On Impossible Standards (of the Self-Inflicted Variety)
One of the things that's kept me from writing more regularly is large amounts of self-doubt. I wish it were as simple as thinking I suck, but there's more going on than that (isn't there always?). Instead it seems to be some combination of not being good at honest self-appraisal and demanding unrealistic feedback.
For the first, I seem to have a very binary approach to appraising myself; it's either all or nothing. So in the case of writing, I've either done something brilliant that I'm totally happy with or I'm disappointed. There's no room for nuance. It's strange, because usually I abhor a lack of nuance in thinking about things, but for whatever reason, that doesn't seem to apply to myself. (I struggle with it in terms of how I see other people as well, but that's for another day.)
I could give a million examples, but will content myself with just a couple. Growing up, I at first saw myself as a good student. When I started to struggle, that was broken, and I didn't have any way to replace it. But the fact that it broke is itself a sign: rather than accept that I was good at some things and not good at others, it has to be one or the other. The same is true with my current job: either I'm an amazing employee who never makes a mistake or I'm lousy. Usually I get around this by avoiding any emotional investment in what I do. But there lies deep dissatisfaction.
So returning to writing, it's not enough to get something down. Some part of me doesn't feel content with writing for writing's sake, even though I otherwise enjoy writing just to do it. I want to be as smart as the bloggers I read, and as thought-provoking. But how do I know when I've done that? I may never know, and certainly won't when I can't honestly tell myself whether something is good or not, or at least whether I'm happy with it.
This brings me to the second factor I listed at the beginning: demanding unrealistic feedback. I can't consider myself a writer just because I'm someone who writes; I need some kind of exterior validation, whether that be publishing, tons of page views, replies, whatever. Even if one or more of those things happened, though, I wouldn't be able to internalize it or really feel validated by it. There would still be the doubt, the questions, the inability to see anything as either an impossible success or a complete failure.
It's for this reason that I've exclusively been writing about introspection and self-reflection, not that this isn't useful for me. I would love to talk more about things I think about the world, but I question whether I have something interesting to offer. Whenever I try, I keep getting bombarded by thoughts that I'm not saying anything new or interesting, and that anyone interested in the topic I'm discussing will already know what it is I'm trying to say.
None of this is a plea for compliments, mind you, since there's nothing you could say that would change my thought processes. Only I can do that.
Being aware of the process is the first step in changing it, so I can be grateful (but not proud, yet) that I've seen this much. Where I'm unsure still is what, specifically, to replace this thought pattern with.
My psychologist had a starter, which was to imagine what I would tell my daughter if she were struggling with the same issues. At the least, the idea is to allow me to get some distance and add some nuance, since I'm generally pretty good at approaching things with her and her problems that way. I think my answer for her would be just to do it if it's fun, and not worry about whether she becomes famous with it. I'm getting better about that, but it unfortunately doesn't help with the self-criticism I've already described when it comes to writing about other things beyond what's in my own head.
Something that I've found especially hard as I've tried to understand my mind (and especially what my mental illnesses do to it) is to simply give myself a break. I'm not an absent-minded genius or tortured artist or anything like that, so it's too easy for this to seem like settling. I don't feel like my illnesses are particularly interesting or noteworthy enough to make a career (even as an anonymous, unpaid blogger) from them.
Slowly, I have been able to cut myself some slack. Sometimes I accept that I'm going to not do as well at work because I just plain can't focus at a given time, or that it's going to be harder for me to accomplish something that most people will find easy. But emphasis on slowly; I've never wanted to be unable to do things I see others doing. If they can do it, why can't I?
Speaking of the tortured genius archetype, this is very much something I used to almost hope for, and the results could be disastrous. The main reason was that it led me to embrace my mental illness rather than try to deal with it, to the point that I fetishized being miserable. It became a badge of honor, a sign that I was Not Like Others. I think my wanting to Write Deep Thoughts is probably something similar; if I can get the kind of recognition that I imagine, won't that make me feel better about what's going on in my head? The answer, of course, is probably not.
Sometimes I read stuff on the small Internet and think about how the author will never know how invested I was in reading their work. I consider sending an email, and then usually just move on. Almost sad in a way, for an artist to go unnoticed about how they actually mattered to someone at some point in even the smallest amount. I read you dear writer.
Thanks, this really does mean a lot. And if you ever want to e-mail, feel free to do so: firstname.lastname@example.org. If you'd like, my public PGP key is found on my profile:
public PGP key
It became a badge of honor
Don't be too harsh on yourself! Yes, with mental illness one can get attached to the fact of being ill. It can be an obstacle in the way to full recovery, but it's mainly a way of coping, a safety mechanism. I don't know where you are in your path to a more balanced mind, but unless it's the late stages of recovery, I would prioritize not to flagellate myself about it, and just accept the fact that for now that's what's happening.
Good luck in your path!
[disclaimer: I'm neither a therapist nor a medical professional, I've just been there and still partially am, so take this with a fistful of salt]
Agree with this take. Very against all forms of defeatism, humans have to be better!
It definitely *served* as a coping mechanism for me, but I won't go so far as to say it was a good (or even effective) one. On the contrary, by fetishizing my mental health the way I did, I probably delayed treatment that would've helped me. I've been in therapy basically my whole adult life, but I'm not sure how truly engaged I was with it; for much of this time, it was just another part of the glorification of the whole thing. Meanwhile, I didn't pursue anti-depressants until I was getting seriously to the end of my rope, and am just lucky I got desperate before my situation did.
I don't beat myself up over it, to be clear, but it's important for me to recognize it for what it was: a mistake.