I am constantly struggling with self-criticism that I should be more productive, accepting myself and learning to relax and appreciate the moment, and with genuine procrastination. I am hideously, unreasonably hard on myself, but the problem is that there’s always a grain of truth in my condemnation. As a result, I tend to oscilate between trying to develop habits of self-kindness and mindfulness and trying to develop habits of productivity and activity. So last weekend I was trying the former, easing the pressure I put on myself, particularly for choir.
Despite knowing that I was attempting this approach, I was still surprised when I found myself feeling more centred and more content while trying to sight sing unfamiliar and tricky music. I was telling myself to be content with what I could do and not to worry about what I couldn’t. I was allowing myself to fail, and by allowing failure it was easier to keep trying.
I am going to pause and digress slightly here because I have just had a lightbulb moment.
Although I always try to review my weekend attempts, sometimes it feels a little mechanical for me – “I did this and it was good. I did this and it was ok. The end.” But there is a reason I do this, beyond just letting others know how things went, which is that I can properly spend some time reflecting on how things went. By having to actually articulate things, sometimes I come to a better understanding of things.
Many years ago, I read The Birth Order Book by Dr Kevin Leman, which was fascinating (although I haven’t come across anything on birth order in my psychology course, so I’ve yet to properly establish the theoretical credibility). One thing that really struck home, however, was the concept of a discouraged perfectionist. We all know about perfectionists, right? They worry about things not being perfect. They can’t leave something that is just done well enough. They fear not doing things correctly. They spend ages obsessing over every little detail. Well, that’s not me. I’m hopeless at details and quite often – far too often – settle for last-minute slap-dash things. But then there’s the discouraged perfectionist. The discouraged perfectionist wants to do things perfectly, wants every detail to be correct, wants to avoid delivering anything that is sub-standard, but is daunted by worries of not being able to achieve perfection. As the name implies, this type of perfectionist gets discouraged and therefore doesn’t even try. This also reminds me of learning about gifted students when studying my teaching degree. In some cases, a gifted student has become so used to things coming easily to them that they are discouraged by something that is challenging. The struggle to learn or achieve something, always facing setbacks and the possibility of failure, is foreign and the student fears the humiliation of failure*. It is therefore typical for the student to not try or even to muck around in an attempt to avoid having to try. It is the fear of failure and humilation that can cause smart and capable people to procrastinate or simply not even make an attempt at something.
While I wouldn’t say I have the makings of a perfectionist (because I genuinely have little interest in details), and I’ve always been intelligent rather than gifted, I definitely relate to the idea of a discouraged perfectionist or scared gifted student. I feel embarassment very easily, and the feeling often stays with me long after the event has passed. I blow little failures out of proportion and imagine that my failures are highly noticible to everyone else, too.
It’s funny how I’ve known this about myself, and yet in some ways I haven’t really known it ’til now. Perhaps I’ve known it about the big things but not the little things. Because I realise now that once I began telling myself (in this instance, at choir) that it was ok to do what I could and not to worry if I couldn’t do it all, it suddenly became much easier to try and to keep trying. I realise that there have been things I have been putting off doing this week – phone calls I’ve avoided and decisions I’ve procrastinated over – because I’ve been too worried about them not turning out the way I want. I’ve been sitting around waiting for the perfect circumstances, as I so often do, to guard against failure and humiliation. Instead, I’ve been feeling guilty for letting important opportunities pass and not even making a small effort. If I allowed myself to (for instance) make a phone call and have it be a disaster, if I let that be an acceptable outcome, then perhaps I would be unafraid to try.
I realise I’ve also been worrying about the small efforts paying off and becoming big opportunities. What if I end up not being able to commit to it all? What if I try it and it doesn’t work out? Not only am I once again making it not OK to fail, I’m making the possibility of failing at a big opportunity (i.e. painfully humiliating myself) stop me from trying the first small step – which may naturally come to nothing anyway!
I don’t expect that I will suddenly become super-productive, because I do seem to enjoy doing lazy, interesting things much more than taking any real action. However, I’ve been making myself feel horrible for not taking action and yet making myself horribly scared to take action. Now that I see this, I can remove some of the fear that has been a barrier to action.
Wow. You may not have felt it, but I’m still reeling from one of those moments of realisation, particularly as it seems so obvious to me now.
Returning to reviewing the weekend, circumstances meant that I didn’t quite act on my addition. The idea of finding small joys and going with those joyful impulses stalled because Friday was my final exam and Friday night was hot and humid. This meant that I got little sleep most of the night and finally managed to sleep from about 5am til 11:30am, leaving little time for me to think about anything beyond the stark pragmatics of getting to choir on time. It also meant that, once choir rehearsal was done, I spent the rest of the weekend in an exhausted, migrainey state.
While at choir, the idea of finding little joys did help me to maintain a positive and optimistic outlook. Because I’d taken the pressure off myself, spending time singing and being reunited with friends was joy enough. Ironically, on Sunday I kept having a nagging thought that I should be doing something joyful and felt guilty for not! I know, I’m a hopeless case!
*(The discouraged gifted student concept always reminds me of biology in my final year of high school. Without being gifted, things had come easily enough to me early in my school career that I did struggle to put adequate effort into my work once I was taking <a href=”http://www.vcaa.vic.edu.au/vce/“>VCE</a>. In Year 12 biology there was a student who was clearly less academically intelligent than I was, but she knew how to work. She put so much effort into our weekly biology homework and even went and completed things before they were due. She was a worker and she put me to shame, because I tended to struggle to keep up and get the work in on time, and so tended to always hand in something that was rushed. But, in the end, she always got merely average or adequate feedback and marks, whereas I managed good to excellent (in that subject). Although this sounds like I’m merely saying how smart I was, in fact my point is that I still hadn’t learned how to deal with persisting through setbacks and it something I still struggle with. Whereas my friend, even then, had a work ethic and an ability to focus and persist even when things didn’t come easily and her results weren’t perfect that I still admire and recognise I could do with.)