Mental Health Struggles: a view from the inside out - Part II
Upcoming & Remarkable - a special series by talents on the rise
Perfectionism & Procrastination
This week's U & R is with a special thanks to Birte Human. If you haven’t already read part I here.
In little less than two weeks, I have an incredibly special event to attend. I never thought I would be able to say this, but this special event is my graduation.
Although this is definitely a celebratory moment, in general graduating isn’t a “special” thing. After all, this is what Millenials do: after finishing high school, we graduate from college or university and continue to hunt for a job which is the perfect match for our academic background. The question has never been if I would go to college, but rather what direction I would choose. Luckily, I had this figured out early, before-graduating-high-school-early.
Today, all of this is almost a decade ago.
In the past ten years I have dropped out of college (twice), I have worked a number of (side) jobs, before I returned to college. My college journey has been a lot like a rollercoaster ride, and not necessarily in a fun way. During the ride my self-esteem hit an all-time low, never being able to ‘finish the job’. As a perfectionist, this struggle was an absolute nightmare. The perfect future I dreamed up in high school started to show cracks, and I in my eyes, there wasn’t anyone to blame but myself.
I’ve always thought of my perfectionism as a good thing (perhaps even great). Why wouldn't you want anything to be less than perfect? In hindsight, I realize that this so-called perfectionism, caused by a series of childhood traumas (perhaps a story for another time, people), was actually the ‘root’ of my problems.
As a consequence of perfectionism I have very high expectations of myself, which puts an awful lot of (unrealistic) pressure on my shoulders. These high expectations actually come from a place of fear. Fear of failure, abandonment, rejection. Fear of letting other people down because perfectionism is intertwined with a drive to please others. Perfectionists somehow believe if we do everything absolutely perfect, we are able to escape pain, judgement and criticism. But as the wise Aristotle said almost 2400 years ago: “There is only one way to avoid criticism; (to) do nothing, (to) say nothing, and (to) be nothing.”
Deadlines, stress, shame - and justification
Because of my perfectionism, I am often self-critical. If I cannot do something perfectly, I rather don’t do the thing at all. This all-or-nothing mindset led to a behaviour I struggle with to this day; procrastination.
Procrastination is a strange beast. I know that when I start early before a deadline, I am able to prevent a big amount of stress. However, because I strive for perfection, most of the time I simply don’t know where or how to begin. This is when I start to feel insecure, almost questioning every letter that I put on paper. The guilt which follows this feels heavy, and is sometimes unbearable. Eventually I reach the stage where I am paralyzed and not able to do anything. Strangely procrastination also gives me a justification afterwards, an excuse almost. Because when - after the deadline - I don’t finish the job in question absolutely perfect, I am able to blame this on not having enough time for “perfectioning” the job. Therefore the reason for my imperfection is not because I’m not good enough, but because it’s ‘objectively’ impossible.
The women in the collective
Of course, there are different varieties of procrastination, as we are all different kinds of people. That is why I reached out to a few women in our collective who are struggling with their mental health. To highlight their voices, as I shed light in the darkness that we all face in a different shape or form. One of the women I reached out to is Birte Human. Birte pointed out a couple of helpful techniques for dealing with procrastination.
Procrastination is her mental health stumbling block, and led to her feeling guilt on one hand and shame on the other. She also felt misunderstood, felt like hiding from people and - to top it all off - a lot of anxiety. Birte explains: “everybody procrastinates every now and then, but when you start beating yourself up for it, that’s when you develop a vicious circle”.
Therefore, when you know someone who struggles with procrastination, advising them to ‘just do it’ doesn’t help. This is a trigger for emotions the “procrastinator” struggles with, like guilt and shame.
When Birte falls down in a spiral of procrastination, she climbs her way out by writing down the things she did finish (either on the particular day, or previously during the week). The things she writes down can be as “small” as getting out of bed, eating breakfast, or brushing her teeth. While those aren’t typically categorized as accomplishments, for those struggling with mental health, these things aren’t always easy.
Another thing Birte shared, is how she redefined “productivity” for herself. In her book, productivity is related to both activity and self-care. For her, self-care includes eating healthy food, washing her hair, or even replying to her friends’ messages. All things she is able to be proud of.
In the extension of technique #2, Birte realized the importance of understanding how to ‘productively’ make use of the time that is left. This instead of worrying about the time that wasn’t used effectively. When she feels particularly bad about procrastinating, she visualizes “clicking” a reset button. She practices this by for example taking a shower. By doing this consciously she restarts her day. This practice helps her to give herself a new opportunity to choose productivity over procrastination. Through this Birte is able to skip over the guilt or shame of the use of her time before her reset.
The techniques above have been recommended to Birte by a psychologist, and are adjusted to her needs. The tools helped her to deal with being “busy”’ in order to be, or rather appear, “successful” in today’s society.
A new normal
Birte and I are not alone in our struggle.
For those struggling with procrastination, please remember that we are not in a competition, We have to remember that’s it’s okay to not be okay. While searching for our paths in life, we sometimes find ourselves completely lost. Suddenly the road which we perfectly planned, paved and figured out to the last details, is something we couldn’t have predicted, and we find ourselves off the beaten path. Disoriented, and perhaps astray. An unexpected turn, however, can lead to positively surprising discoveries. Instead of fearing the unknown, we have the opportunity to choose to embrace the unexpected, and to see our “wrong” turn in a new light. After all, sometimes the most beautiful flowers are found on a bewildered path.