Sympathy for the Devil

A red fuzzy monster with devil horns.

I grew up one of those earnest, scrunch-browed kids who always wanted to be “good”. I’ve volunteered for one group or another since I was in my teens. I’d like to believe it was for purely altruistic reasons, but I’m human and psychologically speaking, I was often doing good to be seen as good. Carrying the never-good-enough gene means that one hopes actions can redeem what feels unlovable at the core. Now organizations being what they are, they don’t give a rat’s ass about what broken down esteem made you show up, they’re just glad you did. They need you – a body to fill booths or rosters or boards. If they need me, maybe I’m worth something.

Cut to 40 years later. I’ve continued to volunteer off-an-on with bouts of resentment and the sneaking suspicion that I’ve got it all wrong. In most organizations, women continue to do the bulk of labor and volunteering. In most organizations, the women are white, middle-class, and educated. My demographic – which means that I will automatically feel uncomfortable – a gift of introversion and growing up in dysfunction that makes you wait for the other shoe to drop. So I reach in and pull at the thread. Racism and classicism. Why is an organization filled with all white middle-class women? Finding both a cause and a reason to feel like an outsider – it’s the perfect frisson for the not-good-enough person, because the catch is, when it comes to being white and confronting racism, you will never be enough. Here’s a hanky for those white lady tears. And unless you plan on giving up a penchant for running shoes and grocery delivery, middle class is firmly where your not-so-firm ass will remain.

I have begun to realize how wrong I’ve been about a lot of things. Being good and doing good does not necessarily equate to feeling good for me. Is it supposed to? I’m not really sure, but I look around at my friends and family and acquaintances and I’m confused. Why aren’t they tortured by thoughts of how to be a good ally or trying hard to balance volunteerism with just living their life? What does being good even mean? Most people genuinely believe they are good people. I try to be and sometimes delude myself into thinking that I am, but mostly what I am is someone who is constantly trying to be good and often misplacing those energies.

Green fuzzy monster with horns and black eyebrows peeking over edge of wall.

I laugh at the efforts people put into trying to make others feel shame or fear or disgust or self-loathing on social media. Already there, jackwagons. Self-sufficient monster generator right here. I turned 55 last month and I have skills, baby. Any situation, any interaction, I can turn it into a reflection about what an awful person I am, never one to miss out on a narcissistic, depressive bout of self-flagellation. I go into shutdown mode and I try to figure out how I can quit EVERYTHING. My mind works the rationalizations. Well, I really need to focus on writing. The organization will be fine without me. Some other body will come along. I’m too old to be in situations that make me this miserable. My monsters come with ready-made excuses.

One hopes that a perpetual lack of self-confidence and self-denigration comes across as humble or endearing, but I suspect it is exhausting for others to parry with. You’re fine, Michelle. You’re a good person. That was a great thing you did. It takes an immense amount of self-control to not scream at them: I’m a monster! OPEN YOUR EYES!

Blue fuzzy monster looking surprised with an open mouth of sharp teeth.

Therapy, you say? Oh no, my friends, because you have no idea what else resides inside. Nothing wastes therapy more than…the people-pleaser monster. Just be confessional enough to make them think they’re getting somewhere with you. Shed a few tears. Have a brilliant insight or two into your own psyche. They settle back into their chair and think: god, I’m really great at this. This makes that 100K in school debt all worth it. You think: Maybe I am a good person, I even made the therapist happy.

One of my favorite writers, Anna Quindlen, wrote a column for the New York Times for many years called “Public and Private”. She wrote columns that connected the personal with social commentary. One critic derisively referred to her as a “monster of empathy”. Sometimes I think that’s one of my monsters, too. Empathy is the ability to imagine someone else’s life or perspective. That’s a necessary tool for a fiction writer, but in reality, it conflates your own perspectives with what you imagine to be someone else’s and 50% of the time you are off by a wide mile. It interferes with really hearing what someone else is saying about their lived experience.

Round fuzzy green monster with no mouth.

Last night I listened to the wind in the maple tree outside as I tried to settle my mind. It is amazing to me what a giant mess one can fit into a single, small, unimportant human brain. A gnat on the windshield. Perspective is good, but the thought is never far away – how easy it must be to be bad, to not care, to not get hooked into a moralistic world view of right and wrong, good and evil, to do what only feels good or comfortable. But I’d be deluding myself if I thought I could live that way. I’d be worried that I wasn’t bad enough.

A Birthday, Allelopathy, and an Epiphany

canstockphoto8352036This summer has been one of my worst summers since that year I had to go to church camp and make macrame owls, alongside girls who wanted to try on my glasses and giggle hysterically about how bad my eyesight was. Haha, dumbasses, you can’t Lasik stupid away.

