Today was a busy day. I woke up at 8:00am, went to therapy at 9:30am-10:30am, then headed to San José for dance. After dance, it was back to San Carlos for work at the childcare center from 3:00pm-8:00pm. Now it is 8:26pm. I’m sitting at my usual nook in the Nob Hill Foods café, awaiting a student, whom I will be tutoring in writing from 8:45pm-10:45pm.
While I am indeed exhausted from today’s hectic schedule, there’s a big part of me that enjoys riding this “high” and feeling “wired”. It’s in these periods of intense motivation and productivity that I feel my best. As I discussed with my therapist today, though, my need to be constantly busy in order to feel good may in fact be masking a deeper psychological distortion that must be fixed.
There’s a lot I have yet to investigate about my current mindset that’s led me to this maladaptive need to work at 1000% to not feel depressed.
Part of it is an identity thing. My whole life, people have perceived me as a hard-worker, and for that endearing quality, I’ve received much validation– respect, admiration and praise from my parents, mentors and peers. Thus stemmed the idea that my worth was defined solely by my ability to work hard for my goals with focus and determination.
When I’m not working hard or pushing myself to my limit, then, not only do I feel guilt for not trying my hardest, I lose my sense of self, because such a large part of my identity is pinned on that one trait. “Belicia the Hard Worker” is the mask I wear most and feel most comfortable in. But, because I am human, I was never meant to go at 100 mph, nonstop. If I did that, I’d inevitably run out of fuel and burn out.
My therapist suspects that the depression I experience is largely exhaustion talking. During my highs, I work and work and work, but the higher I climb on my quest to reach my unattainable goals, the harder the impact of the crash, when I do inevitably fall.
Getting out of the depression is tough. Beyond the fact that depression, by definition alone, cripples one to despondency, my whole identity of “Belicia the Hard Worker” is called into question when I go through such episodes. When my depression hits, the very act of getting out of bed is tough enough, let alone working at maximum productivity. I ask myself, “If I’m not ‘Belicia the Hard Worker’, then who am I?” This is a tell-tale case of history rhyming and long-standing thought patterns manifesting themselves in different ways. It’s the same as what ensued when a knee injury took me out of gymnastics, five years ago. From age five to 15, I was a gymnast. My identity was ingrained in that sport. When I had to quit, I was spiraled into an all-consuming identity crisis. “Who was I, without gymnastics?” It took years for me to develop other areas of my identity beyond gymnastics, but eventually, I succeeded in finding newfound value in myself beyond “Belicia the Gymnast”. My “Belicia the Hard Worker” mask is analogous to “Belicia the Gymnast”. I have put so much into that very identity, that when something, like depression striking, happens to call compromise my ability to work hard, my identity is called into question, and I’m thrown into a full-on existential crisis. This, in conjunction with the nature of depression, is why my lows are so low, and why it is so difficult for me to climb out of them. It’s important for me, then, to hone into other qualities of myself, beyond that of being a hard worker, and find value in those traits. And it’s not enough to just have other people tell me I’m this or that. I must truly believe it myself.
Eventually, when the cloud of depression lifts and I do pick myself back up, it’s back to the toxic pursuit of perfection once more. Such a behavioral pattern partly explains why my highs and lows follow a periodic trend.
Let’s get to the root of the problem. The perfectionism. It is the pursuit of perfection that drives my obsession with achieving, which, as we confirmed earlier, always leads to a hard crash. What is it about striving to be exceptional that fulfills me? Why am I so obsessed with the act of achieving, to the detriment of my physical and mental well-being? Here’s the theory my therapist and I have agreed upon. Behind the face of a confident, charismatic, vivacious young woman, I am, at the core, a deeply insecure person. I never feel like I measure up to what I wish to become. Striving for success has become an impossible game to win, if my definition of success is but a moving target. Yes, I’ll admit it– as much as I preach that success is NOT defined by external validation and stems instead from intrinsic meaning, I have a much easier time saying such words than putting them into practice. I see others around me and can’t help comparing my achievements to theirs. Of course, in life, there will ALWAYS be someone smarter, prettier, more gifted, etc. Should you discount your own qualities, though, simply because that girl is prettier, your brother performed a smidgen better than you on that exam, or a fellow dancer won that competition, while you took home a not-too-shabby second place? Of course not. THAT is where the distortion lies. Consciously or not, I still struggle with comparison, which feeds into my insecurity. It is because I am so void of self appreciation and love that I turn to external validation to feel worthy. I eat up praise from others like a starved beggar just given food. I strive for perfect grades because the radiant report card is but a life vest for a drowning individual.
With time, I hope I will learn to develop a sense of self beyond what I achieve or how hard I work in the process of achieving. There is more to life than climbing the ladder of success. What entails a successful life, anyway? What if you were, loosely coined, the “best” in your field, but were also deeply unhappy and insecure? On the flip side, what if you lived– again loosely termed– an “ordinary” life, but found meaning in the simple joys of life and were intrinsically happy? There is career success and personal success. Life is a balancing act between the two. Right now, I seem to be putting all my eggs in the career success basket, at the expense of my personal well-being. Maybe because I don’t value myself enough to care about my happiness. Though, that can’t be completely true, for why do I bother striving for success, anyway, if I don’t see it as a path towards eventual happiness? Man, I have a lot of distortions and thought patterns to untangle. Fixing one’s mental health is no easy task.
Enough of my ramblings. I clearly have much to think about in the meantime. Writing has always helped me organize my thoughts and get back in touch with my rawest, truest self. Thank you, my readers, for putting up with me as I continue to extricate my distortions from Truth, and learn to foster love for myself beyond my achievements.