The G that comes around

The first word starting with G that comes to my mind is Gangsta. The second one is Guilt.

But guilt is also one of my oldest visitors, as I have always been an introverted perfectionist. It was always easier to take the blame myself than to look for the person that’s actually guilty. And it took me years of inner conflict to see that, more often than not, guilt is an atavism, a toxic, unnecessary emotion.

Let me be clear: unnecessary, not useless. Guilt is, in fact, a very important emotion, as it stands for our inner moral compass. We often feel guilty when we say or when we do something wrong. Something that hurts or even harms the others. Something breaking our moral principles, and probably the society’s ones as well.

This only means that guilt is an emotion with huge destructive potential, as it is so intense, and people tend to feel guilty for so many reasons. That’s how I define guilt trips: unnecessary feelings of guilt. It takes us by surprise when we decide to cut off someone or to say No, it takes over whether it is or not the case to do so.

Obviously, all feelings are valid, and no one is ever allowed to tell you what to feel or not. But guilt is a legitimate feeling in very few cases. If your words or actions are not putting anyone in danger, if you don’t harm them or become a threat to their well-being or existence, your guilt doesn’t have a reason to exist.

Actually, I have the feeling that the thing we often label as guilt is, in fact, shame. A feeling that guilt is very often coming with as a pair. Try to put I feel ashamed for instead of I feel guilty when you tell how you feel to someone else, or even to yourself, and observe how it feels. If it rings true, if it is, indeed, guilt, and not shame… Just try and pay attention to yourself, even take notes of the process in your diary, if it helps you. If anyone would ask me, I’d say we feel, 9 out of 10 times, shame. But as shame is associated with being dirty, guilt becomes a more popular substitute.

However, there is another possibility, even if darker. To feel guilt as a result of your past experiences. If you grew up in a household where you used to be the guilty one for whatever happened or to be accused because there was the easiest way for the accuser to deal with their frustration or rage, there are chances that you’ve internalized the It’s all my fault mindset, successfully applying it today. In other words, toxic environments often create grown-ups that believe that they’re to blame for whatever goes wrong in their lives. Just like in their past, when they were blamed either way.

And this is how guilt becomes a toxic, irrational feeling, instead of a legitimate one, the moral compass that helps to separate good from harmful. By being used by the powerful figures of the grown-ups as a way of dealing with their negative emotions while avoiding taking full responsibility for their actions or words.

The best thing is, however, that one can work and break-up with the toxic mechanisms learned along with life. We can set ourselves free of whatever harms us mentally and spiritually. But this only happens while working together. When we tell our friends that they’ve crossed our boundaries again. Or when we tell them how their words or actions make us feel.

It also counts as healing our old wounds when we ask ourselves Is this what am I really feeling? And if not, then what is it that I am feeling? and observing ourselves. Looking at our patterns: the type of people we feel attracted to, the kind of contexts that we find ourselves jumping into, the kind of feelings that we allow to express themselves freely.

Because what we tend to label as guilt, is rarely actually guilt, and mostly a  mixture of rage, shame, and remorse. Three very different feelings, with different triggers, but which tend to pass anonymously, being labeled as guilt.

Managing guilt trips is, as any other remarkable change, a matter of work. A matter of understanding what’s triggering the feeling, of the life experiences that root it, and of questioning one’s mechanisms. It is about asking yourself How am I acting when I feel guilty? and How can I act different and healthier, instead? It is also about questioning one’s close people, as they can see some angles which are unavailable to you.

And, as dealing with any emotion, is about understanding it, about being patient with yourself, and asking for help. For the support, a specialist could provide, and especially asking for your loved one’s support and patience. Unlearning emotional patterns is a bit harder than building them, as you’re discovering new ways of being yourself. Your real, uncontaminated from other people’s unhealed traumas, self.

Work hard, dream harder

I was reading an article in a magazine about the emotional work, and it remained with me. Even if the main ideas were about how women tend to do more emotional work, and for free, the simple thing of seeing the emotional help we tend to offer as work brought me an idea worth reflecting upon.

I have always been a giver. I tend to run away from my problems by helping others solve theirs. And I’ve never thought about what I was doing as if it was some kind of work.

Of course, I’ve always known that it is a kind of investment, that I give a part of my resources- time, energy, knowledge, kindness, patience- for another person’s well-being. But it felt more like an act of generosity, of friendship, rather than a service that I was making to those people.

I thought, for a very long time, that the only thing that I get in return should be the fact that I have a meaning that doesn’t allow me to fall apart in irreversible ways. That this should be enough to make me feel like I do the right thing.

And even if giving, if helping others is more of an inner calling than something I am doing for an outcome, trying to see this as work has forced me to shift the perspective for a bit.

It made me aware of the fact that not only I can, but I have to choose the people I would share some of my resources with. But it took me an eight-years-long friendship ending in not-that-friendly-terms, to learn how to distinguish between people who need attention and those who are looking for help.

Thinking about what I do provide for others made me aware of the fact that I don’t provide the same things, in the same ways, for myself. That during my quest of saving the world kindly, one person at a time, I was neglecting the only person I could save: myself.

But, first, I had to become empty. Before I’ve got to understand the importance of being selective and aware of what I bring to the table, I had to get to the point where I was talking myself out of panic attacks in the mirror, crying, somewhere at 2 a.m. or maybe in the afternoon.

And only when I’ve seen myself reaching a new level of low, I’ve understood that you can’t help others without taking care of yourself. If I want to be able to keep giving, I also have to allow people in, to let them see me struggling and fighting my demons. That I can be a friend just as much as I let others be my friends, as well.

And this was hard to admit. It was hard, as I’ve always valued the feeling of power that is usually brought by being independent and having your life together. I’ve always hated to appear in front of others as vulnerable, even if I am. I’ve never wanted my loved ones to see me crying, even if, so many times, I have had no control of it, and it just happened.

Somehow, being the strong one has always felt like it is the only option for me. Even if, in an almost ironical way, I’ve always encouraged people to be their own, real, authentic self. With good, bad, strong and vulnerable points.

Seeing written on paper about how emotional work is work, real work, made me ask myself questions. And the most painful one was Were all those people worth it, would they ever do the same for you?

It left me a bit bitter, to know that I need to choose with more care the people I get close to, that need my help. That I can’t fight any battle I feel to. That I have to think twice before deciding to put in the work and resources for somebody.

Because emotional work, like any other type of work, is tricky, as it can be meaningless, as it fills you up with frustration and exhaustion when it turns out wrong, or, contrary, to bring you purpose and enlightenment.

This happens because emotional work, more than any other kind of work, involves care. Authentic, genuine care and openness established between two people. An exchange of vulnerabilities, experiences and, why not, information. This is why it is almost always seen as a feminine kind of thing, even though, the truth be told, I’ve also met a lot of wonderful men doing it, and I am grateful for all the things I’ve learned from them and stayed with me.

Because emotional work is not about a schedule. It is about seeing the good in the other person, and help it see that good, too. And this is one of the most beautiful parts of being human, a type of work as stunning and glowy as a dream, but as challenging as the real existence at the same time.

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.