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Fear of not being good enough: the inner life of a (recovering) perfectionist

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Hi! My name is Sid and I’m a perfectionist. There. I said it. I’m really trying hard not to be a perfectionist. But just like how some can slip from time to time, so can this recovering perfectionist!

In a couple of days, I will be starting my Ph.D. journey at McMaster Divinity College in the Theology program. Maybe it’s just me, but I already feel like I’m behind on my readings and school work… and school hasn’t even started yet! It’s really difficult for me not to look around the people who are going and not feel like I’m good enough. Some of them are presenting at conferences or on a panel for some colloquium thing… and I’m at home wondering what I’m going to cook for lunch. Sigh.

There is actually a thing called Impostor Syndrome.  It’s a condition found among many graduate students and academics. Basically, it’s this feeling that they’re a fraud and live in fear that they’re going to be found out. No matter how many awards, medals, plaques, trophies and words of affirmation they may receive, they never internalize their accomplishments. They attribute it to external factors like luck or that they just worked harder. For me, another factor that I have attributed my success to is lack of qualified candidates during the time that I won. It is pretty horrible the more I think about it because in my refusal to acknowledge my accomplishment, I have to denigrate other people’s abilities.

Throughout high school, I was a member of the Honours List. I graduated from my undergrad as a cum laude student (with honours). I even graduated from my Masters program on the Honours List and the recipient of the academic excellence award. And I still think I’m dumb! Usually, people tell you that you don’t need to listen to what others tell you. Instead, just believe in yourself. However, I find myself being the exact opposite. I have to listen to what others have told me (aka you’re smart!) rather than listening to what I tell myself (aka you’re really dumb!) Other people are way more gracious and capable of seeing things that I cannot see in myself. I think the only time that I feel smart is when I feel threatened and someone says (or makes me feel) like I’m dumb… it is only then that I act as if I know and believe that I’m smart.

When you have spent the majority of your life being constantly compared to others by your parents, it’s really hard to switch it off. It may have started off with them, but you end up internalizing that type of toxic mentality. There comes up a point though when you have to be responsible for your own actions and thoughts. I get riled up when people blame their parents, friends, or some other external agents for their own issues. Part of growing up is taking responsibility for your actions and stop blaming others. You are the one in charge of living your life and you can’t pass the buck to someone else when things don’t go well for you.

At the end of the day, I am thankful that I am no longer my own. My worth and self-esteem is found in the One Who has given Himself up for me. As I think of the love of Jesus, I am comforted that His love for me is unconditional. He’s not going to love me more or less because of my academic achievements or professional success in life. He loves me just the way I am. To Him, I’m good enough.

Thank God!

Secede in te ipsum

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I once had a blog that I titled “Secede in te ipsum”. I was reading Meditations by Marcus Aurelius and it was talking about the need to retreat within ourselves so that we can know ourselves.

For me, since social media plays such a big part of my life, sometimes I have to pull back so that I can have a clearer head space. My Lenten journey has been such an exercise for me. To pull away from the hustle and bustle of the virtual world so I can be a little bit closer to the real world. And not to be all esoteric, but the question of what is real becomes a very difficult question as the years go by. I feel that sometimes all the things that I view as real and important are really nothing but illusions, a shadow of something bigger and better that I am bereft of seeing. This world tells me to value “real” things – and by real, they really just mean, tangible, visible things. But sometimes, it is the invisible things that are real to me. Things I can’t see like love, justice, grace, compassion, humility, emotions. These things can definitely have its external manifestations for sure, but they’re not tangible. You can’t hold emotions in your hands. You can’t see virtues. For the most part, it’s unseen.

But these things that we can not see, they are the very thing that drives us. My fear of failure drives me to succeed. And if I have to waste my body to achieve it, so be it. I know that some people see me as successful. But whatever success I have achieved came at a cost. Bitterness, despair, lack of compassion, self-loathing, and a judgmental heart are not exactly the best side-effects of this so-called “success”. A jaded, cynical heart that looks down on others is too much of a price. It is not worth any “success” one can have.

The saddest thing in the world is to realize the success you so desperately wanted was not worth it. We need to count the cost of “success”. Perhaps, we need to re-define what success is. I know that I have had to continually revise and re-evaluate what success is to me. Before, success meant having all the luxuries that this world can offer or the high status or fame and fortune. Success meant being the best, and doing everything to make sure I am the best. While I do think that we should all strive to be the best that we can be, we must also strive not to be the best that someone else thinks we should be.

I am still on the long and painful journey of realizing that I am good enough. I must admit that the unconditional love that God offers me has been something that continually challenges me and encourages me in this journey. But, I do live in a world full of flawed human beings. It’s hard not to feel that you’re only loved conditionally by parents, friends, acquaintances, colleagues, and everyone around you. It’s hard when you have viewed relationships primarily as business transactions. You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours. And once you stop scratching my back, well, I can find someone else who will. It’s easy to think that you’re disposable and not needed.

Maybe that’s why I keep on trying to discover what is real and what is fake. Maybe that’s why I’m trying desperately to understand what success is. Because I’m really afraid that I’m going to be an expert on illusions. I don’t want to devote my life and be someone who excelled in the trivial things of life.

I am not a failure because I’m in my 30s and not married and don’t have kids. I am not a failure because I’m not rolling in money. I am not a failure because I don’t have a job. While these things may describe my situation, it doesn’t define who I am.

As Five for Fighting says, “it’s not easy being me.” But, at the end of the day, that’s all I can be; me. I just hope I’m successful at doing that: just being me.

and scene…

Quote of the Day – Jan. 31, 2013

Absolutely love this quote. As I celebrate yet another year, I need to believe and live out the truth of this quote more and more!

“It’s a gift to joyfully recognize and accept our own smallness and ordinariness. Then you are free with nothing to live up to, nothing to prove, and nothing to protect. Such freedom is my best description of Christian maturity, because once you know that your “I” is great and one with God, you can ironically be quite content with a small and ordinary “I.” No grandstanding is necessary. Any question of your own importance or dignity has already been resolved once and for all and forever.” – Richard Rohr