It has been a very hard last year or so. Probably longer, if I’m being honest. Grief, stress, constant change, constant obligation, exhaustion. It all adds up until one day, you hit the bottom really hard and the only choices you have are to stay at the bottom and wallow or use the event to inspire good change.
Last weekend, I hit rock bottom. I hit it so hard I bounced. Let me set the stage:
It was my last weekend of yoga teacher training. One of my closest friends was getting married on the Saturday, so I would miss half of my classmates’ practicum classes. I was teaching my class second on Sunday, right after lunch. We got home from the wedding on Saturday not too late, but it didn’t matter because I couldn’t sleep a wink. The anxiety I had had in control for the last month thanks to acupuncture, yoga, and meditation, was back full force and there was no way I would find sleep. I still rolled out of bed and drove to teacher training Sunday morning, doing two hours of asana practice before finally getting to my class. I felt prepared, I had practiced the shit out of my class, even teaching it to two co-workers all the way through. I knew this class in-and-out. It all started out fine, but I could feel the pressure of expectations, my own and my teacher’s. I made a mistake, not that the class knew, but I KNEW. Then it started to unravel like a ball of yarn in a hurricane. I unraveled. I managed to teach the entire class without any of the students (and even my teacher) from catching on to my disintegration, but I broke down hard at the end. Bursting into tears, I quickly picked up my mat and books and ran from the studio.
When the time came for the last practicum class, I pulled myself together and took the class, managing to stop crying for the entire hour. Then Judgment Time had arrived- final assessments. At this point, I was so certain I had failed and I was already trying to figure out what to say to my family and friends about my failure. I walked in and sat down with my teacher and the first thing she said was, “You taught an AWESOME class, so what the hell is going on in your head right now?!” She and I speak the same language, I appreciate her directness and it allows me to respond in-kind. “When you’ve internalized that a single mistake equals absolute failure for five years, it can be hard to get out of your own way, especially when you’re exhausted.”
When my teacher hit me with that direct question, it charged my brain and the reason hit me like a brick. I have always had high expectations for myself. These were never imposed by my parents or teachers because they could always see that I didn’t need outside pressure to perform well, I had enough intrinsic motivation to do well. This only becomes a problem when you start working for a company (or start a relationship with a person) that recognizes your intrinsic motivation and exploits it to demand perfection at all costs. In my case, it’s my job where my perfectionism is exploited. At work, anything less than perfect is failure. There is no positive feedback, no recognition of effort or that you’re even a human being who will make mistakes. It’s merely, you made a mistake- you failed. Five years of that can be incredibly damaging to the psyche.
Dr. Brené Brown talks about perfectionism and its relationship to shame in many of her books, and I highly recommend you read them (links below) because they are making a huge difference in my understanding of myself. I broke down at teacher training because I felt deep shame for making that mistake. I wasn’t good enough. I failed. All of that hard work, for naught. Five years of that attitude forced on me at work, and I had internalized it as if it were truth. We live in a culture of perfectionism and shame. I think about all of the young moms I know who are in constant fear of being perceived as a bad parent. The level of judgment and expectation has gotten out of control and it’s part of what is contributing to rampant stress and mental illness (IMHO). Talking about what’s going on in our head is still somewhat stigmatized. Breaking down is seen as weakness in a world that has no room for weak moments.
Breaking down at yoga teacher training is probably one of the best things you can do. Why? Because where are you going to find a more spiritually enlightened, safe, open place to breakdown? Where are you going to find more kind, compassionate, understanding people? Yogis are an exceptional group of people on a good day, but they really shine on a bad day when you’ve ripped yourself apart from the inside out. To my fellow classmates: I have so much gratitude for your kindness that day and every day.
The good news: this absolute breakdown helped me have a breakthrough. Five years of repressed emotion burst through the walls I had built to keep them at bay so I could function. I didn’t just cry on the way home from yoga teacher training that night, I sobbed myself dry. I sobbed and sobbed and sobbed, tears I should have shed so many times and just couldn’t because that too would be a sign of failure. I sobbed away the weight of perfectionism that had me stressed and anxious every day of my life after starting at my company. I came out the other side of those tears a different person. A person who was going to do her best not to let other people define me. A person unwilling to except the unrealistic expectations of others. A person who could make mistakes without feeling like a failure. It was the beginning of something.
It’s been a week since all of this. The Hubs told me last night that he can’t believe how different I am. He told me I’m so much more relaxed and lighter, that he can tell I’m not sitting next to him on the couch and thinking about all of the things I should be doing. I’m more present. My new goal is to maintain this to the best of my ability. I do not want to go back to that world of repressed emotions and feelings of constant failure. Life is far too short and beautiful to waste it letting other people define you.
Books I’ve read by Brené Brown: