Friday, 25 December 2015

Words from a recovering perfectionist

A few weeks ago I was told that I had clinical depression. I told myself that it wasn't a big deal. We'd merely put a label on something that was already existing inside of me. Plus I had an excuse for my lack of productivity, and I could finally stop feeling guilty. Because it's just that simple.*

Questions started whirling around in my head, like “how long have I had depression?” “what is the source of my depression?” and even “what exactly is depression?”. For somebody who thought that they were relatively clued up on mental health, I soon realised that when it came to my own circumstances, I knew very little. No big deal my ass.

So I started some research. I knew that everyone’s experience of depression is different, but I wanted to begin to understand my own experience. I wanted to find the fragments that my depression was made up from. I wanted to find them, because I knew that that was what I had to do before I could start to fit those fragments together in order to fix it. Because an illness as complex as depression can be repaired as if it were a broken bicycle.*

I've begun to realise that much of my identity isn't what I thought it was. There are traits I live with that are not part of me, but are symptoms of my illness. That may sound dramatic, but it’s important to separate myself from my depression, because they are not the same thing. Understanding where my personality ends and my depression starts can be difficult when the very nature of the illness turns your mind against itself.

So you can imagine my distress when I came across one resource which listed possible factors of depression as including:

  • -Hereditary
  • -Stress
  • -Personality... wait, what?!

"Some personality types are more susceptible to developing depression. There is proof that people suffering from high levels of anxiety, or who are more sensitive to criticism, or that have a “perfectionist” personality-type have a major risk of developing depression."
(The original was in Italian, I hope my top translation skills did it justice (y) ).

My initial reaction after reading this piece of information was denial: 'what a damaging thing to say!' (I now realise the utter irony of this reaction). Then I asked myself why it upset me, and I realised it was because it was absolutely true. These short sentences had described me so accurately. I had never thought of myself as a perfectionist, but I am one and it could be part of the reason that I was in this position.

I sat with that thought. So much of my identity has always been very closely linked with the quality of work that I produced, whether it was school, university or elsewhere. Yet it's a side of my personality that I truly value: my belief that I can do anything when I commit myself to it. When I decide that something is worth my time, you can bet that I’m going to take pride in it and do everything within my power to make something great.

This offered somewhat of an epiphany as to why university has always been such a difficult place for me. When I decided to come back to university for my final year, I told myself that I had to make the most of it. I told myself that the grades didn’t count, but that like any decision, it was an opportunity that I must not waste. I'd unknowingly put myself under so much pressure. But what about the other aspects of my life?

Earlier I was looking at my Instagram profile: a social media outlet that I maintained for "fun". As I scrolled through my more recent posts, I could remember deleting and re-uploading many of my photos until I felt that the colour-balance was just right on each carefully cropped square. I even added a white border of 35 pixels (no more, no less) to make each photo look more uniform. In hindsight I can barely believe that I didn’t identify as a perfectionist before. Even as I sit here typing, I find it hard not to alter my wording before I even complete a sentence. I could write something shorter, something clearer... something better.

I know that I trained myself to think this way because I aspired to work in social media. I treated platforms like my blog, YouTube and Instagram as portfolios as well as hobbies. Perhaps I do still want to work in social media in some capacity, or in writing or photography, but somewhere along the way I think that I have placed my priorities in the wrong order. I've learnt the harmful effects of placing pressure on yourself in too many aspects of your life. More importantly, I've learnt that I’m so focused on the image that I’m portraying and the impression that I leave that I've forgotten about the only part that should matter: the expression.

The wonderful news is that having unwittingly been living as a perfectionist for many years, I know I have the tools and determination to succeed in whatever I do decide to pursue. For now, though, I need to apply those skills to practising good mental health and being kind to myself. That means no comparing myself to people who have had more time and energy to practise their craft than me. In fact, let's stop the comparisons all together. What’s far more important to perfect spend time on is expressing the ideas that I have; however imperfect the result may be.

* Heavy use of sarcasm. To be taken with a pinch of salt.