Grow Up or Shut Down

While this is in some respects a personal finance blog, I also write a lot about my psychology in order to graph the larger issues around how I interact with money. At 17 I left home (for college) and with the exception of twice yearly visits, I haven’t looked back. I didn’t think it was possible for me to change, but I have gained new perspective walking away from my childhood, and returning to look from the outside in at cleverly disguised chaos.

The story goes, I’m a perfectionist more comfortable with failure than success, because success always comes with a clause, a next step, an almost but not quite good enough, try again. My mental survival mechanism is by continuing to, in a narcissistic or perhaps sociopathic way, believe, deep down, that I am capable of perfection. By perfection, I mean, I could magically know things, solve problems, write brilliant stories, and so on, if only I were to just put my mind to it. But, in order to keep this fantasy alive, I instead self sabotage time and again. The more pressure there is — the more expectations there are of me — the more I crawl back into my shell and become terrified of producing anything other than brilliant. In the case of the real world, getting things done is far more important than the quest of perfection, yet I always find myself mentally blocked, distracted, unable to cope with just doing what I need to get things done and move on. It’s much more comfortable to fail, because I know how that story goes. I almost like failing in a twisted way, I like the cycle of failure because it’s familiar, it’s predictable, it’s safe, it’s a hole I’ve dug myself out of time and again, even though each time I fall I fall just a bit deeper, just a bit closer to another kind of steep edge, losing my footing on a potentially fatal cliff. And, from a financial perspective, this hinders me quite a bit — I risk all sorts of fiscal issues, including having a stable job – even when I’m likely capable of successfully maintaining employment as long as I can just let my inner perfectionist go. I have to listen to her, reason with her, tell her to shut up, and move on.

This is where I’m stuck in all sorts of areas of my life — work is clearly a challenge with this constant battle of insecurity and quest for perfection. So are daily chores and activities like cleaning and having a social life. As I edge up towards 30, I recognize it’s now or never in terms of making a change. Can I really change? It’s going to take a lot of will power, and a lot of — what my psychologist calls reparenting — to grow up, and not shut down.

Being home with my family, as those of you who read my blog frequently know, is a huge challenge. My father is a manipulative sociopath, who lacks empathy for others, is paranoid/narcissistic, is in denial of his own problems, blames others for everything, even problems that don’t exist, that he creates in his head. His temper is just the icing on that cake. The further away from him I get, the more I see how much of a true sociopath he is. I want to love him like a good daughter would love a father, but all he does is offer negative commentary on my life choices (although when I am not around I’ve been told he brags about me / sounds proud of me. He’d never tell me he’s proud of me to my face, though, unless its for a certain fiscal milestone like a six figure salary or purchasing a house.)

My life is not and should not be about my father, yet if parents weren’t a deep influencer on our adult psyches, psychology would be a shrinking profession. As I work with mostly men, I often wonder if in general they grew up with different expectations, even if they had fathers like mine, and how that would effect their ability to focus on work and productivity vs. how my brain currently works. Both of my parents made sure that I had a very strong self doubt voice in my head playing constantly. My ideas, unless they synced precisely with theirs, were always wrong. I was raised to care about what others think above and beyond what I think or feel by two people who hadn’t a clue or care how their actions effected others around them, from my dad’s violent temper tantrums in public to my mothers rambling on of personal information in detail about her children and family to the nearest stranger who would lend an ear.  What I never learned was how to be happy with myself or my accomplishments.

In my current job, for many reasons I won’t detail on conditions of anonymity, I have reason to research the subject of motivation. What makes us want to do certain things? Humans have basic needs that motivate us – much of which stems from a need to feel accepted and praised by others (stemming from our parents early fawning over us as cute little babies, and then in response to how they treated us as we were children through adolescence.) Most people are motivated by very similar tactics — do x and obtain y; get a project done in time and you will be rewarded with praise or maybe even gifts. My current analysis of my behavior is that my motivation system is completely out of whack. I’m most motivated when I can do something brilliant that is totally out of left field and isn’t expected of me, but once I’m expected to repeat a standard of excellence I retreat into a anxious state, afraid of failure to duplicate success. There is a core question I am asking myself over and over again — am I smart, or am I stupid? It’s the black and white thinking that my parents taught me, and I can’t be a little of both (though rationally I understand intelligence is complex in definition and I’m probably fairly intelligent but not nearly the smartest person in the world). Smart, or stupid — perfect, or imperfect — able to grasp concepts instantaneously or with a lot of hard work and long-term focus? The greatest reward is to be considered a prodigy, a natural, someone who has a unique thought process offering valuable information in creation of something better than what currently exists, creative or practical. And that’s where I’m stuck. In the web of narcissism, as the child of a sociopath and narcissist, as a woman facing actual adulthood (ie marriage, motherhood, stability) I struggle daily to break free. I often think it is a futile mission — despite all of the luck I’ve had in life, the opportunities, every bit of positive to combat the negative — I’m still a lost cause, with intense waves of depression hitting in gulps and tears when I let myself get trapped in those thoughts. I am comfortable where I am today, but I’m terrified of tomorrow. That is, when will I — or will I — ever be suited to be a mother? To be a wife? To be an adult? I feel like the answer is now, yet I’m not going to let myself move forward with moving past whatever ounce of childhood I have left until I find a way to stop seeking approval and acceptance from my parents for who I am, and instead to seek and find true acceptance from myself.

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