Monthly Archives: January 2018

Perfectionist Tendencies

A few years ago, I began a meditation practice. Whatever I do is not super-fancy and I can’t exactly even identify what sort of meditation I do. I was inspired to begin when I read Dan Harris’ book, 10% Happier. What I love about his book is that he’s a skeptical sort of sarcastic guy and I can relate to that. My meditation practice has ebbed and flowed over the years and I can say that I’ve seen a great deal of payoff from it. I love meditation so much that when I’m not able to do it, I yearn for it, almost like being hungry. That sounds so dumb, but I love it like food.

But the point of this post isn’t necessarily about meditation. It’s about perfection.

I listen to podcasts when I have long drives to make, which is fairly frequent due to my work as a freelance church organist. Playing on weekends or for funerals during the week, I can drive upwards of 100 miles in one day. Dan Harris’ podcast is one of my favorites for many reasons. He has a great speaking voice, is a generous interviewer, and has a way of getting people to speak about all sorts of things. I also always have various news crushes (Dan is on ABC, though I rarely see him.) and he is among the select few I adore. This afternoon, I listened to an episode where he interviews his wife, Bianca, who plays a role in Dan’s new book because of her own circuitous journey into a meditation practice.

Why her interview struck me so much is that she identified herself as having “perfectionist tendencies”. Here is a woman, likely younger than me, who has a successful career as a doctor and has been served well, in some ways, by being a perfectionist.

I have a mixed relationship with being perfect. It played a big role in my early childhood when I was recognized for academic stuff that my peers weren’t yet doing. Spelling unusually large words in first grade. Playing Mass on a large pipe organ without an adult present with me by sixth grade. Eventually, my behavior normalized and there wasn’t anything out of the ordinary about it.

I knew being perfect – playing all the right notes and getting really good grades – was my ticket out of a town where I never felt like I fit in.

By the time I got to high school, anything resembling perfection was impossible. A great deal of instability in my family interfered with my ability to do much of anything. I learned shame very quickly and that has been very hard to shake. Shame for not having a seemingly functional life. Shame for all sorts of dirty secrets I was pretty sure that other girls my age weren’t keeping. I knew I had to keep on a brave face, keep showing up at school (even though by senior year, I was a chronic school-skipper, forging excuses and disguising my voice when the school called to ask where I was), even though I felt like I stuck out like a sore thumb among my peers. Peers who seemed to have a much smoother life than I did with parents who cared about their day, or came to see your shitty concerts or school plays without telling you how terribly boring they are.

Sometime during my college career, I realized I was not perfect. It’s not something I gave up on due to a revelation or sense of enlightenment. I’m ambivalent about perfection: I want to be someone who cares about perfection; or do I? I gave up because I don’t feel capable of it. I often have an expectation that I can’t hit the mark and I’m simply not going to necessarily excel. I know exactly how that sounds, having been through my own therapy as well as working with clients on this issue. It’s not easy to concisely talk about or write about in a way that still allows me a small modicum of privacy surrounding it. I had very little support or encouragement growing up, other than the amazing teachers in my life and they probably didn’t realize how troubled my life really was. It’s humbling to be in touch with a number of them now as an adult and more fully share with them how important they were to me. More than they ever knew they were.

Maybe perfection itself really isn’t that important because it’s not humanly possible. There’s a lot of “messy” in my life. Complicated relationships with my family, questions I have about what I’m doing with my life, pressures both from within and outside about becoming a parent at an advanced age, working two busy jobs (as the owner of my own private psychotherapy practice and as a freelance church organist) that, to many people, seem like “fun” and not actually a very busy work schedule, and coordinating child care with a husband whose work also has its own demands. Life seems like it’s in free-fall all the time. Even typing all that feels like a whole load of crazy. And much of the time, I am fine with that and I am proud of my life, especially in all the crazy ways I got here. But occasionally, when someone makes a remark about how the pressures in my life are no different from anyone else, it makes me want to curl up into a ball and call it a day.

What I know about myself is I’m not someone who thrives in chaos. I think most people do not, but many people like to think they do…and they let everyone know it. I can stew in my juices a little and beat myself up about why I’m not Dr. Bianca Harris, a successful doctor in the big city I still dream of calling home someday. Of course I have larger dreams that I am also working behind the scenes to achieve and hope I can bring them to fruition.

Sometimes it’s very easy for me to say that somehow I’m “less than” because I’m not a doctor or a career woman or a world traveler or a skinny person or whatever garbage other women think has value. But if I just take the time, and slow down the tape, I can look at my life and say that I arrived here by sheer tenacity and belief in myself that, for me, I do not function in structure or in cubicles and I fought for years to escape both. This year will signal a full decade not answering someone’s phone or managing someone’s calendar. Now I’m in a position to need someone to help me manage my own life.

