level of the sub-basement. Being there made me feel better, like I had a life, and I wasn't a drop-out and a failure. I randomly decided that I'd just sit there at a table in the corner and read books about 8th-10th century Iraqi grammarians. Why not? (heh).  I read about what their lives were like, how and why they studied the language, where they disagreed with each other's theories, and how their collective efforts over the centuries have shaped the way we study Arabic grammar today. Living imaginarily in their world was a way for me to get out of my own head. Occasionally, I'd crack open a few of the primary texts and try and pathetically stumble my way through the 8th-century Arabic. It didn't go well. Ever. I was a hack at it, but it used to give me chills to think that maybe one day I'd be able to make sense of that stuff.

Flash forward two years. This semester I am doing an independent reading with one of my professors. We're working through a 9th-century Arabic grammar book, one of the same books I read about in the D-level of the main stacks at the Doe Library, when I had no clue at all that I'd ever be in grad school again. And I'm making sense of it. I have to pinch myself all the time -- what I used to do for fun is turning into what could be a career. It's even still fun!

When I was growing up, my family used to go to my grandmother's house in Georgia every Christmas. On the wall in her hallway was the serenity prayer, embroidered and framed. (Ok so I have no idea if it was actually embroidered. But there was a frame involved. My memory is very fuzzy when it comes to these things, in the same way that when someone asks me if my own father has a mustache, I always have to think about it. But I prefer to think that it was embroidered. It might as well have been.) As a 10-year-old, I used to stand there and stare at that prayer on the wall, thinking how profound it was. I could do without the first word, but I'll stomach the God-talk just because these are some of the most useful words I know right now:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

I wish I could tell my 10-year-old self thanks for reading that over and over. These 27 words (did I count right?) pretty much go on as a background process in my brain most of the time. That means I start to apply them in pretty inventive ways. Right now, the target is perfectionism. When I think I'll never live up to expectations, either someone else's or my own, I get paralyzed, I procrastinate, etc. We all know how it goes.

I've spent a long time trying to change the fact that I'm a perfectionist. I think our society tries to convince us that we can change it, with enough therapy and self-help books and positive self-talk. Here's where the wisdom part comes in: that's bullshit! The truth right now is that perfectionism is a thousand-ton boulder that's not going to budge. So there's no point in trying to change it. But that doesn't mean I have to sit here and let it make me miserable, or that I have to constantly feel inadequate. It's not about eliminating those thoughts from your consciousness; it's about how you respond to them. And my response -- that, I can change. I'm learning to see perfectionism as an opportunity to constantly remind myself, and I mean constantly, that I'm already doing exactly what I'm supposed to be doing. I'm supposed to be learning. I'm supposed to be making mistakes. Mistakes are okay, even if I make a whole lot of them.

I have this crazy, obnoxious, recurring thought that I don't deserve to be studying here. I don't deserve to live in Austin. I don't deserve to have a life that makes me this happy. I have this idea that, somehow, when I wake up tomorrow, everything I have will be gone. I know I'm only afraid of losing what I have because what I have right now is so good. (Yeah, to an outsider, my life probably looks really lame. But I don't care, because I have everything I could want right now, and my life is a billion times better than it's ever been.) But I feel like I have to earn all of it. And of course, in a sense, I do. I have to go to class, show up to teach, write my papers, pay my rent, and all that. But I don't have to do any of it perfectly. (All except the rent part, I guess.) I just have to show up and do the work. School isn't going to evaporate if I make a mistake.

I used to try to change this thought that I don't deserve any of this. I can choose to distract myself from it, or to ignore it for a minute, but it always comes back. Maybe one day it will go away, but for the moment I'm giving up trying to change it. Here's what I can change. I can follow that thought with: If I have something I don't deserve, that means it's a gift. And it's a really good gift. So I'm going to appreciate it, enjoy it, and be grateful for it. All of it. I don't even have to know where it comes from, and I don't have to care.

No, I can't change some of the crap that comes into my head against my will. That doesn't work. But I can try to change how I react to it. It makes my life a lot easier. And that is a good use of my energy.

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