When they say someone has snapped, I always think that must be a relative term. One person’s breakage is a trip to the grocery store for another. My trip to the grocery store involved me being angry for weeks on end. I’m still feeling pretty hostile.

It’s a child’s rage and it took me completely off guard. I turned 48 last week and for the months prior, I felt this anger build. We’re told that women tend to turn their anger inwards, but my depression was not a big enough vessel to contain it this time.

As hard as I try, I think I’m kind of a shitty human being. Some people go through life effortlessly, with little introspection or regret. Part of me wonders what that would be like. The rest of me thinks they’re either extremely healthy or sociopaths.

canstockphoto1830736Over the last couple of years, I’ve struggled with the do-gooder me. Like a cheesy answer to a job interview question about weaknesses, I feel overly responsible for others. Leading the parent-teacher group, taking care of my mother-in-law, stepping up when volunteers are asked for, donating money, goods, time. I’ve done a lot of organized volunteer work in my life, as well as the informal saying “yes” when someone asks for help. I was a problem solver, reliable, responsible and generous.

Something has changed. I’ve become so angry and resentful that I’m blurting “NO!” even before someone finishes the question. The pendulum has swung. My motivation for doing good often lay with my sense that I was not good enough. And that no longer seems a good enough reason.

It starts young, this goodness of the heart that really isn’t. It starts with the oldest child in a family of alcoholics. It starts with words. Lowbrow versions of not good enough, not pretty enough, not thin enough, not outgoing enough. Thoughtless words tossed off by adults who were never enough, either.

canstockphoto10740080It starts the first time you believe that a fundamentalist God will strike you dead because you lied about sneaking food at night. Dear god, please don’t kill me. I’ll be ever so good. It starts when adults praise and fawn over you because you are such a good, polite little girl, but you know that it’s an act. Theirs and yours.

It starts when you’re 11 and your stepfather passes out while driving and you desperately tug at the steering wheel and push your foot on the brake to steer to the shoulder. It starts when you quickly gather your brothers and sister, herding them out of the house before the punching starts. You are 13 and responsible for their lives. From that point on, you feel responsible for everything.

It continues when you have trouble making friends, because you’re an introvert. So you do favors. You give rides and money, make them laugh, drink enough to be outgoing. They seem to like you. You try to be agreeable, even though you think their latest perm makes them look like Carrot Top and that their boyfriends are numb-nuts. You keep your sharper opinions to yourself, smile when you don’t feel like it and drive them to the movie theater to see a movie you don’t want to see.

It continues when your boyfriend calls you a whore for not being a virgin and you think he is right, because they all are. You thrive at Army basic training because being screamed at that you’re too slow or fat or stupid or woman is nothing new. It doesn’t phase you. You think you’ve got it under control. The rules are laid out for you to follow and you follow them.

It continues for decades. You are a good employee, loving spouse, decent parent, reliable friend. Your anger is this vague, pulpy mess that you sort of, kind of, blame on others’ expectations and exhaustion. And that works for awhile. Until it doesn’t. Until one day, you wake up and realize that it’s all you. Your expectations and demands of yourself are holding you hostage.

canstockphoto9946409Insomnia has become my new thing. I lay wide awake at 3am, my witching hour. I think, what if I stopped doing it all? Would anyone even notice? Bit by bit, as I do less, no one really has. For a moment, I mourn the wasted time and feel a little sorry for myself. And then there’s the anger that smells like childhood. How could you be so stupid, so misdirected, so delusional?

No, no, that’s not right. I’m confused. I thought I was less than, so I worked to be good, but now I’m angry about the fact that I was “good” for all the wrong reasons and because of that, I’m less than. Dysfunctional math at its finest.

They call it a midlife crisis, as if it’s a one-time event solved by a racy car, a gym membership, a young lover, airline miles. Maybe for some, it is. For me, it’s a slow burn in place, growing more intense by the moment. It’s not a lifetime of regret, it’s the thought oh no, I want to do so much more. Time has taken on a physical quality. Every activity is weighed and measured and found wanting.

There will be a contingent of people who tell me none of it matters as long as good was done. It reminds me of a term in nature called allelopathy. The word allelopathy comes from the Greek, meaning “mutual harm” and defines the biochemical effect plants can have, both positive and negative, on the organisms and plants around them.

canstockphoto10644936In my case, I have this old, scraggly tree that grew from those childhood years, overshadowing the ground around it. But there is a seedling, borne of the love I’ve given and received, of those moments of happiness and creativity, of contented solitude. It has grown as high as it will be allowed to while that old tree shades it. And that, my friends, is an epiphany.

