At what price success?

An article I read about this past weekend's National Women's Figure Skating Championship was heartbreaking. It had nothing to do with the sport itself, or with the young lady's actual performance. For that matter, I don't usually watch figure skating anymore as it sets the ED voice in my head yammering about how slender and graceful all of those girls are, whereas I am neither slim nor graceful. Rather, when I read about the extreme perfectionism that has ensnared Olympic hopeful Mirai Nagasu, I felt my heart break just a little bit because I know all too well the hollow achievements such perfectionism can bring and the devastation it leads behind.

The New York Times article, "Nagasu Is in the Lead, but She Isn’t Ready to Exhale," begins thusly:

The good Mirai Nagasu, the one that oozes talent and effervescence, skated at United States championships on Thursday. She cracked a saucy smile and used her eyes to flirt with the crowd. With an Olympic berth at stake and the pressure mounting, she looked like she was having fun.

But now, with one performance standing between her and the Vancouver Games, she must find a way to keep the good Mirai around. That requires telling her alter ego, the one she calls “the evil Mirai,” to scram.

The "evil Mirai" is the silent voice that every perfectionist hears, the voice that hisses "you're not good enough. You suck. You should just quit. You will never amount to anything." It's the voice that makes you think success was a matter of luck, and soon the whole world will find out you're nothing but a fraud. Anything less than perfect--and pretty much everything is--only confirms all of the horrible qualities about you that no amount of gold medals can redeem.

For Nagasu, these nationals will be the ultimate test of character. She won the 2008 national title when she was 14. Since then, she has struggled with injuries, self-esteem and a growth spurt that messed up her jumping technique.

At one point, she considered giving up.

“There are always moments when I think about leaving skating, but when I think about that I’m not very smart and I’m not very pretty and there’s nothing else that stands out about me besides my skating,” she said.

Many times I contemplated dropping out of school, simply because I was so miserable, but I thought school was the only thing I was really good at, so I couldn't quit. I was stuck. Then the eating disorder took over the same role. Sure, recovery sounded nice, but I had messed up everything else in my life that I didn't think I was anything without the anorexia.

Writes author Rachel Simmons on Nagasu:

Nagasu is one of countless high achieving girls who are as fragile as they are driven. Research is confirming that girls suffer disproportionately from stress, despite their stellar achievements. The pressure to be perfect is taking its toll on girls, from depression and anxiety to paper thin skin.

I am reminded of part of Nancy Zucker's talk from this past year's NEDA Conference in Minneapolis, where she explains perfectionism in the story of two people working towards Olympic gold. One is very driven, always forging ahead, always practicing and improving her technique. Everything in her life is about getting this medal. The other is practicing, but also meeting new people and coaches, and learning from her mistakes. To this athlete, the gold medal is more about the journey than the actual event. “When the first girl gets the medal, she experiences the tragedy of perfectionism in this deflation: now what? My whole life was this, now it’s over," Zucker said. "When the other girl gets the gold, the gold is a symbol of a profound journey. It matters, of course, but it’s kind of: what next? The difference is not that there’s always something next, it’s the difference of whether you view what’s next with this hopelessness or this anticipation.”

Simmons refers to this first hypothetical Olympian as having a fixed mindset, "an approach to life in which you believe your traits are set in stone, and failure means you’re not talented or smart. For these individuals, “one test – or one evaluation – can measure you forever.” People with a fixed mindset are terrible at estimating their abilities because for them, they are either amazing or terrible – all-or nothing."

Without grades and exams, I never would have known that I was "good" at school. I was studious, sure, and I was good at getting the work done and crossing my "t"s and dotting my "i"s. But tell me I was smart? It always perplexed me, because I knew other people who had gotten better grades on such-and-such test or paper. One bad grade and my life was over. Even in my science writing program, where grades were pass/fail, I had horrific test anxiety. I didn't do stellar on the midterm, so I studied everyday before the final to make sure that I didn't repeat my last performance. I was so anxious and upset I could barely eat. I got an A in the class, yes, although it shows up on my transcript as a simple "P," a "P" that no employer or editor has looked at or even asked to.

I remember telling one of my first therapists that I thought I was a Big Dumb Loser, or something to that effect, shortly after I had graduated college and couldn't find a job. And she said, "How can you think that? Look at your resume!" Which only served to make me feel worse, because now I was a complete and total idiot for not recognizing whatever qualities it was that others could see and I couldn't. I wrote my resume out, thank you very much. I know what's on there. And I think of the people who won more awards, who did more advanced research, who published more papers, and I think my resume is utter crap.

