Notes on Self-Study from a Killjoy Perfectionist

I have a friend who just doesn’t see himself. He has declared bankruptcy twice and alcohol abuse landed him in jail for the past year. Despite losing almost everything, when he was released he was talking about how much money it would cost to get his iPhone back in service. To make the situation more frustrating, he largely blames others for his circumstances.

We all know someone that makes us shake our heads and wonder why he or she continues to repeat the same self-destructive behavior. But how often do we consider the likelihood that we, too, are not seeing ourselves clearly?

Self-study is a tricky process, but it’s the only way to create lasting, positive change, whether it’s a change in how you handle your finances, your relationships, your weight, or any other life area with which you struggle.

Revealing the positive
Self-study doesn’t require sitting in front of a mirror or retreating to a cave. In fact, usually it’s activities to which we’re naturally drawn that uncover our strengths and teach us about ourselves. Writing, sports, travel, music, dance, photography, woodworking–any activity can be an act of self-study if there’s an intention to learn about yourself and a commitment to stick with it. The sticktoitiveness part is key, since it’s usually when something becomes difficult that we learn the most about ourselves.

As a personal example, one of my favorite activities is kayaking. I took lessons in college, and during our last lesson, we were to circle a small island near the dam. The river was usually calm, but recent thunderstorms made the water choppy, and we had to fight a current to circle the island.

A few students couldn’t make it and were swept back, deciding to meet us on the other side. I pushed through and made it around the island. I felt a surge of pride, and our teacher was greatly impressed that students with only four lessons could paddle against the current. My sheer determination to accomplish a goal was something positive I learned about myself.

Facing the negative
The downside to self-study is that you start to learn things about yourself that might be unpleasant. Self-study can reveal weaknesses, shortcomings, obsessions, bad habits, and less-than-attractive behavior of which you either weren’t aware or have been ignoring for years.

When my boyfriend (now husband) and I went kayaking together for the first time, I was psyched to share my love of paddling with him. We rented a tandem kayak and set out into the water. I explained the basics, and we started to paddle toward a spring. Only he wasn’t in unison with me, so we were having to work too hard. And sometimes he wasn’t holding his paddle at a 45-degree angle. And where was that push-pull technique I showed him? After helpfully pointing out these things, thinking only of perfecting his paddling skills, he smiled and said, “I thought this was supposed to be fun.”

(Can you see why I married the guy? He’s the only one that can kindly point out that I was being a killjoy perfectionist without using those words AND make me laugh about it at the same time.)

Here I was ruining a lovely day on the lake, not enjoying the scenery or the company, because I was concerned with kayaking technique.

Acknowledge and accept
If you’ve read some of my other articles at GRS, you know I stress going easy on yourself. This is because my first inclination has always been to berate myself for every shortcoming and every failure, real or perceived. But it never got me far, so I started to ease up on myself. I emphasize cutting yourself some slack both for your benefit and to remind myself of the same thing! Rather than berating yourself for being an insensitive egomaniac (or a killjoy perfectionist), acknowledge and accept the behavior.

This does not mean that you continue to be a first class jerk because you are who you are, it means that you recognize that you do it. You accept that this is the way you act sometimes. By accepting what you discover about yourself, you can get closer to the source of the behavior. You can’t think constructively about what causes you to react a certain way and learn to handle or redirect the habit if you’re busy hating yourself.

Bonus benefit: The more you learn about yourself and the more you understand your behavior, the more understanding you become of other people’s shortcomings. Note that accepting does not mean condoning. Self-study gives you the understanding that we are all working through our own stuff. Your stuff is just different from my stuff.

“Self” doesn’t mean “solo”
Self-study is not easy. It can be difficult to separate our perceptions from the truth because we usually see things the way that we’ve been taught to see them from the time we were children, and sometimes the way we’ve been taught to see things is distorted.

In many ways self-study is a solo task, but if our perceptions are distorted, it can be impossible to see ourselves. For this reason, you need a mentor. Mentors can be teachers, close friends, family members, or anyone who you trust to see your weak spots. I wouldn’t have noticed what I was doing that day on the lake if my husband hadn’t called my attention to it.

Once you have a person in mind, find some quiet time and mention that you’ve noticed that you are a bit of a killjoy perfectionist (obviously substitute the weakness for your own, but feel free to use mine if applicable). Ask your person if he or she has noticed it. Talk about possible causes of the feelings or behaviors, and ways to redirect them. Tell your person that you want to work on improving yourself, and ask for help when he or she notices the negative actions.

Self-study is hard work, but it’s worth it.

Have you ever discovered something negative about yourself that you’ve intentionally worked to overcome? Was it hard to own up to it? How did you redirect the feelings or behavior?

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