I am sure there are plenty of reasons people are hard on themselves. My, unburdened by proof or research life experience-based hypothesis has been that society is set up in such a manner that we are constantly seeking the next, more significant and shinier thing. Too often I have found that I feel content, only to freak out that I have become complacent and will then never amount to anything else. I go between, “shouldn’t I want the bigger house?” to “wow, I am so happy to have everything I do, this is good and plenty” back and forth, repeatedly, almost daily.
But before I blame society as a whole, I consider the fact that my family also heavily reinforced these notions within me. If I said something like, “I was nervous I wouldn’t do well on that test, but I ended up with a B+,” I would usually get lectured as to why it was more important for me to stay focused on getting the perfect grade. And there is value to that, just not when someone is coming to you looking for an extra nudge of support.
Based on the amount of reading and studying I did and how long I spent at the library as a student, there was never a reason to think I wasn’t aiming for that A. My parents were just bad at paying attention, however, and they didn’t know how anxious their words were actually making me. I craved a pat on the shoulder for the B, but they wanted that trophy so that they maintained bragging rights in front of family and friends.
As a result, there was no room to learn what would make me happy. No place to find out what kind of person I was outside of the accomplishments I chased. No time to spend on something silly like that. All of my time needed to be spent finding and then chasing the next thing. Each time I got closer to it, I was reminded that there was nothing I could do to actually reach some sort of final destination. As if that existed.
During my early twenties, I recognized that I spent so much time running after a carrot on a stick, I began to wonder if it was okay to blame my family for this endlessly tired but insanely driven person I had become.
What became clear more than anything else is that my thirst for validation was running the show—anything that could fill the void that an empty participation trophy used to take up.
I stopped running for a bit
I let myself hit the wall of admitting that “I actually have no idea what I am doing” and proceeded in threefold:
Accepted that I am not the things my parents told me I needed to be
I was more than a grade and not a prize horse, and I was a living human being outside of my achievements.
Accepted my limitations
I wouldn’t win every time, and that’s okay.
In times when I don’t feel well, I spent time finding what I enjoyed.
I used to push harder and harder until I would break down crying exhausted. Finally, on a day when I felt like I wasn’t doing enough, I encouraged myself to actually step away and do something kind for myself instead of beating myself up. I tried reading, writing, and just watching TV. Acitivies that would be considered part of the fabled activity Self Care. I wanted to stop chasing my tail, and instead, use all of that pent-up frustration to start the journey towards finding who I was.
So what action did I take?
First, I set up some long-term goals. These were loose and a bit broad like a bucket list for the rest of my life. I want to be a published writer, I want to devote my career to helping others feel less of the sting of mental illness stigma, and maybe have a child.
All of these were choices I made based on where I wanted my life to go life, fully controlled by me. In comparison, seeking my parent’s appreciation created a goal I had little control over. It was not contingent on my hard work, but rather their feelings at any given moment. From that point, all of my future actions would be moving to fulfill a purpose that I establish. There is still a carrot on a stick, but I determine the length of the stick and in which cases I would be allowed to just grab it and eat it.
By setting up long term personal goals, I helped myself re-direct bad habits, and I gave myself a clear purpose. Whenever I would start having depressive thoughts about what I had not yet done, I could remind myself of that purpose, ensuring that I kept focusing on it long term and away from how many re-tweets, website visits or live stream viewers I didn’t get.
Now, the hardest part has been maintaining my goals in the ever-shifting sands of life changes. I suppose the actual difficulty was accepting that sometimes I would need to roll with the punches, and most importantly, recognize that not every single thing I do would validate me in some way. And that, in the scheme of how long we live, is more than just okay.