Practically all my life (although it didn’t really become obvious to me until I was in university) I have had a quality that has both helped and hinder me through life. I have touched on it in one of the poems in my last post and I would now like to explain it. While I do give it credit in helping me become a successful individual in a lot of areas in my life, it has also led me to push myself too hard or not feel very good when I’ve made a mistake about something or other.
In short, it is a flaw that I have that makes it very difficult for me to accept that I even have flaws to begin with. It’s perfectionism. Now I know that I have my flaws just like every other human being on this planet, but it’s difficult to accept regardless and to not let it get in the way through my progress in life. I have already elaborated on several weaknesses I have because of my autism including difficulties in making friends, keeping up with the pace in conversation, and whether to interpret something as literal or not. Such weaknesses, especially given that they aren’t common in the neurotypical population, have really battled with my perfectionism throughout the years. Whenever an incident occurs in my life that is brought about by a weakness that I have due to being autistic, I immediately criticize myself for not trying harder to ‘break through’ these barriers. Often times I ignore the fact that I’m autistic completely. It’s kind of an ‘add insult to injury’. Coping with my autistic weaknesses can be bad enough sometimes, but add perfectionism into the mix and it’s not good at all.
Let me give an example. When I take courses in university, I often get frustrated because I wish my class participation was better. This can be especially true if class participation is part of the grade. Now while I think I contribute relatively well in class and that when it is part of the grade I don’t really believe the grade suffers, I feel that if I wasn’t autistic, I’d be able to contribute more. What is especially painful is how there’s frequently that one other student in the class that seems to be able to contribute about five times per class, while I only cont about contribute only twice or three times in a week. I automatically ‘lock myself in’ a competitive mode. If there’s another smart student in the class who, unlike me, is good at class participation and his/her class participation shows their brilliance, well, hey, I want to show that I’m smart too, of course. I love the air of competition. But if I make class participation into a competition, at the end of the day, I’m tired and discouraged. The line in my poem Preserving Perfecto ‘look out everyone, here I come’ comes from such experiences. You’d all better listen to me, folks, because I’m important with something important to say. This also goes back to me having a difficult time in keeping up with conversations in social gatherings, which I told about my post Speedy Gonzo. While I feel I have a lot to say, I don’t know how or even what to say.
Which of course adds to my craving for attention, which I told about in my post Attention and Rewards. I’m not really sure why I’m a perfectionist. I have a craving for attention, but I’m not exactly sure which came first in my life. It’s kind of like a chicken and egg thing. Am I a perfectionist because I crave attention or do I crave attention because I’m a perfectionist? Even as reflect back on my childhood, I see clear signs that I had both qualities, but it’s rather unclear which came first. Of course, it is possible to have one quality without the other. I could be an annoying attention seeker who doesn’t work hard to achieve life goals. Likewise, it’s possible that I want my house to be completely ordered and perfect right down to the last pen because I feel comfort in living this way and not because I want people ‘oohing’ and ‘aahing’ over the state of my perfect house.
In fact, I think my perfectionism somewhat keeps my craving for attention under control. I did say in my post Attention and Rewards that while I did have a craving for attention, I’m very good at hiding it with a modest personality. Well, it’s this modest personality that I believe is largely because of being a perfectionist. Since I fear criticism, I fear being criticized as an annoying attention seeker so I’m very careful about where and when I tell others about my accomplishments.
My perfectionism has also led me to have very good self-control. Any turmoil in my life that I feel inside me, I often mask with a calm endeavour. Sometimes I let my emotions show, whether I show them appropriately or inappropriately, but more often than not, I cover them up. This is sometimes healthy. Sometimes you’re in a situation where you shouldn’t show what you’re truly feeling. If you’re in an exam and it’s not going well, for example, you shouldn’t just cry out. But sometimes I don’t let them show when it is appropriate or wait until I’m alone. There have been a few incidents in the last several years that have made me want to cry, for example, but I don’t think anyone has ever seen me cry since before I was a teenager. Of course, most boys my age don’t like having others see them cry since it’s not a typical male characteristic (I firmly believe that such preconceptions should be removed from society). But my masking of my emotions isn’t limited to this. For example, sometimes even when I see someone I haven’t seen for a very long time, I don’t fully express my joy.
Perfectionism has reared its head in subtle ways throughout my childhood. For example, having a desire to be the top student in the class (I never was, but I believe I nearly was, at least in junior high). Craving for attention as well has made mere appearances. When I was in elementary school, for example, I complained to mom that she was making me wear boots and a rain coat to school, while the others on the bus wore shoes and light jackets (which certainly didn’t add to my popularity level). Of course, I was just a little kid then and as I’ve grown and experienced life I’m finding that I’m relying less and less of ‘rewards’ that people give me for how I behave and relying more and more on solely personal self-satisfaction.
Perfectionism did get quite ugly in university. Wanting to score a perfect 4.0 GPA with a lot of hard courses and get all A+’s in my senior level math courses really pushed me too hard and in third year I knew I had to do something about it. I got the book Never Good Enough by Monica Ramirez Basco (which I highly recommend you read if you’re struggling with perfectionism or know someone who is). It has a lot of techniques in it, such as looking at your accomplishments with shades of grey instead of just in black and white. Through this book and self-reflection, I’ve managed to make great strides in coping with it (even though I’m still struggling with it quite a bit).
I think, at least for me, however, my craving for attention and perfectionism are indeed closely linked and linked with my autism as well. I find it amazing how they influence each other throughout my life. Perfectionism’s impact on me is certainly as complex as autism’s impact. I’ve only touched the tip of the iceberg on it in this post and will certainly be returning to it in the future.