Perfectionism and Asperger’s

I recently joined a new creative writing group, and one of the prompts we discussed inspired me to write this short piece (see below), inspired by my own lived experience as an aspie, about my struggle with perfectionism.

Before that, though, a bit of context:

A common aspie trait is being quite analytically-minded, and I’m no exception. As a child, part of my way of making sense of the world was to rank things. In primary school, colour-coded cards were part of the system my parents and teachers devised to help me communicate my feelings. Feelings of anger meant a red card. Distress meant a black card. Happiness meant a green card. Such was the way in which complex things could be broken down in my mind and made to make sense. I learned that if you organised things into colours, numbers, categories, then they could be processed by my brain more easily, which I liked.

This categorisation extended to other aspects of my life. To deal with the often overwhelming stimulation of everyday existence,  I broke it down into manageable chunks. I would take each day one at a time, and assign a category to each day. A day could be ‘bad’, ‘okay’, ‘good’ or ‘super-good’. Pretty self-explanatory really. Generally, every day was a good day, because I enjoyed school (this ranking system only really applied to school days, where I had a fixed routine), but if I had a meltdown, it would be a ‘bad’ day. Alternatively, if something extraordinary happened, like a school trip or something, then it could be a ‘super-good’ day. 

However, my ranking system had some problems, because a day could only ever be looked at holistically, and whether a day was good or bad or not could often hinge on single events. One small incident had the potential to bring a day down from ‘super-good’ to barely even ‘okay’, and I often struggled with the idea of finishing a day that was badly begun, especially because more often than not, major positive incidents were invariably outweighed by even the most minor of negative ones.

For instance, I might have a meltdown in the morning, and then I would become very upset, because a meltdown in the morning meant that the rest of the day was ruined. Even if the rest of the day was amazing, the day could never be better than ‘okay’ because of that meltdown in the morning. So, what was the point in carrying on with the rest of the day if there wasn’t that chance to make it at least ‘good’?

I don’t know why I was so determined that every day had to be ‘good’. I suppose it came down to some inner need for perfection within my eight-year-old psyche (and which is no doubt definitely still within my present-day sixteen-year-old psyche). 

My mum recalls that as a child, up until I was about nine years old, I was extremely slow at writing anything, because if I made a single spelling mistake, I would cross out the entire page and rewrite it, because I was convinced it had to be perfect. I was always trying to be perfect, always striving.

Why? Even now I’m not sure what implanted that unquestionable drive in me. Perhaps I kept trying to be perfect because I really thought I could be? When you’re young, there’s a lot of talk about ‘potential’, as anyone who has ever been labelled a ‘gifted’ kid will know. ‘Gifted kid burnout’ is starting to become a more popular talking point, and while I haven’t experienced such extreme ‘burnout’ as such, at least not yet, what I do know is that from a very young age my identity was predicated on being the smart one. The well-behaved one. The one who always got the best marks – better than anybody else in the class. That was just who I was. After all, if I wasn’t the best, then what was the point? Who was I, if I wasn’t the best out of everybody I knew? I think, as much as I’ve matured over the years, some of that attitude is still inside me.

I should note that my parents never put any kind of expectations on me — in fact quite the contrary, I was often told to take things easier — and on an individual basis my teachers worked with me on developing my self-confidence. I have never felt like external pressure to work hard in school, it is just something I have always done of my own volition.

However, despite the efforts of individual teachers, I think our current school system certainly encourages such attitudes, because it rewards those who are constantly striving as ‘high-achievers’. I lived for the praise that my academic achievements garnered. I was proud every time I got a ‘well-done’ sticker, or a compliment written in green pen on my essay. Every time in class when we would get our test results back and all of my peers would turn to me and ask me what I had gotten, when I would modestly get to answer that I got full marks, and they would all sigh and go ‘of course she did’ – that was what I defined myself by. And thus, that was the standard I set for myself. I couldn’t just settle for getting good grades, I had to get the best grades. Not just my best, the best – because for the longest time, my best was the best. So perfection became the only acceptable standard, even if no one was pressuring me to achieve it. School does that to you, I think. It doesn’t necessarily start the cycle, but it certainly entrenches it. It’s still entrenched in me.

For a long time, I believe I thought I was immune to making mistakes. It never consciously crossed my mind, but on a subconscious level it seems the probable conclusion. I didn’t feel in any way superior to my peers (or maybe I did –who knows– I was probably an arrogant little madam), yet whenever I made a mistake, it was disastrous and I felt like the world had ended (this in turn came with a lot of anxiety over the thought of making mistakes). 

It took a long time for me to come to terms with the fact that everyone makes mistakes, and that ‘everyone’ includes me. Even for a while after that realisation, I still subscribed to the desire to make things perfect. I think a lot of people do – we all want to have a perfect day, or a perfect week, or a perfect month. That’s why so many of us see the new year as a chance to wipe the slate clean, as it were – a fresh start. When I was younger, I was enthralled with fresh starts. Every chance I got – each new week, each new month – they were all new starts, and the bigger they were –a new week was bigger than a new day; a new month bigger than a week; a new year bigger than a month– the greater the opportunity for achieving The Perfect Week/Month/Year.

Ironically, I disregarded those smaller fresh starts which might have spared me a lot of pessimism. Cutting my day down into a fresh morning, a fresh afternoon, a fresh evening, might have made the bad-morning days feel more salvageable, as I could still have worked towards a good afternoon. Unfortunately, as I saw it, only the big ‘fresh starts’ really mattered. 

This writing piece then, is a response to how I used to view fresh starts and imperfections, compared to how I view them now.

The new year, a fresh new start – already soiled. It’s not even the end of January. My young self would say I’ve dirtied something important. She would lament the loss of a chance at a clean streak; the loss of the Perfection that she strives towards without quite knowing why. I’ve ruined it, she would say, and it’s not even the end of January.

Because now (as she would see it) Perfection’s white, gleaming surface is blemished. And no matter what she does, where she goes from here, the fresh snow of this year will always be stained with that one day full of ugly tears. The memory of that one bad day will leave a mark that would render the rest of the year, no matter how perfect, invisible to her eye. The year can only ever be close to perfect, and such proximity is worth nothing to her. So what’s the point in continuing? she would say.

But I am not my younger self. 

I keep walking into the year because to me, this year, life in general, is no longer a marble slab to keep pristine and unmarked. I do not grieve the chips or cracks, those tiny inevitabilities, that appear on its surface.

I’ve learned to settle with imperfection, make my peace with imperfection, rejoice in imperfection, because that means I’m living.

I don’t know why it took me so long to realise. I don’t even know when I realised it. The revelation, if something so small and quiet and inconspicuous can be called that, must have happened overnight. But somehow, without realising, I learnt to forgive myself. 

Now, as I sit here, the memory resurfaces, its face ugly and disquieting. Embarrassment rises like a torrent, and I feel it for a moment how my younger self would — as though it’s something to sink into, to duck my head under and drown in. 

But I don’t. Instead, I pat the memory on its ugly head, and the tides of guilt and humiliation subside.  

When visitors come to my house, come into my bright, friendly kitchen, they won’t notice the scratches on the worktops. And I’m sure in time, I’ll forget they’re there too.

Optimism in recognising my own growing maturity is one of the recurring themes in my more self-reflective writing. Looking back to my past, I can recognise so many instances where I felt overwhelmed and upset were simply times where I was grappling with concepts I simply didn’t have the maturity to overcome. Now that I have some of that necessary maturity, I feel so much more confident in myself. And I look forward to the future, which, as I see it, while it may bring challenges, it will inevitably bring the maturity required to handle those challenges with it.  As such, I’m optimistic.

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