A blog advocating autism through my own personal experiences and insights.

Posts tagged ‘Perfectionism’

The Advantage of Sensitivity

I’ve been home for a couple of weeks now from my third term at Waterloo. I’m home now in Nova Scotia. My time has been fabulous. I went to my summerhouse in Margaree where I hung out with family, met some new people, now I’m home home on the Mira River in south eastern Cape Breton. I have a couple of weeks to go before the start of my second year at Waterloo (and given that I’m doing very well both academically and socially now, I only have feelings of optimism for the new year ahead).

I have talked a lot about how perfectionism has influenced me in previous posts especially negatively, but here I would like to talk about a positive aspect of it. I believe there at least a few good positives about being a perfectionist, but the one that I would like to list here comes from the issue of sensitivity. As a perfectionist, criticism doesn’t come easily for me to accept. And likewise I sometimes avoid hesitate or don’t make critical comments of others’ actions or words. I like to think about what I say before I actually say it. This is true in general for me given my slow processing speed because I’m autistic. But it’s even more prevalent for me when I feel that I’d like to make some kind of a critical comment.

It doesn’t matter how outrageous it is either. I once knew someone who said to me that he believed in Creationism and that evolution was false. While I felt annoyed to hear this, I didn’t jump at the guy’s throat either. Instead I told him in simple words that I thought the view wasn’t right and we left it at that and didn’t return to the subject again. Another example is last winter when a few of us graduate math students got together to celebrate a birthday. I forget exactly how it happened, but we got into the topic of how people meet each other for dating and one of us made the comment about not understanding why people used dating sites with the follow up question of why they can’t meet someone in “real life”. Now as someone who has no issue with using dating sites (certainly if it hasn’t been given me dates, it’s certainly been giving me a new friend here and there), I could’ve argued with this person, but I chose not to. I didn’t know how many others would take my side and I didn’t want to take the risk of standing out and looking foolish. I also didn’t want this particular person standing out and looking foolish either. Besides we soon left the topic and it wasn’t like it was that important either.

Being sensitive in this respect certainly has its advantages. You’re not likely to piss people off or repel others. I’m not saying that we should become totally passive (sometimes I am so) and never argue for a point of view, but we should be careful of how it is done or if it should be done at all. After all, if you seriously want to persuade someone of something or at least make them see a point of view, you’re not going to achieve that by being overly emotional or dramatic about it and/or pretend you know everything you talk about. Chances are you’re just going to make them hate your position even more. Even if your reasoning is correct and flawless, you still have to control how you say it to the other person or even how much of it you say. The philosophy society at the University of Waterloo posted a youtube video about this. Here’s the link for it: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dmP9XozKEV0. It’s called Don’t be a Dick and has an astronomer talk about how arguing or criticising too forcefully usually backfires. Fortunately given I’m a sensitive autistic, I find this advice easy to take.

Hard Solid Evidence

Two years ago I was battling perfectionism. I know I’ve elaborate in a lot of ways of how perfectionism influences my life, but something new has developed with respect to it. More specifically I’ve managed to find one large piece of evidence for why I didn’t have to be so perfectionistic back then. Of course a lot of the time simple reasoning a lot of the time tells you whether you’re being too perfectionistic or if your fears are irrational, but rational thinking often doesn’t work for overriding the emotions of perfectionism. Hard evidence is needed.

Two years ago I bought a book on perfectionism Never Good Enough by Monica Ramirez Basco that really got me thinking and changing my perfectionism. The book worked out really well and I’ve already referenced it in another blog post. But one thing I was most perfectionistic about it at this time of my life was what to do with my two interests in math and philosophy. Having decided to double major in philosophy with my math degree, I knew that I had to make choices. I only declared my philosophy major in my third year of undergrad and so had to do a lot of philosophy courses in my final year. What this amounted to though was that I needed to drop at least one math course that I was interested in taking in my final year unless I wanted to overload.

And I actually did consider doing the overload. But as a councillor at Acadia warned me after I had run to her office at the end of the fall term of that year because I didn’t feel I did well enough on a math exam to earn an A+ in that math course was that the plan was very dangerous. If my perfectionism was stressing myself out this much in taking only a normal load, imagine what would’ve happened if I had decided on the overload. And so it was for that reason that I dropped the overload option. I may have toyed with one or a couple more options here and there, but as you know if you’ve been reading this blog was that I sacrificed a math course in the end.

Before I go on, I would like to point out one error that I’ve made in a previous post. I had a terrible time last term and alluded to the fact that it was because the math program at my undergrad university Acadia didn’t prepare me well enough for the grad program here. I have since spoken to my old honours supervisor from there (who I might has always thought the best of me). He came to waterloo to give an oral exam to a PhD student there and was even nice enough to give a talk on the research on fractal geometry I did with him at Acadia, which I did my Acadia honours thesis on. Anyway, I spoke to him about Acadia’s math program and guess what? Apparently it really was the case that the one math course that I missed out on at Acadia would’ve really prepared me all that much more in doing graduate studies. I had been relying mainly on what another math student who had taken the course told me, but after talking to my honours supervisor I found out the student hadn’t remembered correctly. Anyway, so the official conclusion was that there is nothing wrong with Acadia’s math program.

But here’s the rub. This is exactly what I feared two years ago when I was trying to decide what I should take in my final year at Acadia. I feared that losing at least one math course would under prepare me for graduate school. And due to how graduate school is going, it certainly looks like those fears did come true, didn’t they?

How brilliant! How prophetic can I get!

Well, no. Not really. That isn’t the point. Let me explain. When I was reading Never Good Enough, I actually did an exercise in there that helped me keep calm and reduce my fear of making the wrong choices. And one of the choices I felt would lead to unpredictable consequences was indeed sacrificing a math course while at Acadia. Now it’s two years later. And while I must say that it did lead to undesirable effects, the effects haven’t been as bad as they could be. Okay, so I suffered a lot, and eventually had math almost become my whole life last term. But I have been fortunate enough to be put on a probationary period to take a few undergrad classes. And that seems to be going well so far not to mention the benefits I have reaped from abolishing academic perfectionism from my life and gaining a whole new drive to obtain more of a social life.

So at the end of the day, it all seems to be working out. I made my choices and the obvious disadvantages of it are resolving themselves if they haven’t done so completely already. I’m still pursuing math. I’m behind two or three terms because of it, but am still actively doing it. Of course, I’m not necessarily suggesting that we have to ignore the implications of our choices, but to not worry too much if we’re faced with a dilemma in our life.

I faced a problem. And now it’s working itself out. So I now have a solid piece of evidence in my life that suggests that worrying about choices especially in dilemmas can indeed become unnecessary.

The Flaw that Denies the Having of Flaws

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.