Help me reprogram the self-punishing part of my brain
July 28, 2014 4:20 PM   Subscribe

At the end of a project, regardless of how the rest of the world feels about it, I am almost always sad and angry at myself about how it went. Sometimes I imagine myself being punished for imperfections, e.g. by being attacked and beaten to death with pipes because of bugs in submitted code. Other times I project this unhappiness and anger onto other people, e.g. imagining that colleagues are disappointed in me, until they actually say outright that they are pleased with how something went.

I have always had a bit of a perfectionist streak, and in the past had a hard time dealing with less-than-outstanding performance. (Sobbing on the phone to my parents about a B- in college, for instance.)

As I've gotten older, I've developed more perspective on these issues, but they still seriously impede my ability to relax, since I am often feeling like I need to make up for these past failures by working more! harder! etc., or I'm just inhabiting a really unhappy mental place.

So at the moment for instance I should be making plans for a long-overdue vacation that I promised my husband we would take, but when I start to do so I am choked by feelings that I do not deserve this vacation, that I should take on more work and stay home in order to "make up for" some things I wasn't happy with in my last project.

This is especially irrational because a) the client on that project I want to "make up for" claims to be happy, and b) any future project I might take on would not be for that client anyway. So the only restitution involved would be to some sort of perfectionist deity of the protestant work ethic, or something.

To get some obvious points out of the way: I'm not suicidal or depressed. If I think objectively about how I feel about my life, it's good and I'm grateful for it. Lots of things are going well for me. I have a career I enjoy with good pay and lots of variety, I'm happily married and living in an area I like, I see friends as frequently as my introverted nature can really handle. I eat and sleep regularly, use no illegal drugs and alcohol in moderation. While I get less exercise than I probably should, that's largely a function of long work hours. I don't think I have low self-esteem overall: when I'm not in one of these moods, I am able to acknowledge various positive aspects of my skills and personality, and I know there is a reason that I keep getting new client work. I don't generally think I'm incompetent. I just... feel humiliated and furious after individual instances of work.

I know Metafilter well enough to know there will probably be some "get therapy!" replies, but that is not really what I'm looking for here. Therapy where I live is usually for people with genuine mental illnesses, and in any case I feel that this is something I ought to be able to deal with myself.

What I'm looking for is reading, meditation, and/or CBT-ish techniques that people have found helpful with dismantling this kind of thinking.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (18 answers total) 42 users marked this as a favorite
A few weeks ago, someone said to me, "Perfectionism is a kind of abuse when another person does it to you, and it's a kind of self-abuse when you do it to yourself."

And here we are.

Would it help if, as you are working on a project, you keep a daily (or hourly or minute-ly) list of things that are going well, that you are happy with, or that you receive compliments on? Then later, when Crazy Brain tries to take over and tell you how worthless you are and how everything every minute went absolutely wrong and how dare you reward yourself you are not worthy of even breathing the same air as human beings, you can show Crazy Brain your list? That might help.

Also, read The Places That Scare You by Pema Chodron. Or Taking the Leap by the same author. Or anything by her, really.
posted by GoLikeHellMachine at 4:35 PM on July 28, 2014 [2 favorites]

Sometimes I get bogged down in spirals of thoughts that I don't like (for me, it's nostalgia) and what I've been doing lately is picturing the Nope octopus and then quickly think about something else, anything else. Just not entertaining those unwanted lines of thought when they start up. It might happen a few times in a few minutes but it usually "takes".
posted by bleep at 4:40 PM on July 28, 2014 [10 favorites]

The Gifts of Imperfection might be exactly the right thing for you to read.

When I had a similar issue, it was in fact anxiety related, and I identified it by the way I felt inundated with "shoulds." I should have written better documentation. I should have written a better unit test. I should have figured out how to manage my work schedule better around the co-op preschool. When I stopped letting the "shoulds" live in my head, by very consciously reminding myself every time I felt myself sinking back into it to switch to "I could" or "what would happen if I" instead of "I should," I felt so, so much better. Honestly, it took many years, lots of meditation, various meds, yoga, and therapy (sorry), but life is way, way less oppressive now. (I still have to be very aware of it in certain circumstances, though. It is very easy to slip back into.)
posted by instamatic at 4:46 PM on July 28, 2014 [5 favorites]

I just want to throw out there that much of this internal dialogue can be (although I'm not a doctor) related to issues of (minor) depression. The reason I mention this is because I've worried about things that you mention for years and years, to the point that it felt normal to worry about other people's opinions on a number of things. I spent an awful lot of time trying to figure out how to rethink myself away from these kinds of thought patterns. The answer, it seems, was connected to dopamine, and my doctor gave me a non-addictive depression medication that pretty much cleared it all up. It was a burden I carried for years that I wouldn't have guessed had a medical component to it. It's been very freeing.