It was the same with the eating disorder. Grades and test scores became calories and pounds. I couldn't have anorexia because there were people who weighed less than I did, people who ate less, people who exercised more. There was the thinnest, and there was everyone else. There was the smartest, and there was everyone else. My mom used to tell me, "Only one person can be the best." My response was always, "So why can't it be me?" I wasn't narcissistic--far from it. But I thought if I could ever be "The Best" at something, then I might finally like myself, then I could relax. So it was with school, so it was with anorexia.

These traits that Nagasu so bravely and candidly reports are traits I have seen over and over again in people with eating disorders and others who struggle with perfectionism. And hearing about all of these wonderful, talented people who think that they are scum never fails to break my heart. Yet my own inner critic rages on, telling me that these others are talented and I'm just One Big Fake. I feel I deserve this critic, feel almost lost without it. If my perfectionism was part of the reason that I've achieved what I have, imagine how much I'll suck if I don't have that constant haranguing in my ears.

And therein lays the problem: I'm afraid that breaking free will only confirm my worst fears, so here I stay, checking the spelling again and reading everything over and hoping one day, I will finally measure up.

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Angela E. Lackey said...

I never feel like a measure up. Not after two degrees, starting graduate school and two professional careers. This poor little girl! A lifetime of never feeling good enough, smart enough, pretty enough. It breaks my heart.

Tiptoe said...

I think so many of us feel like this--never good enough even with the accolades, the awards, the medals, the compliments, etc. It's a hard battle, and I'm often fighting with myself over it.

When we see young athletes, stars, etc. who feel similarly, it just brings to light what an awful scenario it can be. It's a reminder that no one is immune to it and asks the age old question of about where to draw the line between success and happiness and what is truly is.

mariposai said...

Your point about the process being overlooked in favour of the end goal was something that has/is helping me overcome my own fact I've just written my own post about something similar!

It's a bit like life in general...we miss out on so much if we just focus on where we're going to end up.

Sarah x said...

This was on NPR this morning. I also felt so badly for her! I could relate to the feeling.

Kim said...

I definitely relate to the school/anorexia/success connection, as you know. I remember telling you about how I locked myself in a closet once because I got a bad grade (meaning, less than an "A" on a quiz -- not a test, a quiz). I've always been an extreme perfectionist, and when I accomplish, I have that feeling of dread. I don't have excited anticipation; it's more of that hopelessness with the "what's next?" panic. I think being so hard on oneself and setting such high standards (not just for the achievement in question, for what that achievement will bring) is a big set-up for unhappiness (or, a good ol' eating disorder to ward off the unhappiness and infuse some filler mission). I've followed gymnastics since I was a little kid and I can see the difference between the athletes who are super hard on themselves and those who view the road to the Olympics as a journey. It's sad to see what pressure (self-imposed or otherwise) can do.

Adrianna said...

I have a similar experience to share. Similar, but not identical. I, too, am always striving to be the best, and want to be seen as the best by others. It's hard for me to take criticism, even well-meaning and educated criticism.

On the other hand, I am too "lazy" to beat myself up over it. I have a really strong flat effect with my emotions, especially when I have to express those emotions. Isolated and unreadable are very common terms used to describe me. This is actually a double-edged sword. Having a flat affect allows my mind to stay calm so that I can think rationally. "Okay, calm down. It was just one time. Look at everything else you've done." "Hey, you're new at this. Give it time and practice." "Forget them. They aren't worth your time." All that stuff.

The problem is that when people can't read my emotions, they assume I just don't care, and I get an apathetic, lazy, callous, etc. label put on me. That makes me feel even more insecure about what I've done or even what kind of person I am.

So it hasn't taken over me, but it's always in the back of my mind. It's like being hard of hearing and having your inner perfectionist shrieking at a frequency too high to hear clearly.

So that's my experience, but I was also thinking about how this mentality ties into our country's current obsession with "healthy lifestyles." Basically, the whole purpose of life is avoiding disease and death, and convincing other people that you are sufficiently committe to these goals. Well, life is very miserable, very empty if those are the only things in your life, let me tell you.

Besides, want to know a major deterrent to disease and death in a lot of cases? CONTENTMENT. Happy people live longer.:)

Kathryn said...

You so eloquently describe the battle that rages on inside my head. Thank you for your astute observations; this is one of my favorite posts that you've written!

Briahna said...

i feel just like her... the good to bad skating.... thinkin of quitting.... EATING DISORDER.... deppression... *sigh*..... school..... the growth spurt.... low self esteem.....

wat do i do?

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I'm a science writer, a jewelry design artist, a bookworm, a complete geek, and mom to a wonderful kitty. I am also recovering from a decade-plus battle with anorexia nervosa. I believe that complete recovery is possible, and that the first step along that path is full nutrition.

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nour·ish: (v); to sustain with food or nutriment; supply with what is necessary for life, health, and growth; to cherish, foster, keep alive; to strengthen, build up, or promote


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