My Other Self: Shame, Perfectionism, and ADHD

“I’m afraid of disappointing the people in my life.”

A minute or two after I said these words, I realized they weren’t true. I was trying to explain to a friend the sense of free-floating anxiety and general frustration I’d been feeling the past month. With a few glorious exceptions including my sister’s wedding, a memorable 4th of July in the city, and a weekend getaway upstate, I’d felt myself starting to stagnate. It was an odd feeling because even though moving to NYC  has had its challenges, I’ve mostly been happy (even elated) since I arrived in early March. 

Was the thrill of the city wearing off? Was it the oppressive summer heat? Was it feeling like I still wasn’t happy with my career or finances? Was it ADHD? Anxiety?

Whatever the reason, I had begun retreating –from the city, friends and my ambitions– and was paralyzed by an overwhelming fear of failure, a fear I struggled to fully understand and articulate. Part of what I told my friend was true: I was and am definitely afraid of disappointing someone. But not the people in my life. I have a loving family, supportive friends and a handful of other folks whom I know are major Natalie fans. Short of my committing some obvious moral wrong or major crime, I can imagine few things would erase their pride in and love for me. And the people in my life who I don’t care about? Challenging coworkers, strangers, Trump voters? Why should I be afraid of disappointing them?

The next, easy answer is that I’m afraid to disappoint myself. But that, while closer to the truth, doesn’t feel right, either. First of all, it reeks of millennial privilege and self-help psychobabble. Am I living up to my potential? Am I self-actualized? Will that charcoal mask ever work on my acne? Am I manifesting my dreams right now? Also, my logical side takes issue with the idea. I am myself. I am the one who makes all my decisions. So how can I disappoint myself? Sure, there are external and environmental factors at play. A genetic predisposition to anxiety and depression. My ADHD. Not being a millionaire. The patriarchy.

On the other hand, I chose an expensive city. I chose a career in nonprofits, legendary for underpaying and overworking their employees. I chose to move away from most of my support network and strike out on my own. Now, though, I’m realizing that it’s not all seeing Broadway shows and taking amazing Instagram photos. A little disappointment and anxiety seem natural. So why the fear? Why the disappointment? Why the self-loathing? Why is it so hard for me to celebrate my accomplishments, to be proud of the fact that I started a new life in a new city despite having a brain that makes certain things extraordinarily difficult? Who or what is this shadow hanging over me?

Is the shadow shame? I think there’s a strong case there. Adults with ADHD often struggle with shame, especially those diagnosed later in life and especially women. Society  constantly enforces shame in women. Even the strongest feminists with the most radically empowering mothers and the most supportive dads are ashamed of some aspect: body, skin, emotions, home, career or lack thereof, and so on. But that’s another essay.

Back to shame. ADHD compounds shame. Why? ADHD affects executive functioning. What is executive functioning, you ask? According to LDOnline, “The executive functions are a set of processes that all have to do with managing oneself and one’s resources in order to achieve a goal. It is an umbrella term for the neurologically-based skills involving mental control and self-regulation.”

Executive functioning is literally the ability to do things. From cleaning the bathroom to cooking dinner to running a business to running a marathon, can you think of anything in life that’s not about managing yourself and your resources to achieve a goal? Who wouldn’t feel ashamed of struggling with, essentially, being a person? It’s shame that makes my face flush when someone finds out that I’ve never made scrambled eggs. It’s shame that makes my heart race when I’m struggling to prioritize tasks at work and find myself tearing up while trying to explain to a coworker why I haven’t been able to complete a simple request. Shame sent me into a panic recently after I lost my glasses, making me feel like my world had shattered even though replacing them turned out to be a simple and surprisingly inexpensive process.

Image credit: Dani Donovan

After I was diagnosed with ADHD, the shame I felt about gaps in my executive functioning abilities lessened for a time. I understood that the 14-year-old girl whose math teacher called her stupid because of poor handwriting wasn’t actually stupid. I knew the 16-year old who failed driver’s ed wasn’t a road menace, and the 22-year-old woman who struggled with impulsive spending and got into serious credit card debt wasn’t just irresponsible. I knew the 29-year-old with a master’s degree who found herself living with her parents and bagging groceries at Whole Foods wasn’t a failure. Hell, I was proud of her for getting her Master’s degree and paying off that debt and getting back up time and time again when life knocked her down. And yet…the nagging voices telling me I’m not good enough, not hardworking enough, not responsible enough, not likable enough, not talented enough, not motivated enough, not anything enough hadn’t gone away. They’d just temporarily quieted while I tried to figure out who I am post-diagnosis.

