I love black and white thinking.
I love rules, instructions, how-to guides, and most of all I love doing a “good job.” Sometimes, due to pain or illness or overlapping deadlines or emergencies or other bumps in the road, it’s necessary either to not do a good job or to adjust our thinking about what counts as “good.”
I do not like this. So, last week I forced a third option: “do a good job at the expense of your well being.” While I lived to post about it, the actual experience was terrible, and this week’s post will share my hindsight reflection and some takeaways that I hope might help other perfectionists who struggle with bumps in the road due to pain or mental illness.
I have very high expectations for myself. I want to learn, to help others, to make money, to publish, to create, and the list goes on. On their own, these things are admirable, and if all is smooth sailing in my life I can check off a full to do list day after day.
But, if I try to accomplish a gung-ho to do list/schedule while managing flareups in pain and CPTSD, I enter a really shitty cycle. I burn out, yet continue to push myself past burnout. I feel miserable, which exacerbates my pain and drains my energy. When this happens, I am likely to turn to old trauma-informed beliefs, such as “I am broken” or “I will never be good enough” because I crave a reason for why things are difficult. I forget my individual successes and focus only on those tasks I have not completed. It’s a shitty place to be, and now that I’m on the other side of a very busy week in that shitty place, I have some insights.
What the Hell Happened Last Week?
When I feel pain and anxiety or have a flashback while I am trying to work, I lose focus and must shift my priority from completing a task to managing my body and mind. If I am stretched thin already, managing can feel exhausting.
Case in point: I went grocery shopping without a list and had an anxiety attack. I’m not a particular control freak about grocery lists, but because I was so stressed about meeting deadlines, it didn’t take much for me to go from reading ingredients to full blown anxiety attack. Instead of dropping my basket and high tailing it out without buying anything, I listened to binaural beats on my headphones and tried to make it through. It was hard. Imagine walking through emotional quicksand and feeling panicked and unable to make the “right” decision…but, at the same time knowing this is old trauma resurfacing around “not being good enough.” I had to read the same ingredient lists 4 times because I couldn’t focus, and I felt paralyzed by the number of choices I could make. It was exhausting, and I had to be intentionally compassionate with myself in order to bounce back after I finally got home. A 45 minute trip ended up taking almost 2 hours by the time I was able to ground myself enough to try working again.
I haven’t been to the gym in a few weeks because I’ve been nervous to stress out my body. I was thrilled to try going last weekend, though, and I was sure to take it easy on the elliptical. I went half pace for a half hour, but by the time I left my back was burning and I could barely walk. I took ibuprofen, tried icing my back, and laid down. I wasn’t very talkative. I was very sad. I miss working out. I still hear songs on the radio and think “this would be an amazing song to spin to.” The days where I can walk for miles and feel okay are fewer. Some days I walk for one mile and spend the rest of the day in bed. Although I’m less likely to self-loathe when this happens because I know exercise often begets pain, I am more likely to feel disappointed.
If I have one or two low pain days and then get hit with a high pain day, I feel hopeless. Last week I went to Whole Foods to pick up some dinner while I was experiencing sacral torsion. It felt like my sacrum had broken off a shard that was sharp and pushing up on my spine. I texted my Sweetheart from the line that I was T-minus 5 seconds to crying, which I did when I got in the car. I was heartbroken because my physical therapist had realigned my sacrum only the day before. I thought: What did I do to deserve this? Will my pain ever go away? I’m so sick of going to PT every week to have my sacrum and spine and nerves untwisted and have my organs moved beneath my skin.
The thing with my pain is that it’s invisible from the outside. I’m remarkably good at hiding it when I want to. Since I don’t have a clear diagnosis like “I have fibromyalgia” or “I have a slipped disc” or “I have a broken tailbone,” I often feel embarrassed to say my pain is still there, after a year, and no, they aren’t exactly sure what it is yet. When I’ve expressed my fear that I’ll never get better to some people in my life, I’ve heard (perhaps wellmeaning?) things like: “But it has gotten better, hasn’t it?”; “It hasn’t been that long”; and “Why can’t you just get surgery/get injections/do yoga/etc.?” Because of hearing things like that, I feel less likely to share when I’m in pain with people outside my Sweetheart and best friend circle.
What Did I Learn?
My worst pain days last week happened when I pushed myself to keep working when I started to feel pain. If I start working at 8am and alternate between standing, stretching, and sitting with my pillow on a hard chair, I might have a solid 4-5 hours of pain-free work. Last week, if I was on a roll when I started to feel pain, I kept working. I’d say within a half hour my pain had tripled in intensity, and it lasted through the day and night.
So, besides trying not to push myself when the pain starts, I learned to prioritize my most important work for early in the day, and to take breaks to stretch and walk when my body started to feel pain.
Also, If you look back at my schedule from last week, you’ll see that I packed my days full of work sessions. I had high hopes to kick ass, and in retrospect even without pain and flashbacks and anxiety I had set myself up for some big goals. Because my pain often interrupted my work sessions, I tried to spread my work later in the day, which made me grumpy. I think I needed more white space in my days: time where I have no plans at all (not even socializing) so I can literally just lay down and meditate, nap, or relax.
I’ve covered topics in The Tending Year that could help counteract some of the struggles I mentioned above: self-sabotage, changing the stories we tell ourselves, moving my body/energy, self-compassion, etc. I also know that sometimes my priority is simply keeping my head above water when I do have to meet a deadline while I am in pain. I’m not perfect (despite my best efforts), but at least now I know I’m aware that sometimes I’ll feel exhausted, disappointed, or hopeless, but that those feelings will come and go.
On thing that did help me last week was reading pieces by others who had navigated chronic pain or illness while in graduate school. I’d like to share them with you, in case they help you, too.
- Crystal Mendoza’s “Advice from an Ex-perfectionist: On Being a Graduate Student and Living with Chronic Pain”
- Maria Fraschilla’s “Life in Graduate School Featuring Anxiety and Depression”
- Jill Richardson’s “Five Pieces of Advice for Grad Students Dealing with Mental Illness”
*Please note that the original version of this blog post was published here.
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