Roadblocks to Recovery: On Average

This is another post in my Roadblocks to Recovery series. It's closely related to yesterday's roadblock (ED as a trump card) but also different enough that I think it's worth its own post.

Without ED, I will just be "average"

My height is average. My weight is average (I'm small but solid). These things are fine, and I can (mostly) deal with it. Well, the first part of it. But heaven help me if I ever feel average.

Like so many things that happened with my eating disorder, much of this thinking process started with my academic life, long before I showed any signs of ED. I had to be "The Best." I wasn't a narcissist by any stretch of the imagination, but I had this competitive spirit. The darker side of that competitive spirit is that if I wasn't "The Best," then I sucked at whatever it was, and I may as well go home. My mom always said that only one person could be the best, and I remember plaintively wailing to her on more than one occasion, "So why can't it be ME?"

A few examples: in grad school, I had two exams in my immunology class. On the first exam, I scored at roughly the class average, which before the curve was around a 71% (this was 3 years ago, and I still remember it!). I was horrified and almost devastated--I had a therapy session afterwards and I sobbed about it and my poor therapist just handed me tissues. I was determined not to repeat this on the last exam, so I studied for weeks. All I could think of were the other people in my class who had surely done better than I. It never occurred to me that an equal number had done worse. For the several days before the exam, I barely slept and I was physically ill from the anxiety. My goal wasn't just to do better (which would have been a marginally decent goal), but to break the curve. Which I did. I was exhausted and burned out, but I did it. And I felt okay about myself, at least for a short while.

Even recently, I was playing Dominoes with my parents and some of their friends, and I was just so keyed up while we were playing. Even though I loved everyone there (I refer to these people as "Aunt" and "Uncle") and I know they didn't give a hoot about who won, I was terribly afraid that I wasn't going to win. I didn't. I got second place and I still walked away disappointed because I was utterly convinced that only some strange luck had saved me from last place. I didn't win, and that was all that mattered. It's why I don't like keeping score at mini-golf or bowling or even Pictionary. Because I rarely win, and so I frequently end up hating myself (yes, over not winning a game of Pictionary).

It goes something like this: my drive to win isn't so much from the joy of winning. My drive is from a fear of failure. This drive is essentially perfectionism, distilled to its essence. Of course, my eating disorder wasn't just extreme perfectionism- I wasn't "Starving for Perfection" or "Dying to be Thin." But the two are tremendously and inextricably linked.

The anorexia made me feel special, somehow. It made me feel like I was "The Best" when I was starving and over-exercising and losing weight. If I found out that anyone had eaten less than me that day (food poisoning, their own eating disorder), my brain flew into a tizzy and I felt compelled to exercise off every extra calorie or purge what was left in my system. Eating more than someone meant I wasn't "The Best," and if I wasn't "The Best," I was just average. My abnormally low weight played a role, too. Although I never fully bought into the (wrong) cultural idea that thin people are inherently "better" than those who are heavier, I was rather aware of this idea and it played a role in my ED. If I was the "thinnest," then I was "The Best." If I gained weight, I was only average, and average, as I've said before, is not something my perfectionistic brain likes to contemplate.

Recovery, of course, meant eating more and gaining weight. It meant extracting myself from my idiotic mind games surrounding academics and food and weight. And this is where it gets tough. Because this mindset is so ingrained and it seems rather rational in the moment. The underlying issue, if you really dig deep enough, goes back to really low self-esteem. Why else would I need a trump card or so deeply fear being average if I really thought I was a good enough person? It's hard for me to accept that "average" is just fine, because I fear that if I'm not "The Best," then I'm nothing. I know that what makes me special isn't my being "The Best" at not eating or losing weight, and that I'm still special even if I'm average in every way. I just need to figure out how I can value myself being average and letting go.

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19 comments:

Flannery said...

My. Life.

For a really long time I blamed my mom--"why can't you just let me be normal? why can't you just love me anyway?"--but surprise, surprise! It was me all along. I have to learn to love myself as normal.

It's weird how difficult that is.

mariposai said...

My life too...at school I always had to be the best, but then I went to Cambridge University and found myself right at the bottom of the pile. It was at this point that I tried to find new ways of being the 'best', hence ED comes in.

I'm less obsessed now, but it's hard to completely let go of that desire to be 'the best'...

Sarah x

Cathy (UK) said...

Interesting post - as usual Carrie.

I can identify with the 'perfectionism thing' and the black/white thinking (i.e. 'unless I achieve my goal I am 'crap'/useless etc.').

However, I have never seen myself as being in competition with other people; only with myself. I was a goal-setter and I HAD to meet my goals, come what may, but I judged myself on my OWN standards and what other people achieved was irrelevant.

It didn't matter to me if other people got higher grades than me, but if I had set myself a goal of an 'A' grade then I HAD to meet that grade. If I didn't then I entered 'self-destruct' mode. However, it didn't bother me if everyone else got an 'A' grade too.

I think you're correct that what lies behind all this is perfectionism, black/white thinking and low self esteem. This triple combination is rather dangerous. If our self esteem hangs on achieving near impossible goals, and our reaction to not surpassing that over-zealous goal is very low self-worth then we're doomed.