Image credit: Dani Donovan

My mom, a brilliant playwright, came up with three characters, a Greek Chorus representing all of our judgmental, self-destructive inner voices, the ones who cry “shame” in our ears when we’re trying to fall asleep at night. The trio followed the main character around, criticizing her marriage, parenting, age, ambitions, and they were relentless. My mom called them the Gaze of Others (did I mention she’s brilliant?). But for me (and, I suspect, for her as well), the Gaze of Others is nowhere near as difficult to cope with as the Gaze of Self. Or, to be more precise, the Gaze of a specific version of myself.

For lack of a better name, I’ll call her Other Natalie. She’s the bolder, snarkier, sexier, cooler, “better” version of me. A version not so different from my day-to-day self, except that she’s, well, more impressive.

Other Natalie applies for jobs without wondering if she’s qualified and then negotiates the hell out of her salary and benefits. Other Natalie decides she wants something and then does whatever it takes to get it. Other Natalie has a ton of cool friends. She goes to midnight roller discos, kayaks on the East River, and attends secret rooftop parties. She has savings. She dresses well. She cooks. She’s never once thought of herself as a waste of space or other people’s affections. She probably owns a vacuum, has a 401K, and knows how to walk in high heels. She has a cool job as a marine biologist or a movie director. She’s never started a sentence with, “Sorry to bother you.”

Just thinking about how cool Other Natalie is makes me furious. Because…what’s stopping me from being her? Why am I so scared to offend, take up space,  be angry, fail, to ask for things, want things; to really try? Sure, shame makes it harder. Perfectionism makes it harder. Anxiety makes it harder. ADHD certainly makes it harder.

But the truth is, even if I suddenly became Other Natalie, I know I would still struggle with feeling inadequate. It’s not in our nature to be constantly happy and at peace with ourselves. Life is long, and our choices come with real risks and actions do have consequences. Unless we are truly physically and financially secure (basically unless we’re a white, straight, cisgender man with a six-figure salary), we can’t always do whatever it takes to get what we want. So we take baby steps. Sometimes we feel like life’s a game and we’re winning. And sometimes we feel like our lives are one paycheck, one wrong word or one second away from completely falling apart.

I’m confident even the people we most admire and envy have days where they wake up terrified and feeling like shit about themselves. I bet there are days when Oprah wakes up and thinks, “I really don’t want to be Oprah today.” I’m certain she has an Other Oprah who is more successful and would never have made those silly “I LOVE bread” Weight Watchers commercials. Money can’t protect you from self-doubt. Neither can power. Nor can love. And would we really want that? What if our other self’s real purpose is to motivate us and keep us from becoming complacent or, worse, giving up altogether? 

So what do we do? How do we inch a little closer to our goals without beating ourselves up when we fall short? How do we learn to better accept ourselves? What is it we need? Is it assertiveness coaching? Mindfulness? Exercise? Therapy? Journaling? Unfortunately, if I had any answers I wouldn’t be writing this in the first place. I can only try to notice and practice the things that help keep the Gaze at bay. Talking to my mom. Talking to my dad. Talking to my sisters. Talking to my best friends. Reading. Taking small action steps that serve my larger goals. Making myself get out of the house and walk the city. Taking my meds. Going to bed before two a.m. Writing this blog.

In fact, the closest I ever feel to being Other Natalie is when I’m writing. In writing, I am funny and snarky and sexy and bold. I can express my rage, elation, ambition, despair. I can say things I would never say out loud and still be comfortable publishing them for all to read. When I write, I feel poised and articulate, confident and wise. I feel like the person writing these essays is someone I’d like to know better; to be friends with.

I can’t access her all the time, this Anti-Gaze of mine, my higher self. But I know she’s there underneath the words, waiting for me.

Published by adventuresofaschmidiot

Writer, media scholar, feminist. I was recently diagnosed with adult ADHD and hope to document my "journey of becoming" as I approach 30.

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