Perfectionism and Internalized Expectations

To generate some grist for exploring the prison-maze of the mind, I’ll relate a few key issues in my life, starting with my ambivalent relationship to self-challenge.

From my teens through my early twenties, I suffered intermittently from depression and, very reluctantly, went on medication. What pulled me out each time was mostly a change in circumstances. In high school, I had my hip wrenched from its socket in a wrestling match, which gave me an excuse to rest and write (honestly, I did not like wrestling). In college, I coasted the last few months, dropping classes that threatened my perfect GPA, deceiving myself that perfect grades would keep my options open so I might avoid getting shunted into some dismal career path.

A few years later, I quit a job I hated after a bout of hypochondria that progressed over months, from strange vision problems, to ear-infection symptoms, to an almost-certainly unnecessary stint in hyperbaric recompression after a not-too-risky dive, to ultimately an MRI, which came up clean and prompted a very irritated neurologist to refer me for psychiatric help. After quitting my job, and going on Prozac (again), my physical symptoms cleared up in weeks. Like I said, I’d been depressed before; I might have realized what was up. But this time hadn’t been like the others: I didn’t feel particularly down or hopeless. The physical symptoms came first. I had become cut off from my feelings and my passion. Rather than regrouping when the symptoms started, I pushed myself harder, taking an evening chemistry class after work, to finish up pre-med requirements. Realizing I was not going to earn an A, I got halfway through the class and quit.

I’ve quit a few things in my life that either rubbed hard against the grain of my personality or that I feared I would not excel at: basketball, a medical track, a couple of jobs. My father observed that I needed to learn how to be a friend to myself, but the advice was equivocal. He didn’t realize it, but I’d taken a stronger lesson from his own example and his selective approval of my activities: if you don’t want to do something, you can only quit with honor if fear or anxiety or pain do not factor into your aversion. You have to beat those first, or you will always be in retreat, living a hounded life, as a coward. What’s more, you must excel, to prove your commitment. He never explicitly formulated his judgement this way. The lessons we take are often not the ones we’re taught. My father was a counselor, and extremely good at reasonable argument, but not so good at separating his own anxiety and frustrated aspirations from what was best for his children. I’m very glad I was not an only child, because I love my sisters, and because I could not have shouldered the full weight of his expectations alone. I am not the most accomplished of my siblings, not by far, and maybe not the most burdened by Dad’s hopes, either.

By my mid-thirties, I finally hit on a different formulation: pursuing the things you love will test your strength enough; beating your head against rocks to satisfy a father complex is being obstinate and self-defeating. My father wanted me to be open to new experience and develop several axes of my personality — physical, emotional, and mental — not to despise myself.

I did not appreciate this fully until just before I lost him.

But to be fair, the idea I had to excel at everything I attempted was a collaboration between my own persona and my construction of my father. I had swallowed a poison pill early in grade school that my father had little to do with: the idea I was smart and would therefore not have to suffer like other people were clearly fated to suffer — unseen, separated from their joys. To explore how I developed the anxieties that gave force to this particular mindset, I’ll need to go very far back, to when I was three or four, in another post.

About robertpkruger

Writer, editor, and software developer. Former president of ElectricStory.com.
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