A major part of my recovery was to stop setting myself goals. I didn't even set myself weight gain goals and my psychiatrist didn't focus on goals either. Soooo helpful :)

James Clayton said...

Great post as ever that really touches upon so many things I'm grappling with right now and have battled for years.

Even if it's not about other people, that drive to perfection, the best or the most extreme is ingrained. The moments when you stop and say "it doesn't matter" and just accept things are blissful.

Plus, when you do achieve things you're still not satisfied and you're on to the next thing that prompts anxiety over failure. I guess we've just got to try and relax and take the stigma out of failure and accept ourselves...

(and yeah, that is hard)

anne said...

I've thought about perfectionism a lot. It seems like it has become such a dirty word and, taken to an extreme, it does have the potential to do a lot of damage. But maybe there is a good side too? When you do something you love and you want to satisfy your own longing to do it just right and to your own satisfaction is that not okay? You want to do a good job and you want to do it until you are happy with it. I can see research scientists, doctors, lawyers, inventors, etc. all having some of this streak in them. I think when it crosses the line and becomes harmful is perhaps when you are no longer doing it for your own internal pleasure and happiness, but--as you say--out of fear of being a failure, of being judged inadequate by others. It goes from being an inwardly pleasing quality and drive to an outwardly,people pleasing drive (to the extreme). Is this making any sense? It stops being joyful and fun. Perfect becomes defines by what others expect rather than what gives you joy in creating. Of course, this was my thinking until I read what Cathy from UK wrote!

anne said...

I've thought about perfectionism a lot. It seems like it has become such a dirty word and, taken to an extreme, it does have the potential to do a lot of damage. But maybe there is a good side too? When you do something you love and you want to satisfy your own longing to do it just right and to your own satisfaction is that not okay? You want to do a good job and you want to do it until you are happy with it. I can see research scientists, doctors, lawyers, inventors, etc. all having some of this streak in them. I think when it crosses the line and becomes harmful is perhaps when you are no longer doing it for your own internal pleasure and happiness, but--as you say--out of fear of being a failure, of being judged inadequate by others. It goes from being an inwardly pleasing quality and drive to an outwardly,people pleasing drive (to the extreme). Is this making any sense? It stops being joyful and fun. Perfect becomes defines by what others expect rather than what gives you joy in creating. Of course, this was my thinking until I read what Cathy from UK wrote!

Cathy (UK) said...

Hi anne (above):

I agree with what you write. Perfectionism is not bad in itself - and as you say it's a positive quality in many aspects of life. It becomes a problem when a person sets themselves unattainably high standards, or when they are so worried about making mistakes/failing that they cannot properly function and/or become stressed.

However, I think that in this post Carrie is writing about social/academic hierarchy (i.e. one's place in society) - and self-esteem in the context of such hierarchy - rather than perfectionism per se. (Carrie, please correct me if my interpretation is incorrect...).

Tiptoe said...

Yep, this was me for a long time (still am at certain times of my life) Growing up, part of this competitive spirit was brought on by myself but my father as well who although he said wanted "only the best" for me, was also very competitive.

As a child, I competed for everything even with my own parents--who could put their seat belt on the fastest, who could brush their teeth the best, who won at Chinese Checkers and monopoly, who could fall asleep the fastest (my mom tricked me and beat me on that one), etc.

So academically, I felt the same way. When I did not get high SAT scores, I was crushed! When I got my first B in high school, I went into a horrible sobfest. So I totally get how this type of thinking floods out into other areas of life. With the ED, it was a bit strange, I found myself comparing to some people, but not others. I'm not sure what made the difference there.

In some respects, I think *this* trait is inherent in me. At times when the ED has spiked, it's been more prominent. I've learned to relax a bit on some things, but then it seems I find something else to focus on.

I also agree with the notion about low self-esteem. It's always been one cornerstone factor to me why many EDs develop.

anne said...

So maybe you have to examine your life and hold aspects of it up for inspection.

Do I love this activity for its own sake? Does it give me pleasure to do it?

Instead of asking "Am I the best at 'X'?" you might ask "Is 'X' giving me a sense of purpose, fun, satisfaction, contentment? Does it add to my personal health and self esteem or detract?"

If it detracts, then modify it or get rid of it.

A:) said...

My perfectionism is very related to other people liking me.

I wanted to be "special" and to be "special" I needed to be the best. I felt and still feel that I have no worthwhile qualities to attract people to me and allow people to develop meaningful relationships with me if I am not the best at something.

Why would people even want to speak to me if I am not the "best" at something?

If I am not the best at university, I will have no friends and professors will not like me/want to speak with me. If I am not the best at AN, I will lose the support of my treatment team which at the moment, is the most solid relationship I have outside my family (sad sad sad!).

I SUCK at making friendships on purely social/relational terms -- so I rely on being different than average to attract people, as it is the only way I really know how. This means I do not have many friends of my age and really only have acquaintances at school.

For me, being the best goes beyond simply the need to be above average. I need to be RECOGNIZED because I am terribly lonely and there is no other way for me to attract attention.

A:)

anne said...

