A couple of years ago I wrote about going through therapy for the first time in my life. It was useful once before in connection to a very specific set of circumstances which were happening, but after I was past that I stopped. Last fall I started again for some more generalized issues.
As was the case a few years ago, there was a false start with a bad therapist. Again it was a man. He was bad for me in ways that were very different than the guy was a few years ago but he was still bad. For one thing, he’s a big sports fan and plays sports radio in his lobby. After I told him who I was and what I did he said that he remembers hearing me on the radio. After that he wanted to steer every conversation back to baseball and went to great lengths to tell me how cool he thought my job was. When you’re dealing with imposter syndrome, depression and self-loathing and when one of your central problems is that you’re having trouble finding an identity outside of your work, well, yeah, that’s not gonna go over well.
So I switched to someone new. A woman this time who, like the woman I saw a few years ago (and can’t really go back to because of insurance issues), has been way better. I’m not saying that women are necessarily better therapists, but they’re better for me for a host of reasons, likely tied up in dumb masculinity tropes, both on my part and the part of the the male therapists I saw.
I won’t go too deeply into what she and I have been working on, but the past month or so has been amazingly profitable for me for a host of reasons. The one topic which has been extraordinarily useful has been less about issues I have as such but a general thing about how I view the world. Specifically, my habit, when stressed, to forget that the perfect is the enemy of the good and to believe that, if things aren’t perfect, they can’t be good.
This is not about perfectionism. I’m not a perfectionist and never have been. I don’t have some pathological need to excel or whatever and anyone who has seen my handiwork around the house knows DAMN well that doing certain jobs perfectly is just not something with which I’m too terribly concerned.
No, it’s more about how, when other things aren’t going well or when I’m under a lot of stress or suffering from anxiety or depression, I believe that anything that isn’t perfect is not worth doing or wasn’t worth having been done. I seek to discount or discredit the things which are imperfect in my life. I think less of my work unless it’s truly wonderful and I discount or do not truly enjoy experiences I have that fail to meet some perfect expectations.
In severe episodes – and I was having severe episodes of all of this last fall and into the winter – I simply don’t bother to even do things that I don’t think will be perfect. An idea for a blog post at NBC may be abandoned because I don’t think it’d be really great or wouldn’t get a lot of traffic. A weekend outing may be canceled because I convince myself that, eh, it won’t be that fun really. Or, because I can imagine things that would be way more fun, how I could enjoy this OK but not perfect thing? The impulse extended into my personal relationships too, to no small degree.
At bottom, I’ve been learning that what this was really about was energy level and effort level. I didn’t see my writing as bad, weekend outings as pointless or my relationships as unsatisfying. When asked to walk through them by my therapist I was able to identify the good and bad parts of all of these things fairly and objectively and respond well to the good and poorly to the bad. It wasn’t about pessimism per se. I just stopped myself from feeling those good parts and accepting good experiences because it takes a lot of effort and energy to do anything that isn’t simple and undeniably wonderful in the first instance. Mental energy that at the time, for lots of reasons, I did not have.
People I’ve talked to recently about what I was experiencing last fall and winter – at least the ones who don’t know me super closely – have been surprised to hear this because I was still, generally, being a good dad and getting my work done and I was there for the people who are close to me in at least a basic way. I was sill being kind to people. I wasn’t letting the balls drop completely. I wasn’t engaging in self-destructive behavior and my life did not appear to be falling apart. But that was because every ounce of my energy was being put into essential systems. It was like when the Enterprise would be hit by Romulan Disrupters and Geordi diverted all energy to shields and life support. Ship still looked pretty good at least, right?
The past couple of months and, particularly, the last month, has been pretty big for me in fixing all of this. I’m realizing that effort I put into myself – exercise, eating properly, getting fresh air – is not selfish effort, which is what I thought a lot before (”can’t work out, must do the laundry!”). It’s part of being my best me so I have the energy and outlook to be the best person for others and to be able to enjoy the stuff in life which, for a while, I didn’t have much energy. I’ve also, at my therapist’s helpful urging, allowed myself to appreciate the beauty in an occasional mess. Or, at least, to not think that something which is imperfect is not worth doing or having. And to realize that many of the most satisfying things we do in life come as the result of a little work or, sometimes, a lot. There are a lot of mental processes that go into that, but it’s like anything else: do it enough and it becomes easier. It’s an extension of my exercise routine in some weird way.
The reason I’m writing all of this? The therapist has been big on me writing through problems. Even when I wasn’t appreciating everything I wrote, I never stopped believing that writing is the one thing I’m better at than most other things I do, so seeing this personal work reduced to the written word makes it more real and valid for me.
So that’s why this exists. And hell, I feel better having written it than I felt when I woke up this morning, even though writing it has now put me a bit behind on my work this morning and prevented me from running out to the store like I planned. I’ll live. Because this stuff, not just the life support and shields, is what living is.