That Turd Fear
This year has been rough, between the pandemic, my gallbladder going rogue, and just generally feeling like I don’t know what the fuck I should be doing with my life. I’m a professor and after earning tenure, I was definitely Burned Out. The biggest problem, for me as a writer, is that writing had become a chore (since I had zero time or energy after the day job). That said, I’m incredibly privileged in that I could take a sabbatical and get my feet under me again. That led to me taking a class in narrative nonfiction, and then writing for Medium, and finally feeling like I was figuring it out. I had some ideas on how to create the life I was pretty sure I wanted.
Then the pandemic hit and, like everyone, a lot of those plans were impossible in the moment. That combined with seeing the constant injustice revealed by the pandemic, and the murder of George Floyd and the subsequent protests and treatment of protestors-this was the kind of stuff that I hope made everyone (especially all us White folks) reassess again.
Throughout all of this, I worked my day job, volunteered, wrote a draft of a book that may be terrible but felt good when it wasn’t terrifying, and turned bright yellow (fuck you gallbladder!). So I was busy. But let me get back to that terrifying thing. When it came to my creativity and that question of what I wanted to do with my life, I was terrified. Not fear of Covid or social change, but my fear that I wasn’t up to any of my goals around my role as a creator in this world.
It was a fear that I’m not good enough, not smart enough, not wise enough. That I’ve made mistakes, that I’ll be exposed, that I’ve believed the wrong things in the past or said the wrong things and that means I’m a bad person, and that, generally, I’m. not. worthy. Not worthy of writing, because who needs my words? Not worthy of love because I am unlovable. Not worthy of new joggers because I have joggers and they’re only a little ratty and some people have no joggers.
Now, don’t panic. I am in therapy and I ordered the joggers.
What’s interesting to me is that, in retrospect, I realize I was acting from a place of perfectionism. I learned this from two things:
Anyway, their point is that what I thought was just fear because I’m a cowardly fear face which proves I’m wrong and bad (oh the spiraling!) is actually the flipside of my perfectionism.
We’re all good and bad, right? And usually our good and bad is really the same thing. So we’re really brave but that also means we can be selfish, or we’re really logical but that means we can be analytical when we should be emotional, or we’re really generous but that means we can expect people to respond a certain way to our generosity and be kinda dicks when they’re not.
We ARE genuinely brave, logical, or generous, but there’s a flipside that comes with these genuinely good things, and sometimes the good thing makes us blind to OR to misunderstand the bad thing.
I’m a perfectionist. It’s gotten me a lot. I fill out forms correctly (which in a culture ruled by bureaucracy is 3/4 of every battle). I don’t want your B+ or even A-. I want your goddamned A. I will climb that career ladder you put in front of me because there are rungs and they lead upward and I was made to climb!
(NB: I will not climb actual ladders as I am terrified of both heights and climbing. I only climb metaphorical ladders and tall drinks of water.)
But the flipside to perfectionism- it’s fear. It’s the fear of being knocked off that ladder. Of there being an A+ I just…cannot…reach. The fear that the thing I was proud of 10 or 20 years ago now seems stupid and it reveals that I AM STUPID. (The forms things is just good because I’m not joking about getting them correct being 3/4 of most success).
In one of Luvvie’s chapters she talks about how we should “Fail Loudly,” but we fear failing, and she talks about how “none of us belong on pedestals.” This fits nicely with the work I’ve been doing with the Empowered Educators group here in Pittsburgh around the monuments we were taught are sacred that really need torn down and reimagined. But basically, in this case, it’s the idea that the goal shouldn’t be to be idolized. Shouldn’t be idolization? Is that a word? I dunno. I’m fucking imperfect.
And it’s good to be imperfect! When we expect ourselves to be perfect (which I was doing), I might climb a (metaphorical) ladder to get up on that plinth…or I might get so afraid of not reaching the top OR being knocked off the plinth that I curl up in a ball at the base of the ladder and order cheese sticks AND pizza because I eat my feelings #thickthighsavelives.
Normally, I’m pretty good about doing the former after only a little doing the latter. Like everyone, however, mama was not at her best last year. And she did some curling, and some eating of cheese sticks.
But thinking about this in terms of perfectionism/fear and how they’re flipsides has really helped me as I go into this spring. I’m vaccinated, it’s no longer a fucking ice rink outside (February was rough!), and I’m feeling like I’m grappling with my perfectionism and seeing it’s role in my fear rather than just wallowing in the fear and seeing it as proof I should stay small and not risk doing the thing.
So instead of trying to think up The Right Next Steps to the Perfect Life of Total Bliss, I’m thinking about what I want to do today, this week, this month, and this year that will make me happy. I do want to have big goals and dreams cuz this leopard ain’t changing her perfect goddamned spots over night, but I want to be less focused on the results and the aftermath (the future me) and more focused on what I’m doing today and whether I’m enjoying it. So asking, “what would I like to write, today?” rather than, “what can I write that will impact the world, prove my genius, make me a millionaire, and a guest on Oprah?”
I can write what I want to write today, like this piece. This was fun. It got my juices flowing. It reminded me I was a writer as I noodle a new project that’s big and scary. Maybe 5 of you will click through and read it. Maybe 3 of you will stop reading after you realize this is going to be one of my long, slightly addled epistolary meltdowns with zero filter. But who cares! I’m writing this because it feels good and future me can put a sock in it.
Future me might be perfect, but the less I think about her the better.
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Originally published at https://nicolepeeler.substack.com.