If it is a medical thing you are dealing with, your doctor can help you with it directly (as a type of a-typical depression, probably) without you having to see a professional therapist. Although you asked for solutions that don't include this, I feel compelled to at least mention this to you.
posted by SpacemanStix at 4:56 PM on July 28, 2014

You mention thoughts of being beaten with pipes over errors in code. That's a pretty specific image and reminds me of my own intrusive thoughts (being hit by a car because I didn't check enough times before crossing the road). I would take some time to consider that this may be worth investigating more. I was really surprised when medication silenced a chorus of those extra thoughts.

At some point you need to give yourself permission to make mistakes. How else are you supposed to learn? Maybe you can practice on something else, and meditate on it. Like, say, jump rope or tetris. So you lost the game. Maybe sewing or origami. Wow, those first projects suck. But you're improving. You will do better if you keep at it. I'm sure you've learned just as much from your failures as from your successes. Cultivate more comfort in the failure zone. Failure is essential to growth.

It's also useful to turn that voice on someone else and see how reasonable it sounds. Critique your partner's work in the same tone and vociferousness. See how awful and mean it sounds? Feel how protective you feel? Now try to feel protective of yourself. "No one has the right to speak to me that way, inner voice. Not even you."

In my mental health circles, we refer to these voices as the Itty Bitty Shitty Committee.

My boss has been urging me to work on my perfectionism by envisioning a bigger box. He says when I draw a box around my definition of Doing It Right, I draw a tiny box. He draws a bigger box. He wants me to expand my definition. Does it meet the general criteria? Can we keep going? No one died? In the box. On to the next.
posted by heatherann at 5:08 PM on July 28, 2014 [15 favorites]

When you write code to perform a task, there are a lot of things going on - first and foremost though, what you are connecting to is probably not static. Everything changes. That means specifications change. Your understanding changes. Deadlines are generally the only thing that doesn't change. What that means is you always have a piece of code that could be written better - because, yeah - that's the way it is. Specifications change, whether it be because things were improperly specified originally or because there were other constraints involved. So there is that sort of zen aspect - that code - no matter how perfect we are - is a moving target.

As I finish a project, I spend a few days archiving work, adding comments, documenting things - and I make notes to a future me - even if no one will ever be implementing the same thing again. One, documentation is handy, but two - its also therapeutic because you can show yourself that you know what should have happened with perfect knowledge. It is blueprints for your next start.
posted by Nanukthedog at 6:19 PM on July 28, 2014 [4 favorites]

Oh, too true! There is nothing more cathartic than a good "lessons learned" session at the end of a coding project. It gives you the illusion of possible future perfection, if not perfection in the recent past.
posted by instamatic at 6:34 PM on July 28, 2014

To get some obvious points out of the way: I'm not ... depressed.

Do you just mean "I don't feel sad"? Because clinical depression does not always mean "feeling really sad," and some of the things you are describing are consistent with clinical depression. It might be worth talking to a psychiatrist about this, if only to rule out depression as a cause.
posted by nebulawindphone at 6:47 PM on July 28, 2014 [3 favorites]

So your efforts aren't good enough, even for you, no matter how they turned out.
I think someone else taught you that, before you could defend yourself.
Who was that person? How and when did they press this lesson upon you?

You might work toward forgiveness of yourself though the the forgiveness of others, especially if you are already good at it ("I forgive this person of that, so I can forgive myself of this, which is similar."), but even if you're not.
posted by the Real Dan at 6:59 PM on July 28, 2014 [3 favorites]

Do you ever get exposed to the end-users of your code? The issue may be that you don't see the real consequences of your code, so you end up in a mental echo chamber.

