Speaking ghosts: the V-word

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about words. More than I usually do. I’ve been thinking about the way they shape our attitudes and views about the world around us. And I got to the conclusion that in every individual’s dictionary are at least a few taboo words. Words that haunt us, that feel unspeakable, words that call out pieces of personal history that we don’t feel ready to claim as our own yet. One of those words, for me, is vulnerability, but I am sure that, reading these lines, your own unspeakable words popped-up in your thoughts.

I have always had a complicated relationship with my vulnerabilities. On one hand, I was totally, deeply aware of their existence. I have always known which are my biggest vulnerabilities, and  I have never denied the fact that they exist. On the other hand, though, I’ve never been open enough to admit them in front of others. Actually, a lot of my social self was built on diminishing those vulnerabilities.

This happened because, in my head, at least, being vulnerable was nothing to be talked about. It was deeply connected with being weak, and that was nothing I would, back then, have admitted being. And, as getting rid of what makes me vulnerable is not an option, the only thing left doing was diminishing my vulnerabilities as much as possible. This is how I’ve managed to build myself up in such a way that, when it comes to discovering my vulnerable to someone, it weighs less than it normally would, as I have never defined myself through it.

But this isn’t an inspirational story. I can’t say that I’ve put in a lot of work to reach this point, as I’ve directed my energy to the domains that seemed interesting to me and which were almost natural. It is, however, the story of a well-disguised fear, my fear of rejection.

It took me years to be able to admit that, in the shadow of this v-word I’ve been constantly avoiding, was comfortably laying a fear. My fear of being rejected, of being dismissed once people found out how much of a vulnerable being I am in fact.

Because I’ve always thought that a group will, eventually, get rid of its liabilities first, and those tend to be the most vulnerable members of the group. This is why I have always done whatever I felt was needed in order to keep myself updated. I got involved in causes and fields which were genuinely mattering to me, I kept reading, writing and planning things. It was my way of resting assured that, if it would ever happen to become a liability for a group, that group would be strong enough and smart enough to see that I’m more than my vulnerable side.

Even when it looked like I wasn’t doing anything, I was, in fact, preparing to do something. Because I was never the one to stay and wait for things to happen. Actually, doing things that mattered for me was the way to hide my vulnerabilities. How could possibly a girl like you, doing so many things, be vulnerable like that? I never answer, but the truth is that those vulnerabilities made me become this girl, to begin with. The girl that seems to never struggle, that never gives up, that never gets tired.

And everything worked out just fine until life showed me that the ways of becoming were way more complicated than I thought they would. The time came when I was left hanging, without the energy needed to keep being the old me. And this brought me to some really surprising things to notice.

One of the first things I’ve observed was that, even with my vulnerable side exposed, there were still people by my side. People who kept on believing in me, supporting me, caring for me. People who tried to befriend me with my vulnerable parts, as it was the only way to avoid reaching that point again.

I’ve also noticed that I do not, in fact, hate my vulnerabilities. Of course, they are uncomfortable, and I would still rather hide them, but I’ve discovered that talking about them helps to forge connections. It helps you to stay humble, to stay human, and to meet other people, with different vulnerabilities, halfway. Talking about sensitive topics makes life better, but only when I felt too tired to hide I could actually understand it.

And, last but not least, I found out that the more I discover about being vulnerable, even if it is from personal or from shared experience, the better I become. That there you can be vulnerable, yet strong, that you can share openly about what makes you vulnerable without being automatically labeled as weak. That there are strength, beauty, and warmth in showing up as yourself, with your strong points and your vulnerable sides. That only when you’ll stop playing hide and seek with the others, your tribe will finally reach out to you.

That no one should be so scared of being labeled the wrong way by the others so it will hide who it really is. Hide and seek was a thing when we were kids, but it is not a lifestyle. And there’s nobody who could make me see it like that.

The poisoned thread

Today I’ve decided to write about one of the things with the biggest impact on our mental health: perfectionism. Defined by APA as the tendency to demand of others or of oneself an extremely high or even flawless level of performance, in excess of what is required by the situation.

It is a topic long discussed in the field of psychology and cognitive sciences. A personality feature with its own scales to be measured. But, most importantly, it is part of our everyday life, and it affects us all, aware of it or not.

