For some dumbass reason unbeknownst to anyone but myself, I decided to wean myself off antidepressants. This is the first time in my life I’ve felt stable — whatever that is — with the right partner, some dubious maturity, and the house of my dreams. I’m living that cliche of being “in a good place.” Soooooo — after a month of withdrawal nausea and brain zaps and lots of saltines and ginger ale, I flushed the chemicals from my system and was curious to see who I might be, chemical free. Well, here’s who I am: a bitch. Not just any bitch. A bitch with great expectations.
Let me back up and define bitch. I don’t mean somebody who jumps in people’s faces saying unkind and rude things. I might occasionally think those things, but I don’t say them because there’s too much meanness in the world already. Mostly, I’m talking about somebody who says mean, rude, or judgmental things to herself. So a bitch with great expectations is highly critical of others, but mostly of herself. Oh, and to describe more bitch symptoms, just so you know I qualify: I am teary, easily irritated, impatient, insecure, defensive, and snarky. All the things I thought I’d outgrown — they were just masked by medication, every last one of them.
So I’m caught in a limbo between wanting to bitch-slap other people and bitch-slapping myself.
In an earlier blog post, I referred to myself as “a nice person,” which drew the guffaws of several of my nearest and dearest. “Mimi Hall,” said one of my BFFs, “you are a lot of things, but nice is not one of them.”
Stung by this, I asked my husband, “Honey, Girlfriend X says I’m not a nice person. Do you think I’m a nice person?” And bless his diplomatic heart, he said, “Well, I think you’re fundamentally a nice person.” Ha Ha Ha. And ouch.
So I placed all this at my therapist’s feet like a cat dropping a rat at the doorstep. “You are highly critical,” he said, “but I find it hilarious, and you generally turn your critical eye on yourself as much as other people.” And I guess that’s the heart of it. I’m just highly-super-hypo-reactive, or affected by what other people do. Not always a good life skill for somebody who’s 48 years old and just wants to get through the day without conflict. I should be too mature to feel this way.
This is why I needed a barrier of medication between myself and the public when I was working. In my mind, it was all drama, and anything potentially could crawl under my thin skin. “Oh, please, please help my son find something to read!” a parent would beg. So I invest thought and energy making suggestions, pulling books from the shelves, hoping the parent and/or kid would love the books as much as I did, only to later find those books left behind somewhere on the shelf, in the wrong place, not checked out. I took it personally. When someone scratched the paint on my car in the parking lot, I took it as a personal insult. “Who the fuck did this? Who did this?!” The grandma who “tutored” her grandson every afternoon by loudly berating his homework mistakes was assaulting the mental health of the kid, but also insulting the dignity of everyone overhearing her troll tirades. “That’s a decade of therapy for this kid, granny- bitch!” was what I wanted to say. I was exhausted at the end of each and every day. Gee, all I wanted was for everything to be perfect.
Recently, I signed up for a cognitive program to handle anxiety and depression without medication. One of the assignments the program gives you is to retrain your negative thoughts by listing them in a notebook. My first thought was, “This notebook is way too thin to hold all my negative thoughts.” That was negative thought number 1. Eventually, you learn to restate those negatives in a more positive voice. Like, “I am a loser who wasted my entire day on Pinterest,” becomes something more like, “I collected so many inspiring images today. Tomorrow I’ll use them in my work.”
I always figured low self-esteem was my biggest demon. Turns out, it is unrealistic expectations. Unrealistic expectations make us want everything to be fair. We assume that since we try to treat people with respect and kindness, that others will always treat us that way, too. Does this happen? Well, what do you fucking think, Opie?
We — that means me and all the other perfectionists I’m dragging into this — want to do everything perfectly and are petrified of failure. We are devastated by even constructive criticism because, chances are, we are our own worst critics. We’ve already beaten ourselves up more than any other person could ever do. And don’t you DARE say anything bad about us, because we’ve already said it in our own minds, thank you very much. Is this sick or what?
According to my program, we’re supposed to lower our expectations of ourselves and others. Gain more by expecting less. Be more effective by being less affected. We’re also supposed to forgive ourselves for situations that we see as “failures.” Yeah, okay. I see all this and I think it’s very helpful. But sometimes I don’t want to let people off the hook. That wicked grandma shouldn’t be taking her own perfectionism out on her grandson. Sometimes, I don’t want to let myself off the hook, ditch the pain and guilt, and trot off to the ice cream parlor.
I’m just not gonna forgive myself for everything, saying, “Well, I didn’t make the best choice at the time, but I did what I could with what I had.” For instance, several years ago, I didn’t attend the wedding of a very good friend. My only excuses for not going were selfish and shabby: that I didn’t want to travel up north in the middle of winter; that I didn’t want to be trapped in a hotel with a bunch of people I didn’t know — or any group of people for that matter — for a weekend; that I was so exhausted by my job and crappy personal life that I simply lacked the emotional energy to pull myself together, get on a plane, and be there for my friend. None of those are good enough reasons in my mind. As far as I’m concerned, I don’t deserve to be forgiven. Did my friend get happily married and have a good time without me? Of course. (So yeah, I know, the wedding didn’t depend on me being there, so don’t even call me a narcissist because I already think I’m a narcissist, okay, so you don’t get to call me that, so there! )
Was I a good friend to her? No.
Is there any redemptive value in accepting that the mistakes we made were just that, mistakes? I guess we try to learn from them so we don’t act like such a dumbasses in the future?
Oh, and the guilt? In case you are wondering — no, I am not Catholic.