I know that with all that I've accomplished in my recovery so far, I still have this problem. I've perpetrated some pretty horrific acts on myself - multiple suicide attempts, starving myself, cutting myself, drug addiction and a couple of others I don't care to specify. I've gotten control over those but there is one, maybe more overlooked behavior, maybe more condoned behavior that I feel compelled to continue to commit.
The seeds of perfectionism were planted in me by my father as he consistently demanded that I live up to unreal expectations for an 8 year old girl. We would play chess. I would move a piece and he would say to me, "THIMK" which was his twisted way of telling me to think. Humiliated, I would take the move back and holding in my tears, try desperately to come up with the right move, with a move that would please him.
I have the ghosts of my demanding father on one shoulder and of my workaholic mother on the other. When my mother opened her own business after she divorced my father, she worked fifteen, sixteen hour days, and then gave herself a break on the weekends by cutting down to seven or eight. I know that entrepreneurs have to work like dogs when developing their businesses but she never stopped until she died. She worked not to feel her depression, not to feel the fear surrounding my illness, she worked not to feel anything.
I work so hard because I am afraid to end up like the female version of my father; depressed, alone, maybe with a dozen cats roaming around my apartment. But would I rather end up like my mother? Also alone after having devoted twenty years to an affair with a married man who in the end chose to move to Florida with his wife. Also depressed. Dead from cancer at the age of 67.
What a choice.
Working ten, eleven, sometimes twelve hour days because I feel compelled to, because I remember that once my father told me you stay until your work is done. I have never forgotten that.
I chastise myself if my paperwork isn't perfect or if I think of something I could have said in session after a patient has left. I fear that my supervisor doesn't think I'm doing a good enough job and I can't bring myself to come right out and ask her.
When my patients come to me and tell me they have low self-confidence and low-self esteem, we talk about why they think that's so. Where did it come from? Who didn't tell them they were great children? Great teenagers? Terrific young adults?
I'm for building on small accomplishments. I ask a patient to identify at least one thing about themselves that they consider a strength and ask them to tell me a situation where they used that strength.
I ask them to pick an interest that they may have and what they could do to make that interest come alive. If they like to draw, then I encourage them to get a sketchpad and pencils, and draw to their heart's content. If they love animals and can't have a pet, I suggest volunteering at an animal shelter.
Building on successes one small step at a time. One drawing framed and hung. A wet kiss by a dog who had always hung back. It's amazing what a difference these seemingly small strides can make in confidence and self-esteem.
Sinking into my usual chair in my psychiatrist's Dr. Adena's* office, I told her that my job was killing me. I said I was constantly anxious and exhausted, sometimes coming home and falling into bed without eating dinner.
She asked me if it was killing me or was it that I killing myself with it. Telling her that she wasn't aware of what I had to do on a daily basis, I insisted that it was killing me.
"You are your own taskmaster," she said to me. "You are the one who is driving yourself to your own destruction. Nothing you do is ever good enough for you."
"Why can't I like myself, why can't I love myself?" I asked her
"I don't know. But figuring it out is doable."
"Really," she assured me.
* Names have been changed