I’ve been a perfectionist for literally all my life, asking a lot from the others, and even more from myself. Because it felt like the right thing to do, the way to evolve, to improve. I’ve been convinced that the only way to be a better person is to be more: to do more, to get involved more, to know more and more, about all things that make you curious. There was always room for improvement, and it still is.

But only when I have lost everything that felt important to me I got to discover that I was, for so long in my life, hanging on a poisoned thread. When everything left with me was the perfectionism screaming in the sleepless nights, telling me that I’m a complete failure.

That I’ve failed myself and everyone else who’s believed in me and my ability of making this life feel worth living. That I am a disappointment, and I have to work harder than ever to gain back all that I’ve lost. That only if I will become twice as good as I used to be before I failed and ruined everything, I will take back the things I’ve lost. That the guilt I was feeling for what happened is the only legitimate feeling, the only thing that I’m supposed to feel.

Easy to say that this whole speech was no good. That it only brought back issues that I have been feeling like I’ve overcome. That every little progress achieved in the past years felt like gone for good. That not the period when I’ve lost the main things that used to give me a feeling of meaning was the peak of the fall, but the period when the perfectionist inside me started to have its monologue over and over.

Obviously, I tried my best to diminish that: had numerous attempts of losing the weight I’ve gained in my depressive period, tried to dive into the freelance writing thing, and started to keep a diary where I was rating my weeks, in order to see how things go. It was supposed to be my recovery diary, but it was nothing like that. In fact, taking a look at what I’ve been writing there, I see no progress, but self-sabotage, self-doubt and guilt. A lot of self-blame, too.

One of the most relevant fragments about the way my perfectionism almost destroyed me sounds like this: I want to believe that everything will be alright, that I didn’t lose everything, but it sounds so fake. I know, sometimes I forget the fact that I’m really, really young, but do I really have enough time left to fix everything?

I’m sure that everyone had moments when it felt like this, but the thing is that, even so, being a perfectionist isn’t, till now, seen as a problematic trait. In fact, we’re encouraged by everything around us to give our best, day after day, caught up in a so-called successful thinking spiral.

You have to work more, to learn more, to achieve more, to do more. Day after day. Ain’t nothing wrong about a person trying to make every single aspect of its life to be close to perfection. In fact, it’s a model to be followed, as that person works hard to improve her life. And this is one of the most important things we should get rid of: the belief that perfectionism means improvement.

This is how you discover that there’s more to that definition. It is associated with depression, anxiety, eating disorders and other mental health problems. And it comes to a moment when you get to be fully aware about these things, usually when you get to experience them yourself.

At a certain point, it is just the logical aftermath: you try to make everything perfect, so you get frustrated when your attempts are failing. This, if it often happens enough, brings up the feeling of unworthiness, and we all try to cope with it in our own ways. And I had to become tired, completely tired, in order to understand that the way to progress is not perfectionism, but patience. That, actually, being a perfectionist is nothing to brag about, but rather a toxic personality trait that one should be aware of and try to manage.

Because my history with being a perfectionist girl is not only my story. It is a small fragment of a collective narrative telling us daily that, in order to be worthy- of appreciation, of respect, of love, we have to work hard in our attempt of becoming perfect beings.

That you’ll receive more as you’ll do more. That only the weak people have bad days or bad periods of time. That the second place is a loser and the first place is the only one worth considering. The all or nothing narrative, the toxic speech of a perfectionist generation, raising other perfectionists, which have, somehow, to address to other types of challenges.

This is how everything begins, by understanding that being a perfectionist can be a huge trigger for things that you’d never want to experience. That it is not the price you have to pay for a successful life. That you don’t have to glorify a toxic trait if you feel like it puts you in a bad place, mentally and emotionally.

Because, at the end of the day, that’s the trick: there’s a difference between trying to do your best in a situation, and trying to reach the perfection. And the difference comes from the fact that doing your best is human, natural, subjective and imperfect. Perfection is just an invention. It is a fiction, a very loved one, but with nothing human in it. We’re not born to be perfect, we’re born to be the best people we could be, and that’s something that changes day after day.

Sometimes your best means that you got out of bed and went to work, when you’ve cried all night before it and just wanted to end it. And there are times when your best makes you proud of yourself, and the whole life seems to glow. Life is not linear, and it is not made to be linear, and trying to make it perfect is the perfect recipe of giving up on the little joys that make it beautiful, human, and, at the end of the day, worth living.

