How Do You Know When It’s Time to Say “When?”

Over the past two and a half years since I found a medicinal cocktail that seems to be working, I have slowly been rebuilding a life for myself. It’ s been difficult – not only because my entire life had been torn apart, but also because I’ve never “lived” as this person before. I’m experiencing things for the first time as whoever I am now, and I don’t know how it should feel.

But it’s been good. It started slowly with leaving the house once a day. to run an errand, usually accompanied by my mom. Then I started to go to the gym every day, also with my mom. I changed my diet and went back to being vegan. I finally moved out of my parents’ house and got my own place. I started running errands and going to the gym alone. I reconnected with friends and even made one or two new ones. I got a job for four hours a week and took classes at a community college. I applied for graduate school. Now that I’m in graduate school, I am taking a full course load. I am actively involved in our student association. I have a fellowship and recently a new job, 12 hours a week. I am doing research for an internship next year. Fuck, I went on my very first date in November, and while that is stagnant (by choice) now, I did it so now I know I can.

When you become a counselor, (that’s what I’m getting my MS in,) there is an ethical mandate for self-care. An ethical MANDATE. Faculty and friends are constantly saying “make sure you are not spreading yourself too thin,” “only do what you can to your capacity,” “make sure you are balancing your self-care and your school.” While I actually find it aggravating considering the faculty are the ones giving us copious amounts of work and my friends are all type-A and planning on getting A’s as they manage the rest of their lives, I also don’t know the answer.

I’ve tried to ask people – how do you know when you reach your capacity? They don’t usually have an answer. Maybe they don’t know what I am asking. I saw my psychiatrist last week, someone who has seen me at my very worst, and asked her how “normal” people know when to say when? How will I know if I am reaching burnout? Don’t you have to reach burnout to know you’ve reached it?

As someone with a behavioral health condition, emotions are never as simple as they seem. Anxiety could turn into a panic attack. Feeling sad could lead me to bed for days, or even self-harm. Knowing that possibility of severity is always lurking makes me hypervigilant with my emotions. Hence, my fear of not knowing my capacity. Because if you have to burnout to realize your capacity, that’s not something I can allow. What if burnout is a slip in recovery? What if I can’t come back? That’s why knowing the answer feels so important to me and not having one feels so frightening.

There is a part of me that wants to push myself and see what else I can do. I have surprised myself so much in the past few months by what I have achieved; I am excited and scared to see what else I could do. I still feel gaps are missing and traumas ungrieved. But I am curious as to who I am becoming. At the same time, there is a terrified inner child who just wants us to appreciate where we are and be grounded and centered and satisfied. It warns me to pull back, to remember the blows of rejection and failure. To ignore the intellectual understanding of the bullshit that is American values, and remember how it can feel.

And I find myself right back where I started: when will I know when to say when? And when will “when” be good enough? What about you? How do you know when you have reached burnout? When do you decide to say no? What does “self-care” look like to you? What’s the trick to this thing called living? What’s your “when?”

Perfectionism and the Terrifying Fear of Failure

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I was accepted into a Master’s program in London and decided to defer for a year to prepare myself for the challenges I might face. As part of that preparation, I signed up for two classes at a community college. After 12 years of being out of college, I wanted to freshen up my writing skills, get back into the “groove” of school. I have written quite a bit for my previous jobs, but writing an action alert and writing a critical essay require very different skills. I also wanted to see how I handled the stress, time management, ability to focus, retain large amounts of information, etc. I just wanted to make sure that the impact of the last three years would not make school an impossible task.

And I love school: going to class, learning, asking questions, debating, having homework. Still, I leave class overwhelmed, anxious, and often feeling very lonely.

I had my midterm essay for one of my classes due this past Friday. About two weeks ago, I noticed an increase in panic attacks, crying fits, random, rapid, and intense mood swings, and horrific insomnia. I was nauseous all the time, and often too exhausted to eat, call people, go to the gym, shower, or clean. As I started to prepare to write the paper, bad habits and feelings reared their ugly, gigantic heads. I was rereading and over-reading, creating intricate outlines, going on tangents, overanalyzing the question. Sometimes, my mind would just go totally blank. I hated everything I typed. It was taking me hours and I was getting nowhere. Most days I would sit, the books and my computer on the table in front of me, watching tv, avoiding the process of creating a piece of shit.

At that point, I would have rather not turned anything in, than turn in something I was ashamed of and let my teacher see what a fucking moron I was. No matter what I wrote, it just sounded so awful. I was so angry at myself for being so stupid. I was sad that I would never be good enough. I mean, I couldn’t even write a six page paper at a community college, for an introductory class, on a subject I had already studied.

I went to my therapist a mess. She asked me if I ever felt this way before. I have always been the engaged student: participating in class;, seeing my teacher after to make sure I was understanding the information properly; discussing the issues with my friends at lunch (while they rolled their eyes at me) – but I wasn’t the “A student.” I believed this even while getting A’s and awards for my academic work. I always found an exception every time I succeeded.

Turns out, a lot of these problems actually manifested at work too. I was scared that if I produced great work, there would be expectations that I wouldn’t be able to maintain. However, I also worried that I might create something subpar, and disappoint my boss. I always got my work done, always got fantastic performance reviews, but I would always focus on the “things to work on” with overwhelming shame – even though (funnily enough) they were usually about confidence and anxiety. I actually think a part of me believes that I need the anxiety and fear to ensure I do a good job – that it pushes me to work harder, see things others would miss. No matter how many accolades, I always felt like the other shoe would drop if I ever relaxed or thought I had mastered anything.

This constant fear of failure led to migraines and massive depressive burnouts. After large events, I would have to take days off from the exhaustion – not because of the event, but due to days spent not sleeping, worrying constantly about forgetting something or the event falling flat. Over time, I would completely burnout, missing weeks of work, and quit my job. This has happened at every job I have had since I graduated college. At the last job, I kinda kicked ass, and then quit, right after receiving an award for my work.

My therapist says that this fear of failure is derived from being a perfectionist. I find that so amusing because I have never viewed myself as a perfectionist. In fact, far from it. My fear of failure and rejection has manifested into a habit of always doing slightly less than my best. Take for example my appearance. My thought process has always been that if I don’t try to look my best, if someone thinks I’m ugly, I know that I could look better; but if I try to look my best, and they still aren’t interested, that affirms the validity of my worthlessness. There is a comfort in knowing I can’t truly fail if I don’t truly try. And that doesn’t sound like a perfectionist to me.

I turned in my paper Friday afternoon. I don’t know if it was good. A part of me imagines my teacher sitting in front of my essay thinking “what the fuck is this?” Sometimes, I give myself a moment to imagine him reading my paper, thinking: “I get why this kid is going to a top grad school.” But then I feel cocky, embarrassed, and ashamed in my vulnerability of allowing myself that contentment.

So how do you change something that feels like an ingrained component of your personality? How do you change the way your mind thinks? How do you really know when your’re good at something? What if success is chance? Why do some people believe in themselves and others don’t? I know I’ll never be a person who sits back in my chair, smiling with my hands laced around the back of my head, thinking: “damn, i rock.” But it would be nice to be okay with trying, and when validated, allowing myself to feel the joy of that success.

Will I ever be able to believe in myself? To accept who I am, both my strengths and weaknesses? To approach projects with rationality and excitement, rather than fear and anxiety? Maybe CBT and DBT will help, but I’m not sure if even those techniques can break down what has become a belief system of sorts.

Any suggestions – ‘cuz I’m stumped. Hey look, I failed again. :)