I don’t know how to wrap this up. Just to say, I guess, that I think all of us have a mixed relationship with our desire and ability to be perfect. And being imperfect doesn’t make us “less than”, it makes us human.

It’s Not Like I’m Dying or Anything

I make a terrible sick person. I’m not demanding or too complaining, at least that’s never been revealed to me. When I don’t feel well, I try to be chipper and make light of it.

So how does this make me terrible? Well, terrible in the sense that it takes a lot of mental gymnastics to get me to not go to work. Not that I’m such an ardent warrior about my work, believe me. I’m not Mrs. Career Woman who has something to prove that I can’t bear to be away from my work for a day. What I mean is that when I start getting sick, I ask myself, “am I sick enough to take a day off?”

I rarely get sick. I just told someone this the other day and boom, the next day, I had a sore throat. But honestly, I can go an entire year without a cold or stomach virus or whatever. My running joke, “thank God for immune systems” is due to the fact that I don’t use hand sanitizer, I’m not a germaphobe, and I have no problem being around sick people. I think I’ve just built up a tolerance. Even in years I worked in hospital and medical settings, the only time I had what may have been the dreaded flu, it was during an outbreak that was so widespread that the hospital I worked in was temporarily closed. That was twelve years ago. Oh, and the only time I’ve had a flu shot was during pregnancy.

My father had also never been sick. Sure, he had a sniffle here or there and that was pretty much it. I don’t know if they still make it, but periodically he’d take a Dristan for “sinus”, as people of a certain age say. He worked at the same office for nearly thirty-five years and didn’t need to call out sick until he was in his mid-sixties. I vaguely remember some sort of inner ear infection that caused him dizziness once, but it was probably over forty years ago by now. Even while my father was in assisted living and in a nursing home, he never picked up any sort of ailment that was going around.

Now that I’m a parent, I’m told, that will change, and I will be sick all the time. Which is what led me to get a cold of sorts this week. While I was singing at a funeral on Friday morning, I had gotten a cough toward the end of Mass, but thought nothing of it. Late that night, my friend asked me to sing for her at a Saturday Mass as they were stranded in another state due to inclement weather that messed up all the flights. It felt like I was getting a sore throat, but I denied it.

Oh, it’s just a tickle in my throat, I said, which is how these things always begin with me. It’s never, holy cow, my throat is on fire [which it was], let me ask my friend to find someone else to sing on Saturday. It’s always I’M FINE I’M FINE I’M FINE. And yes, to prove that I was fine, I went to the gym and ran for an hour because it’s the beginning of the year and I have resolutions and all. By the end of the Mass on Saturday evening, my throat felt like I had swallowed broken glass and I’m quite certain my voice sounded like Weezy Jefferson. The lady who told me my singing was “lovely” after Mass was just being polite. I’m sure of it.

Driving home, en route to pick up something for dinner at the store, I sneezed at least twenty times in a row. Denial. But what was I going to do? I had to play a Mass on Sunday morning and it’s not like I can just “call off” like people with normal jobs do. So I did something uncharacteristic of me: I went to bed and woke up and took some generic Day-quil. I think so little of my ability to get sick, I don’t even buy the brand-name stuff. Add to that, it must have been in our closet for a number of years because it’s just about to expire.

I felt good enough to get through it and then went home. After a few hours, I went back out to do grocery shopping for the week, and I forget what else I did. I was having a lot of symptoms that people get when they have colds: runny nose, congestion, feelings of maybe a fever, cough. All that fun stuff.

But even when I got up this morning, feeling worse than I did yesterday, I had to go to work in the afternoon. I’m also moving into a new office space and needed to make some phone calls. Coughing into the phone didn’t convince me that I’m sick. I’m still not super convinced, but I’m getting there. I had a number of clients scheduled, but because I canceled some due to the weather last week, I couldn’t not see them again this week. So I powered through and did two sessions and canceled everyone else.

And I feel incredibly guilty. I convince myself most of the time that being sick is in my head. I can appreciate when other people are sick and give others the benefit of the doubt when they are not feeling well. But I am my own worst enemy. Did I earn the right to stay home today? Even while I was seeing the two clients, I was conversing with myself, wait, could I have probably been fine enough to see the people I canceled? What’s wrong with me that I can’t sit here just because I have a cold? Rather than acknowledge that maybe staying home and watching TV might be something that could help me heal, I’d rather beat myself up and say maybe I’m just lazy.

I’m pretty self-aware and have processed a great deal of how my upbringing has influenced the adult I’ve become. I don’t have many recollections of being made to feel guilty for being sick. Was my sickness underestimated by people at times, yeah maybe. And perhaps that’s why I have a very strong denial system in place when I’m not feeling well. I can’t admit to myself that I’m sick because, on the grand scheme of things, it’s not like I’m dying or anything. I hope that when I am dying, I can maintain the same attitude.

So, this didn’t need to be as long as it was. And maybe it should just be in my journal. But heck, I guess it’s better that I’m home, putting my germy fingers all over my computer instead of coughing germs into my clients’ faces.

