My Story: Perfection and Pain – Connected!

My Story: Perfection and Pain – Connected!

By Jessica Martin

“Perfectionism is self-abuse of the highest order.” – Anne Wilson Schaef

There is a high correlation between chronic pain and perfectionism.  Most people you meet with chronic pain have some form of perfectionism, myself included.  I chose the picture above for this specific post because I am not a fan of how I look in this picture.  I have spinach in my tooth, sun burned, with a face I don’t recognize: selfies, as much as my toddler loves them do not always bring out the best in you.  However, who cares?  This was a great day and although I may not look my best I am genuinely happy and my daughter is not faking a smile (never does!).  This was a great day.  I do not know which came first: the person with chronic pain or the perfectionist; however, I am not sure the whole which came first: the chicken or the egg concept really matters, ever.

I received an amazing email that helped me as much as I help all of you who read my blog.  A young girl who ironically shares such a similar story as my own it is remarkable. She found me and I am so happy she did.  She is an eighteen-year-old girl who was discharged from the Pain Rehab Center at the Mayo Clinic in MN nine months ago.  She is doing well but the process of acceptance and incorporating the tools needed to manage pain naturally are extremely difficult, especially the first year or so once one is on their own away from those who understand what he or she is going through.  She was having a difficult night with pain and over thinking her life when she stumbled across my website through a google search.  I would love to share an excerpt of her first email with me:  “anyway, tonight I was crying and decided to type into google: ‘teen chronic illness’ and I clicked on your blog.  I just felt compelled to read it and here I am now thanking you for your blog posts.  They helped me to calm down and hopefully get some sleep.  When I read that you had been to the Mayo Clinic, I knew that tonight was not merely a coincidence and God knew I needed to read your blog.  I am not fearful anymore and know that I will get to my optimal level of happiness. I just want you to know that you are impacting people’s lives for the better.  Tonight you helped a crying teenage girl who was stressing over college and chronic pain and reminded me that I needed to keep going.  It is possible to live and be happy with a chronic illness and chronic pain.  I just needed that reminder again.  Thank you!!!”  As amazing as it is for me to get positive reinforcement from my readers, she also reminded me in her following email something I forgot: the concept of perfectionism and chronic pain.

You lose such a sense of control when you have an invisible illness no one understands: not your family, your friends, your doctor’s and worse yourself.  Your life is pain and the losses you face are astronomical.  Heartbreakingly so.  When I was in my first year of college I was either trying to get straight A’s by studying/writing as well as I could or in doctor’s offices finding a cure for pain.  I was always able to get great grades if I worked hard and studied and it seemed this was the only way to make the people I cared about proud, including myself.  I had to get straight A’s or at least make honor roll.  I had nothing left to be proud of.  I had always loved school and learning, especially learning about helping others (social work) and reading/writing.  In my reader’s second email she brought up perfectionism and how she was so used to getting straight A’s.

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Some parents may not be thrilled with what I am about to write but grades do not define a child’s success.  Of course we all want our children to do their best but what is more important straight A’s or health/happiness.  I am living proof: I was getting amazing grades my first year of college but ended up dropping out by my second year to run away to Colorado to try and destroy my life before chronic pain could destroy it more.  After the Mayo Clinic, I took a year off to practice all the concepts I had learned during my three months in the Pain Rehab Center.  I then found a new major that I loved: social work.  I no longer was receiving grades I was proud of for that sense of control but because I was happy and proud of myself.  I also loved what I was learning and had a lot more time on my hands because I was no longer searching for a cure to chronic pain.

I still feel the need to control things and that is a work in progress for me.  Cognitively I know that all my dreams are coming true and everything seems to happen for a reason however when one wants something to the point of not going an hour without thinking about it, one begins to really wish their dream would just come true NOW.  I have control over chronic pain and chronic pain no longer controls myself or my life.  Now it is time to lose my sense of control of the things that are out of my hands.  I know I am doing the best I can and that everything is going to work out and my dreams (the remainder of them) will come true, I just need to learn from my readers and practice what I preach.  It turns out I am not really great at waiting but I will always be a work in progress: we all are.

Editor’s Note Jessica Martin is a 34-year old stay at home with a three-year old daughter and lives in New Jersey. She was severely injured in a bicycle accident 20 years ago when she was only 14 and has battled chronic pain since. She blogs on chronic pain and you can read more of her work at noonegetsflowersforchronicpain.com. She is a contributor to the National Pain Report.

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Authored by: Jessica Martin

There are 3 comments for this article
  1. Jessica Martin at 1:40 pm

    Jean, thank you so much! I love what you wrote. Our society is for the most part miserable even without chronic pain bc nothing is ever enough. If we all focused on being instead of doing we would all be happier and have more peace and health

  2. Jean Price at 9:40 am

    Jessica…there is no doubt you’ve found some great keys to unlock both the chains of chronic pain and the equally strong chains of what people seem to fear most in life…not having enough! Enough time, enough energy, enough strength, enough help, enough comfort, enough love, enough purpose, enough ambition, enough discipline, enough resources, enough of life! We are certainly people of scarcity and chronic pain can amplify this. Notice I didn’t say cause it, because it isn’t the cause…people who have never experienced chronic pain also live with the specter of scarcity hanging over them. It’s part of the human experience and the desire to have what I want when I want it! Pain changes our perspective on life, and threads it’s way insidiously throughout our days and nights and years and decades. It is seen as a burden, as a failure of our body, as a cross to bear, as a foe to fight. Yet this attitude in itself is actually self defeating, because it reinforces the idea that with pain, I am not enough! I am broken, and can’t be fixed. Our culture has always linked “doing” with worthiness and success.. Just “being” doesn’t seem like enough! (That word again!) Yet we are called human beings…not human doings…so why aren’t we fulfilled with just being? Why aren’t we content to let go of uncontrollable goals and be the best we can be within the reality of our situations? Allowing the pain seems somehow wrong, yet in truth this can be a major step in reclaiming ourselves, reclaiming the person we still are, and loving ourselves for who we are…not for what we can do or what we can achieve. Boundaries set the stage for creativity. A canvas has edges, a cake has a pan, a container has sides and a top and bottom, music has a range of notes, bodies have physical limits, and so on. The goal isn’t to do away with the boundaries…the goal is to allow the boundaries to help us create, to use those boundaries as a guidance system. Pain has a way of creating boundaries…these boundaries can actually help guide us through to a life rich with meaning and purpose and quality and satisfaction…when we allow the boundaries to guide us we concentrate our resources and energy and we can find ourselves in the process. This is always going to be a work in progress..because the goal isn’t to be done! The goal is to just to BE and to keep being! In his book about his life after a paralyzingly accident, Christopher Reeve chose to risk the surgery that would possibly allow him to survive. He made this decision based on one idea and even titled his book “I’m still me.” We can all learn something important from this…even with pain, I’m still me! And I’m the best me this world will ever have. And that’s enough! My pain may be invisible but I am not! Some days will be harder than others…yet can’t all people say this of life. Somedays my pain may take center stage, then I can choose to allow it and let it be a boundary…not an enemy. And a sign to regroup and focus on just being. I see this through the your article and your blog…and it is a light for the paths of others who have pain. Nice job, Jessica!

  3. Elizabeth at 7:10 am

    Hi, Jessica, reading your post this morning made me feel so much better. I, too, have chronic pain.