The Perfect Choice

I can hear the cracks in the wall before the tidal wave lays me low. They sneak up on me – the whispers of shoulda, woulda, coulda. I am paralyzed by my imperfect perfectionism.

Before I can rally, I need a breather. I watch a movie, flip through a magazine or read a book – media filled with perfect people, perfect writing, perfect pictures of a well-adjusted life. I’d love to say I feel so self-confident that these images and words don’t push me farther under the bus of self-loathing. But it’s not true. When I’m feeling low, these are the proverbial kicks to the gut that say “See? I told you so!”

There is, as an NPR blog writer called it, a New Perfectionism. Perfect parenting, perfect workouts, perfect household hints, perfect ways to be an effective and efficient employee, perfect time management skills, perfect possibilities for every aspect of life.  I don’t doubt that there are many people out there who aren’t anxious or overwhelmed or filled with self doubt. I am not one of them.

I’ve been reading Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain. It’s been recommended to me at least 20 times, so I finally cracked it open on vacation. When it comes to my own introversion, it’s not been particularly enlightening. I’m good with the fact that I am an introvert who can function as an extrovert when needed. What I found interesting were the chapters about how extroversion became the ideal in our society – the valuing of personality over character. Selling one’s self became more important than ensuring you weren’t, deep down, a complete shithead.

The idea that how we appear is more valuable than our character is designed to teach us to judge a book by its cover – to sort, categorize and label people based on first impressions. If you have perfectionist tendencies, this value system exploits that need in an endless procession of how-to articles, cults of personality and advertising standards. Perfectionism sells.

While on vacation, it struck me that I’ve been so tired over the last year – working hard, struggling against entropy, trying to be better at everything.  I’ve expended tremendous amounts of energy with very little in the way of return – or at least returns I’ve been able to recognize. I don’t want to be exhausted all the time and it’s not necessary. The New Perfectionism indeed – now I want to be the perfectly balanced person. Nice work, brain. Any more circular thinking you’d like to do?

Friends often say to me: You’re too hard on yourself.  A cliché won’t stop 40 some years of pushing myself. And like any other character trait, there’s an upside. I have worked hard to become a productive member of society, to have stable relationships, to be a decent parent. Those things have not come easily to me. The downside is that not only am I tough on myself, but I’m often tough on others and I don’t know how to relax (And don’t tell me to relax – I’ll just want to punch someone in the face).

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve started to question this perfectionist mentality. I can’t physically sustain a driven life. Many activities, which take up vast quantities of time, aren’t really important. And lastly, I’ve moved beyond the survival and self-sufficiency stage. I’m here. I get to be a bit of a dilettante. I get to dabble and meander and be a little lazier.

I felt a huge mental harrumph after typing that last sentence. Says who? Now get back to work. Maybe it would be more honest to say that since I will likely continue to push myself, I should redirect those efforts towards fulfilling work, family time that doesn’t involve force marching everyone through chores, activities that enrich instead of deplete. There are choices to be made.

canstockphoto10160517

After reading The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz, the idea of choices took on a whole new meaning – and it explains much of the anxiety people feel in our modern society. By pursuing perfection, we are inundated with choices at every turn. Of course, Mr. Schwartz decided the proof was in the pudding by immediately following up with Practical Wisdom: The Right Way to Do the Right Thing. With so many other volumes of What You Are Not Doing Perfectly on the shelves, I’ve resolved any paradox by choosing not to read it.

Faced with so many experts and how-to gurus, the choices are overwhelming. But these choices are only necessary if your perceived goal is perfectionism. And what is perfect? Perfect is often what you want other people to see when they look at you, your home, status, possessions, children or body. Perfection represents love, power, respect – any number of things to people, but perfectionist behavior rarely yields those results. It can be, as I’ve discovered, quite tiring and unrewarding.

If perfection is through the eyes of someone else, then perfect becomes subjective. If definitions of perfection are subjective, it can be ours to define. It may end up looking entirely different than as advertised. Contents may settle. Results may not be guaranteed. Objects might be closer than they appear. There might be unintended side effects – like uncontrollable laughter, unexpected napping, small pleasures and infinite joy.

Perfectionist thinking is hard to unravel. Letting go of the behavior sometimes involves doing a half-assed job, showing up late, putting it off until later, not ironing it, not doing a progressive number of reps, letting the picture hang crooked on the wall. The next step is figuring out what you’d like to do instead  – something rewarding, pleasurable, luxurious, frivolous. I have piles of work to do. I wrote this blog post instead.