A generic New Year’s way-too-long message. Because everyone else is doing it.

It’s been a very long time since I’ve posted to this blog. Since I gave birth to my first child in 2017, I have posted just once. Stories of all sorts that I’d love to share are always swirling in my mind. But I never seem to get them down on paper. My husband is way better at doing this sort of stuff and even as we speak, he is writing a post for his own blog.

I have tons and tons of excuses – or maybe not excuses, but more explanations as to why I don’t post as frequently as I could. I should be doing more professional writing for the website for my psychotherapy practice. In the last year that I have been a one-man-band in my own practice, I’ve learned more about websites and SEO (yawn) and marketing and even I’m getting drowsy typing out some of the business-y things that go into being a solo act. So sometimes when I think of things to share here, I sort of sigh and say, well, maybe the time would be better spent putting together something for that other website.

Then there’s also the creative block sort of business that I deal with that seems to be getting harder and harder to get over. One of my favorite books of all time is The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. It’s hard as hell, both in terms of commitment (if you do it the way its intended), but also in facing some of the emotional brick walls that we all face when we know we have some creative stuff inside us and it just won’t come out. I’ve been a life-long journal-keeper and try to write everyday. I’ve maintained that practice within a few days of having our child and I continue to do so as often as I can.

But I struggle with the desire to be more creative and have been battling with a memoir for a number of years now. I have a story inside myself and in various notebooks and Word documents on my computer. I don’t know if it means anything, but a few instructors have encouraged me to put a proposal together in some classes I’ve taken. But you know what? I am scared shitless. When I express my frustration that I’m struggling writing, well-meaning friends use the demands of motherhood as an excuse, that I should give myself a break, that I’m managing my practice as well as continuing to play organ all over the place on weekends, blah blah blah.

On the surface, those things are all true. And for normal people who know their boundaries and limitations, they’d say, OK, let’s come back to it when we have a little more time. But I feel like I just cannot let it go. I dream about this story and I mull over the arc when I’m out running or going about my day-to-day activities or when I hear a song on the radio. So what am I supposed to do? Whether I were writing a symphony or painting something or writing a book, I think I’d be equally scared of emotionally revealing myself on a grander scale. In my close relationships with people, I am reasonably comfortable with vulnerability, but the what-if machine really does kick in and nail my motivation down as if it were an errant nail in a board.

I think a lot of creative and often super-talented people have all sorts of creative works in their homes. Painted canvasses stuffed in closets, notebooks hidden away in boxes, hard drives full of music. Stuff that’s just tucked away for fear of being seen. I feel it, too.

I’m sort of rambling here. Today I joined a Facebook group whose intent is to coach participants to write 500 words per day. So while I’m a day late hopping on the bandwagon, I ran extra hard today and jumped on board. Not unlike the video for “Say, Say, Say” when Michael Jackson hopped in the back of the wagon every time the townsfolk knew he and the McCartneys were snake oil sales-people. What the video has to do with the song, I’ll never know. And what this video has to do with me jumping on to a 500-word-a-day writing habit, also remains a pretty slippery association. I’m hoping to apply the 500 words daily to this story I’ve been writing, but if not that, to hopefully stir up the creative juices to do more blog posts either here or on my website or whatever else comes out of me. It sometimes feels like an exorcism and we all know from the movie that that is sometimes not a pretty picture either.

If I didn’t have to get myself to the office today, maybe I’d write 1,000 words to make up for the day. Even in my rambling, I’m sort of shocked already that I’ve written over 900 words so maybe I really could belly up to the bar and say something meaningful (don’t hold your breath!).

I do have a few topics on my mind for this blog that are posts for another time. Things about stuff. How’s that for vague? Like even stupid stuff I experience every once in a while. Exhibit A: Over the summer I thought of writing about the nice man who was riding his bike on the trail in the opposite direction while I was running. And I kept running even though I was tired and wanted to stop and didn’t want him to see that I was a wussy and needed to take a breather. So I kept running to save face and after he passed me, waved and said “nice job”, because I was running uphill and still had a ton of baby weight clinging to my frame, I ran 50 more feet and nearly fell flat on my face when I tripped on an exposed tree root. See, stupid stuff like that. It’s what the internet is yearning for. Everybody else does it; why can’t I? It’s not unlike my lifelong struggle to learn the guitar. Probably the easiest instrument on the face of the earth to play and while I can play a few other instruments reasonably well, the guitar seems way over my head.

So I don’t know what the point of this whole thing is. I haven’t decided whether to even share a link to this blog post because WTF is it really saying anyway? I should pull the plug on it because I need to get showered up and leave in 30 minutes to get to my office. It’s not good form for a client to beat you to the office. Heh heh.

Here’s to a more expressive and creative new year! And with that, I sign off. My 500-word goal became over 1100 words.