When you see real people interacting with your software, you're grounded in reality. You might think to yourself, "When Jessica used my product, it was so embarrassing that it immediately crashed. But then she reloaded and used it to rent a dog, and she smiled from ear to ear! That was awesome." If you're just constantly handing your code to clients, you have no idea what happens when users actually use it.

Imagine an analogy of a doctor who is put in a room, and handed folders all day long with patient cases. He writes a diagnosis and prescription for each folder, and an assistant takes it and uses it to treat the patient. The doctor never finds out what happens. For all he knows, half his diagnoses are wrong, and those patients are now sicker. After a while, the doctor might start to go nuts and imagine terrible outcomes.

You need to find a way to see the actual results of your code.
posted by vienna at 10:27 PM on July 28, 2014

I've recommended this book on the green before, but "Self-Compassion" by Kristin Neff really helped me not beat myself up so much. She also has a TED talk on the topic.
posted by chickenmagazine at 5:43 AM on July 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

Sometimes I can shift angry or punitive oriented feelings by appreciating their roots in something good. You really really want to do a good job! Those parts of you want to do a good job so much they are angry at any error that might mess things up. Errors can cause a lot of suffering and difficulty in the world. Accuracy is very valuable and can save lives and prevent a lot of forms of very real suffering. You can view this part of you as a gift while remembering that the skills we have are not what makes us valuable.

Practice believing that human beings who will never be skilled at accuracy- including you attimes- deserve compassion exactly as much as those who have skills at accuracy.

Sometimes when we sense we are in an environment where those who make mistakes are NOT valued, i.e. those who don't do well on the job are going to be fired-- the desire to self punish is actually a self preservation trait. We want to punish ourselves before anyone else does because showing others how much we hate ourselves takes the pressure off them to do it for us, even silently in their minds or slowly start thinking about kicking us off the team or seeing our status as less valuable.

For me-- I used to have a lot of desire for violent abuse when I messed something up and I found out that my family history (though not myself personally) has a long history of extreme violence and daily beatings for errors, violations of norms, (or simply because someone was pissed off and wanted a punching bag.) For me understanding the origins ofsuch feelings helped transcend that pattern, and also let go of that instinctual reaction to "I am bad for having this bad pattern" feeling that also creeps up when you try to stop yourself from hating yourself (you try to use more hate because it's what comes natural).

Understanding that hate tends to become the dominant solution in situations where there is a lot of scarcity and crisis, and where errors can mean the difference between survival and death, if someone burns the dinner THERE IS NO DINNER--- violence and rage are forces that more naturally creep up. They can then become entrenched in our cultural patterns and our thinking and become a normalized reaction when other reactions might work better. Your ability to do highly detailed, accurate work, is saving you from poverty right now. This is not just YOU putting yourself through pressure, it's our cultural model, that people who make errors and mistakes and have a hard time on the job should be discarded and left to starve, to slowly wither away in agony of diseases and suffering from the elements and lack of resources and care.

We live in a very brutal environment to those who are error prone, and your instincts that perfectionism is needed are very loving self protective instincts. Like any instinct, when it goes in overdrive and isn't reflected on and harnessed for the good it can do it stops helping and can start hurting. It's no surprise to me that compassion for the reasons people have hate, can break the cycle more than judging hate as bad. It has it's place and often their are understandable reasons it's gotten out of control.
posted by xarnop at 9:26 AM on July 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

I learned a way of dealing with intrusive thoughts here on metafilter: say "That's an Intrusive Thought," in your head. Learning about them and knowing that others have them has reduced their frequency, but specifically thinking that phrase in my head has helped even more. It seems like a very small thing, I know.
posted by soelo at 11:24 AM on July 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

I also really struggle with this. I'll finish something reasonably big on a day and yet feel like the whole day was wasted. I'll dwell on tiny errors in a successful project. I don't feel like I've "earned" the right to do completely normal pleasant things. I can always, always work harder. Once I delivered a big outcome -- one dear to me and to my work, that I'd been working on for literal years -- and by the evening I was already frustrated with it, disappointed with myself, and thinking about how it could have been better. I think I had about three and a half hours of feeling okay. I felt tremendous sympathy for your self-description.

