Tuesday, February 7, 2017

The Social Justice Perfectionist

It's a tough time to be an INFJ.

That's a "Meyers Briggs" personality type, and it's "pop psychology," which can only be trusted so much. But in my case, it's pretty damn accurate. You can read more about it here, but basically, the nickname for this personality type is "The Advocate." INFJ's are deeply sensitive people who feel a strong moral obligation to create fairness for all.

And at this point in American history, "fairness for all" is feeling pretty threatened.

I don't know how to talk about this without sounding like an insufferable, self-righteous jerk. So you'll just have to like, trust that I'm not sharing these things to somehow prove how good of a human I am. I have to talk about it because it's the premise to this entire blog entry.

Because here's what's going on. I'm EXHAUSTED. I'm tired of explaining systemic racism to friends on Facebook. I'm tired of defending my place in the Women's March. I'm tired of making phone calls to senators whose voicemail boxes are always full. I'm tired of checking Twitter/Facebook/any news website, and finding something else that terrifies me and breaks my heart and demands some call to action. I am mentally and emotionally overwhelmed. I need a break.

And I feel like I can't take one. I feel like the whole fragile world is collapsing, and I've got to do my part to keep it upright. I know I'm not single-handedly holding it up. I am CERTAIN that I'm not that important. But I feel like if I let go, if I walk away, even for a moment, it forces everyone else to work harder to keep it all up. I'm making other people do my work. And it just feels so selfish.

Here's what's always in the back of my mind:

How can I walk away when people are fighting for their lives?! I have a moral obligation, as a human being, to fight for the equality of all human beings. I want history to show that I did that.

Now let's talk about the fact that I deal with anxiety and depression. My anxiety manifests itself most often in perfectionism. That perfectionism is a double-edged sword...I feel like a lot of the success I've had in my life has come from my relentless desire to do things really well. My perfectionism is what drives me to make to-do lists, and organize office drawers, and rehearse with intensity. A desire to do things well can be healthy and productive. But there's also a dark side to that perfectionism...at it's heart, perfectionism says, "I HAVE TO do this, because if I don't, no one will love me."

So here's the mental loop I've had buzzing in my head/heart since Inauguration Day:

"These laws and practices and ideas are dangerous. I need to fight them because I care deeply about the world around me!" 
"This inspires me! Look at all these other people doing awesome things! I'm so glad I can do things like march and make phone calls and stand up for what I believe on the internet." 
"This is getting tiring. I don't know how to explain this to people in a way that will make them understand."
"I am exhausted. I can't do this anymore. It hurts too much to do this in the face of so much adversity and criticism." 
"I'm going to take a break." 
"But how unfair is it that you CAN take a break?! Other people can't! Why should they pick up your slack because you were 'too tired' to post that reply?"
"You're being so crappy right now. The world needs your voice. You need to do your part." 

There's no clear order to these thoughts...I cycle through them all at varying speeds and for varying durations. In general, I swing back and forth between feeling obligated to fight for truth and fairness, and feeling obligated to save my own sanity.

Jacob has a beautiful habit of asking me how I am, in a way that shows that he really wants to know the answer. If I answer, "Fine," he'll usually say, "Are you really?" And I try to truly be honest. I don't want to play mind games. But I've lacked the words lately to explain how overwhelmed I've been.

Because the other thing is that I also need to just...live my life. I need to go to work and file the things and clean the bathroom and do my homework and perform the show and prepare for the auditions and text the friends. And I WANT to do those things. I CARE about those things. And sometimes life is stressful enough trying to balance JUST THOSE THINGS, without the additional weight of trying to fight fascism in the highest offices of one of the most powerful countries on earth. But how stupid and selfish of me to be like, "Hold up, I can't make this phone call to express my concern about a WHITE NATIONALIST holding a position of power in the United States government, because I have to fold my laundry."

I have wondered briefly if theatre is frivolous in these troubled times. But I know it's not. Whether political or personal or comedic, theatre is a tool for such good. Theatre is one of the greatest teachers of empathy I know of, and empathy is what leads to fairness and equality and the world generally being a better place. And if the show is a ridiculous comedy, then it gives people an emotional boost, to just sit and laugh for an hour or two, so that they can then go out and do good in the world. For as long as I live, I will be so grateful that the show I did right before the election was "Cabaret," and the show I did after the election was "The Nerd." Both hold such an important place in fighting injustice.

Cognitively, I recognize the need for self-care. I mean, I just said that it's valuable to just sit and laugh for an hour or two to recharge. I know that in theory, everyone needs to take care of themselves so that they can be a force for good in the world. I won't be much help to a social cause from a padded cell. But I'm a perfectionist, remember? I need to be better than everyone else. I shouldn't need breaks. I shouldn't need re-charge time. I should just be able to do it--to marathon this sucker until it's finished. I have a MORAL OBLIGATION to marathon my way through this. Other people have to because they have more skin in this game, and I'm a hypocrite if I SAY I fight for these causes, and then watch Netflix for hours and hours.

Writing this out has been helpful. But I think I need to make a solid plan of action. I need to figure out what I can change and what I can't, and come up with practical strategies. I need concrete things I can do and say that will help me find balance. Advice like, "Remember to take care of your mental health" is too vague. I don't know that this blog is the time and place to make that solid plan of action in detail, but because it's helpful to write it out, here are a few ideas. I may not use all of them...I'm just sort of brainstorming here. Feel free to use these in your own life if you need to, and I'd welcome any strategies you all have to stay sane.


1) Limit time on social media. This is a source of a lot of anxiety for me right now. I do want to remain informed, so I don't want to cut myself off. But limiting my time there may be a helpful way for me to get the info I need without overwhelming me. Maybe I could limit to a certain number of hours per day/week, or have days when I don't go on social media, or have social media "black out" hours.

2) Schedule time in for social causes. Sometimes the desperate need to contribute to the social good sort of looms over me. I can schedule in time during my week/month/day to specifically concentrate on researching issues, donating to causes, attending meetings/marches/protests, making phone calls, etc. Doing this will allow me to contribute in meaningful ways without overwhelming me. It allows me to cross off "stand up for what's right" on my empath and perfectionist checklist, but it also allows me time to heal and recuperate if needed.

3) If things are bad, use healthy coping mechanisms. Yoga, meditation, cleaning/organizing, exercise, walks. Sometimes, cake and Netflix can be healthy, too, even. All things in moderation.

4) Use positive self-talk. This is a cognitive-behavioral therapy technique (which is real psychology, as opposed to pop psychology). It involves tuning in to what your inner monologue is, and creating positive counter statements. I can write a handful of these statements and post them where I can see them often. I can repeat them to myself when I need to interrupt the negative thought loops my brain gets stuck in. (If you're interested in learning more about this, I highly recommend the books "The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook" and "Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway.")

5) Take time to surround yourself with positive and hopeful things. I was so inspired by the powerful things I saw and heard during the Women's March. I'm bolstered by the efforts of others around me. Reminding myself of the progress that has been made will help me to move forward.

Okay. Keep on walking, Chapman. Deep breaths. Fist raised, heart held soft and grounded.

We can do this.

photo via