A,

I think what you are saying is also true for my daughter. I don't know if it's true of everyone with an ED. But, I think it is true for her.

And here is what I would want her to know as her mother (and I'm well aware that mothers don't count for a huge amount when your daughter is 20+ years old and wants to connect with others outside immediate family).

I would tell her (or him) how loved she was, from the moment of conception. I would tell her how wanted she was for just being who she was, no matter who that turned out to be, no matter how perfect or imperfect (whatever that really means). I would love her forever, for better or worse, in sickness and in health until death do us part. Really, if I can say that to my husband, why not the children we have together? I would tell her that I would not stand by to watch her suffer with an illness. I would do whatever it took to intervene and help her change that. I would tell her I was there for her no matter what. I would remind her that, while being socially comfortable may not be a strength for her, these are skills that can be learned with time and practice. Perhaps they will never be her strongest suit, but THAT'S OKAY. She has other gifts and many of them. Her true friends will love her for who she really is.

Each person unfolds in their own time and way. Each person has their own talents. Almighty few of us is 'the best' at anything so we are all in good company. Where would that put the other 99 if one 1 out of 100 could get the A? Unworthy? Who am I to judge that? And, even if you could be 'the best' at a particular thing, THAT DOES NOT NECESSARILY MAKE YOU A HAPPY, MENTALLY PERSON! No one is the best at everything. No one.


Perhaps compassion and love are the important things to aim for--compassion for others, and more importantly, for first ourselves.

anne said...

I meant to say MENTALLY HEALTHY PERSON! Whoops.

Stina said...

great thoughts. . . I'm worried that by going into recovery the things everyone praises me for - my attention to detail, my ability to do everything and never say no, how stress never seems to get to me . . .it will all have to go away. And then what? although, I have to admit, there is something tempting about just being normal for once :)

imaginenamaste said...

I'm so glad you posted this--I have often thought that I need to be less of a perfectionist to really recovery and change!

jadedchalice said...

This is very poignant. For me the perfectionism consciously was more a matter of self hatred. I was tormented in school by the other kids so firstly i was starving myself for a number of reasons not really having anything to do with weight, then for a short bit i was obsessed with weight and size, then it became that i hated everything about myself but realized that i had always been naturally thin, and would receive comments and compliments regularily on that. So since i had a history of sexual trauma and since the only thing people ever complimented me on was my thin body, i figured it was the best thing, the only good thing about me. I certainly wasn't about to give up the one good thing about me, and wanted to be the thinnest girl in school so that at least i knew I had one thing to be proud of. Everyone else was better smarter more fun more popular more talented, but at least i was thin. Well i can tell you this, i have managed to find fault in everything, now i see myself as way TOO thin, and dont feel like im the best at anything except destroying my life. lol I guess im the best at lying to myself and controlling my environment. But thats nothing to be proud of. Anyway the point is that your right, alot of the time its hard to admit that its not easy to let go of something that has been personality defining because once I let this eating disorder go....what will I be? Just an eggshell with no yolk? And it is scary, but its not insurmountable and we can do this...as long as we continue to be honest with ourselves. Thank you for posting this.

Anonymous said...

This is exactly how I feel and something I have only recently been able to put into words (literally like within the past week). I do everything in my power, no matter the cost, to protect myself from being average. Average is not okay with me. In my mind, being average puts me at too close of a risk for being below average.

Kate said...

We each are so similar through our desire to stand out for who we are (or have believed who we are). We ARE no different to each other, yet the finite details of what we have done to make ourselves different have differed.

Gosh, Carrie, and the community of readers, you have helped me quicker than a host of professionals ever have over 20-odd years.

Amen to life!

Ria said...

Wow. I am truly amazed how succinctly you defined this state. I never have been able to verbalize it or even think it coherently. But reading your words, it's like sh*t, this is me, and this is why I do these things. I definitely fear failure, and have realized it before, but never really understood it was about my fear of being average, or I guess more specifically, being judged as average. Being no better or no worse than anyone else, and not being "special".

I have never really thought of myself as a perfectionist, until now while in grad school. Now that I'm not distracted by drugs and alcohol that defined my undergrad experience, my drive to achieve, to be the best in the class, to make sure no one ever thinks of me as dumb, is extreme (cause obviously to me, average=dumb=failure). I'm constantly in a panic as to what the professors will think of me if I don't get that 95% when the average is a 70%. And the times when I do only perform averagely, I completely break down and ensure that I do better. Because I have to. Weirdly enough, I never connected this with my haphazard eating patterns. And now, realizing I missed that connection, just made me feel really average in itself. This whole thing is just such a mind trap.

Keep up the amazing writing, I'm sure it makes others, aside from myself, not feel so alone...

Carrie Arnold said...

Ria,

I got an A in my pathophysiology class in grad school, and I never scored above a 72% on any exam. I went to a small undergrad school, so grading on a curve was unheard of. That class gave me so many gray hairs!

The hardest part about grad school is that what separates the top of the pack and the bottom of the pack is really, really tiny, so the classes amplify these infinitesimal differences that really make no practical difference in outcome. Not that this realization ever stopped me from freaking out, however... :)

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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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