One technique that has helped me, in combination with some of the others already described here, is that I keep a little notebook (or text file, depending) that lives alongside my calendar and to-do list. It's my done list, and in it I write everything I've done as it happens each day. It's my small discipline. Just a flat list, headed with the date: Answered a bunch of emails? Finished a book I needed to read for work? Met with someone who needed my help? Had an interesting idea? Wrote 500 words towards a project? Went to the gym, had a nice lunch, scheduled a doctor's appointment, got someone a gift, paid my bills, broke down those cardboard boxes? On the list. This feels corny at first, but you've got to catch as much as you can in that net: I find it begins to recalibrate my mind. All the incremental, incidental work that moves everything forward starts become clear. I've become a bit calmer about things -- I don't look back at a month anymore with this feeling of gazing over a trackless wasteland of fucking up and doing nothing, because the list is there. I can see things moving along, and the small errors are put into perspective. At least a bit more.

h/t to my friend who told me about this several years ago
posted by deathmarch to epistemic closure at 4:28 PM on July 29, 2014 [10 favorites]

So at the moment for instance I should be making plans for a long-overdue vacation that I promised my husband we would take, but when I start to do so I am choked by feelings that I do not deserve this vacation, that I should take on more work and stay home in order to "make up for" some things I wasn't happy with in my last project.

Wow, this sounds like classic depression to me: "I don't deserve nice things/nice experiences/nice people/fun times... because I'm so awful."

Also, you're using a "should" statement there to beat yourself up with; should statements are very punishing and keep you feeling guilty (another sign of depression).

I cannot recommend David Burn's 'Feeling Good: the New Mood Therapy' book strongly enough. He discusses perfectionism -it's either a chapter or a section all to itself. You have to do some paper and pencil exercises but they're very straight-forward and can yield enormous benefits to your psychological well-being.

My sympathies - be kind to yourself, please, and good luck, I hope you find some answers.
posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome at 7:39 PM on July 29, 2014

My whole life I thought I was at the mercy of these terrible feelings that held me hostage and from which I could never escape. I figured my thoughts were just reflections of these feelings. I've been much happier now that I see it the other way around. I have these terrible thoughts and the feelings follow. I could never disbelieve my feelings -- they seemed like something that was part of me, like my arms and legs. But thoughts are different. I'm perfectly comfortable refusing to believe thoughts. Which I do. With some regularity. It helps to meditate and watch the thoughts come and go like lightning bugs in the night sky. Once I stop believing my thoughts, the feeling energy has a tendency to become more neutral. Then I can use that energy to do other things, like exercise really hard or paint pictures.
posted by macinchik at 9:50 PM on July 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

Mod note: From the OP:
Thanks, guys. This has been really helpful.

The reason I said "I am not depressed" is because at times when I was younger, things were bad enough that I had a hard time getting out of bed. I'd do the minimum possible to hold a job and then spend the rest of my time in sweatpants reading fanfic or just sleeping for 18 hours straight. Also lots of suicidal ideation, difficulty believing my friends cared about me, etc. I eventually learned enough techniques to head off those episodes and I haven't been anywhere near that bad for years now, but that's my benchmark for "depressed".

If I'm still depressed now, then I've been at least mildly depressed for most of my life. Which... may actually be the case, given the self-assessment tests in "Feeling Good". So maybe my sense of "normal" is off, and that's pretty revelatory in itself.

I am working on the books suggested here, but if that doesn't help/help enough, I'll try talking to a GP about mood issues.

Anyway, thanks to everyone who followed up, and especially for deathmarch to epistemic closure's empathy and bleep's Nope Octopus.
posted by taz (staff) at 5:14 AM on July 30, 2014 [4 favorites]

If I'm still depressed now, then I've been at least mildly depressed for most of my life. Which... may actually be the case, given the self-assessment tests in "Feeling Good". So maybe my sense of "normal" is off, and that's pretty revelatory in itself.

Just a quick note, this was exactly my situation. I fall into a category of atypical depression (which is a milder form), and I didn't know it wasn't normal until I felt what normal was like. It was a serious light bulb moment that (to risk hyperbole) was very much like Plato's cave allegory. You don't really know that you are dealing with shadows until you see what it's like to be in a good place.
posted by SpacemanStix at 8:57 PM on August 2, 2014

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