My favorite word

Life as an introvert has never been easy. And you learn this especially in your teenage years, when the pressure to conform is simply huge.

You notice quickly that your extroverted friends do better in society: they receive more attention, more compliments, they’re invited everywhere and everybody wants to be around them. That’s how everything starts, with thinking that if you’ll be more like them and less like you, you’ll be better.  So you begin to say yes  to everything you notice as being trendy, rushing to blend in.

And, even if it might look like an understandable choice, in the long run it will show you the contrary. It is an exhausting game, pretending to be somebody you’re not, just to fit in. And it is also visible, but I’ve noticed this way later.

Because I used to be one of those yes-teens too. To say yes when it was actually no just to avoid arguments, to do things I wasn’t really fond of and say things I was not believing, just to fit in, to be accepted. To be like the others, the cool kids. Because I’ve always wanted a bit of that attention they were receiving so effortlessly. And I wasn’t so different from them, after all, was I?

Well, truth be told, I was. I’ve always had a different view about life than the popular kids around me. I liked things they couldn’t care less about. I had my inner world, my passions, my beliefs. Somehow, I’ve always been skeptical about sharing them with other people around me.

Then, high school happened. And a lot started to change. I discovered people who were more like me, and the fact that I have options to choose from. I spent more time with them, debating things we cared about till we eventually got tired, and less with  old friends, which made me  feel like I wasn’t good enough to fit in. Eventually, I got to spend time with them only when it was really required, like family gatherings.

But it was only in my university years when I  discovered that I can say no. A small word with magical powers. A word I had always been afraid of.

I’ve been equally afraid of saying no, as I was of being told so. Of being rejected, dismissed as not good enough. Everything till one day, on my way back home, I had a revelation: I can either begin by being picky, or I will end up losing myself for good.

It was a tough thought to handle, especially thinking about the fact that I always hated to hurt people, but I knew it was the right thing to do. Took everything easy: spending more time with myself, making up excuses to avoid going somewhere where I already knew that I  was going to feel uncomfortable, cutting off some long time friendships, as I noticed them becoming meaningless interactions.

The worst part of learning to say no was, though, the guilt. I was feeling guilty for rejecting people or invites almost all the time, and in the beginning the guilt trips were awful, but  there  came a day when I  understood that, as long as I have the resources, I also have the power to choose where I will invest them.

It was, perhaps, the most liberating thing I’ve ever done. Learning to say no when it was no, instead of saying yes. This happened when I got to understand that saying no is not about rejection, it is about boundaries.

About knowing your needs, your passions, and your worth. About giving up on settling with whatever comes in your direction, and start choosing only what brings you joy. That saying no is not about being mean, as it is about self-respect. And the same thing goes for being told no, as well. Not being good enough for someone will not make you a failure. It only means that there are different needs to be met.

Of course, there are still moments when I say yes, but I mean no, but they are not that frequent anymore. Maybe this is the sign that I’ve grown up, but today I’m not afraid of saying or being told no anymore. Today I can easily say that it has become my favorite word, the one  that makes life easier, as I can speak my truths without fears.

Because knowing where to draw the line requires to have spent enough time with yourself, so you know for sure what is and what isn’t meaningful to you. A good exercise for knowing when to say no to something is to ask yourself these three questions before: Is it true? Is it good? Is it useful? If the answer is mostly no, then no is what you should say to those things, too. It is the easiest way of finding out what is and is not for you, to see if it speaks true to you, if it’s something that is useful or brings you joy. If you have more than  one negative answer to these questions, you can refuse without regrets.

I admit, learning never stops, especially when it comes to setting boundaries to others or, even better, to yourself. But learning is part of life, and we should not treat any of them like something limited or a chore.

At the end of the day, somehow, the only talk you need to have is the one about how much of who you are will you sacrifice for the sake of others. And if you feel like you’ve had enough of that already, then learn to unfit.

To unlearn all the toxic patterns which you’ve picked up along your way and which have taught you that the only way to be appreciated is to never say no. Actually, it seems like it’s the opposite: you’ll be really appreciated if you dare to stand up for yourself, knowing who you are. And that usually begins with declining everything you don’t feel it serves you in any way.

Saying no more often will only help your growth, your mental wellbeing, and will better  filter the people around you, so, in the end, why wouldn’t you give it a try? Because, if you will keep saying yes to everyone and everything, you might, one day, discover that you were only saying no to yourself all this time.