I had a breakthrough with my therapist.
I know, I know, stick with me through the cliche.
Our conversation started out simply enough. As so often happens in therapy, I thought we would chat for a moment just about how my day had been, getting comfortable. However, as anyone who’s been in therapy for quite some time knows, the most innocuous small talk can be a portal into the tangled underbelly of your soul.
I mentioned to my therapist that I wanted to do something creative today. Doodling, journaling and messing around on my keyboard all make me feel so good, but I confessed that often when I have free time I find myself staring at YouTube for two hours and then bemoaning the fact that I didn’t have time to write. I know, I’m an idiot. My therapist, who is a much less harsh judge of my actions, asked me to speculate on why this was the case. I immediately replied that whenever I sit down to write/draw/sing/whatever I feel this horrible pressure to be perfect at it. I want to write a novel in a month and have it be a New York Times Bestseller. I want to paint on a canvas and have some popular podcast host ask me about my artistic process. I want to record a video of me covering “Keep Breathing” and have it go viral on YouTube. As I type this, and as I admitted these things on my therapist’s couch, I feel shame and embarrassment emanating out of my pores. I’m 26, and a constant critique of my generation, of “millennials”, is that our culture of fast-food, trending memes, and same-day delivery has made us into instant gratification junkies. I don’t want this to be true of me, but it is a bit true. To give myself a bit of credit, though, the issue does go deeper than that.
When I was a kid, one of the mantras that my mom repeated to me over and over again was that I should always strive for perfection, because even if I tried my hardest I would always fall short of that impossible goal. My childhood was spent constantly asking myself if I had really done my best or if I could get just a bit closer to perfection. I applied myself to obtaining quantifiable markers of perfection, like A’s on report cards, applause at piano recitals, and school assembly certificates. In the five years since I’ve graduated from college, I’ve floundered in the real world, in grown-up jobs. I think part of the reason for that is that there are less opportunities for me to be evaluated and praised, to be given a concrete assignment to tackle. Yeah, so I’ve got some neuroses. Thanks, mom.
I looked at my therapist, and to my own horror, I said, “I don’t know why I do things if it’s not for a reward and recognition.” I need attention. In fact, I need more than attention. I need to know that I’m the best. Inside me is a 7-year-old version of myself, and she got the fastest time on the multiplication timed test in her whole class, and she is basking in the light of knowing she is the best and within her there’s a need for constant outside validation. If she isn’t the best, she’s not quite sure who she is anymore.
So when I sit down to do something creative, that 7-year-old pops up and says, “Why are you doing this?” I reply, “I just enjoy this. It feels meaningful and good for my soul. It gives me a feeling of accomplishment.” She says, “Well, how can you tell that you’ve accomplished something?” I reply, “I’m not really sure anymore.” She says, “When you were me, you knew that you accomplished something when you got an A. Will this get you an A?” I reply, “There are no more A’s in life. I’m all grown up. I’m not in school anymore.” She says, “What is there? What are you supposed to get?” I reply, “There’s riches, there’s fame, there’s beauty, there’s sex and romance, there’s power and influence, there’s love and adoration” She says, “Will you get those things? Will what you’re doing get you those things?” I reply, “Probably not. The essay I’m writing may not be very good. I don’t have a lot of natural musical talent, I just enjoy it. I’m not really trying to paint anything. I’m just trying to make the colors in that blob look cool. No one will ever see this coloring page. No one will ever hear that little song I just made up and then promptly forgot. No one may ever read this blog post.” She says, “Well, why are you doing these things?” I reply, “I don’t know.” She says, “How will you ever get those other things? Those A’s for grown-ups?” I reply, “I don’t know.”
By this time we’re both pretty sad. We’re both wondering how I turned out to be such a loser when I showed so much promise on those multiplication timed tests. So she fades back into me to contemplate my long past glory days, and I seek comfort from one of my closest friends, YouTube. There are no A’s in watching television. You just sit back, relax, and let laughter and warmth rush over you. It’s wonderful.
After a couple of hours of wonder, though, the guilt sets in. One begins to contemplate just what kind of a mark a steady stream of Buzzfeed employees sampling various spicy foods has left on your soul. Perhaps therein lies my answer. There is something I gain from my writing, my music, my art, even if it is never shared with another person. I get a sense of personal satisfaction that is valuable only to me and experienced only by me.
My inner 7-year-old pipes back up to ask why we spent so much time getting perfect grades in school subjects that are no longer relevant or useful in our present life if personal satisfaction is so meaningful. I admit that I actually have no good answer and spend quite a lot of time contemplating this myself. She asks if personal satisfaction will get me interviewed on a late night talk show or help me fit into a size 8. I tell her to pipe down and go watch Sailor Moon. The poor kid has absolutely no clue how to validate herself. She runs on recognition the way a car runs on gasoline. Without it she breaks down, and that’s no way to live. Oh well, hopefully she’ll learn one day.