An interesting journey: 2013-2015

Perfectionist

A few weeks ago, I was invited to co-author a new edition of a book on perfectionism. I was, at the time, talking with two other friends about doing a leadership book in the Win-Win series sometime this fall, and I was also looking over a collection of notes for a book on recovery issues for people in the helping professions. I had three unfinished podcasts waiting for processing, a couple new “Pads” on the Back templates to lay out, details for upcoming trips to complete, tax stuff to turn in, and promises to several individuals for back-cover blurbs or reviews for their books, the latest request about a book on the value of saying “no.”

I’m not making this up.

So, OK. I know I have a tendency to overcommit, and I also know that at this point in my life it’s not about a need for approval or achievement, or about an inability to say no. I think my problem is simple curiosity—I find it very hard to resist an opportunity to check out something interesting, and frankly, there are a whole lot of things that interest me.

An opportunity to work on a topic that will not only stretch me to the opposite end of the at-risk spectrum with which I usually deal, but will also very likely slam me up against my own history and lingering gaps in my own recovery, was just to yummy to resist.

I rationalized that a version of this book had already been published (for gifted teens), although the intention for the new edition will, in all likelihood, take it from the gifted teen niche to a broader market (including adults) and require a good bit of new information. I swore I would not let this book take over my life this time, as is my tendency, but since sending in the contract three days ago, I’ve worked fairly obsessively on almost nothing else. I haven’t decided whether I’m the best person for this job or the worst, and the fact that I’m even thinking in these terms tells me I’m in pretty big trouble.

I started out by asking newsletter subscribers and Facebook friends (among others) if they had any stories, experiences, ideas, suggestions for topics, or tips for healing and have spent most of the past 48 hours responding, forwarding, printing, and filing what’s come back. This is a great way for me to learn more about what I expect will prove a fascinating topic, and help me get a sense of the dimensions this book will need to address. I’ve already received way more information than I expected, broadened my understanding of this issue, and have read many stories that I can relate to all too well.

So the $64,000 question, folks, is this: Can I do a book on perfectionism and not end up triggering every related tendency, whether over-committing, not being able to stop, obsessing about the topic, working long after I should have stopped (or stopped being coherent), ignoring other commitments and people, or procrastinating, for example—all things that I have worked so hard to resolve and stop doing! The past two days do not bode well for my sanity, but this is the beginning of the project and perhaps once I get a bit of a rhythm down, once we get our outline set, once… oh, who am I kidding?

Update: May 6, 2013

I just got back from a recent visit with my mom. I swear, every time I go there, she has found another box of “things” for me to go through. This time, she sent me home with another remnant of my childhood.

Among the treasures and (mostly) trash was a paper I had done in 7th grade on Agriculture in Europe. I was astonished and frankly a bit horrified to see this monstrosity of a “paper,” more of a book, 75 pages long with outlines, charts, illustrations (hand drawn and cut out), all in hand-written text, with each page mounted on construction paper and tied with a ribbon at the top.

All I could think of was what kind of 12-year-old does stuff like this? How was I not tested for OCD? (Did that even exist back then?) I think I will have to add to the ever-growing list of topics this book is likely to address the fact that our schools and families clearly encourage this kind of commitment.

I did not remember this paper, though it was clearly one I had written. (I even recognized my teacher’s handwriting in his comment on the front.) And I doubt that it ever occurred to me that a project this extensive was not completely normal and certainly not required.

Nonetheless, I have been taking a hard (and rather uncomfortable) look at the over-committing and over-doing that has (obviously) characterized most of my life and having this evidence among several other projects that likewise support the obviousness of this tendency, there have been some serious consequences. I have to wonder (as I scramble to re-create this 700+ page Web site, research a new book, and get farther and farther behind on pretty much everything else in my life) at what point do I simply stop working like this.

I’ve always justified this pace, this work-load, the demands I place on myself, with the fact that I’m enjoying what I do. I love working on this site and love what I’m learning as I read about various aspects of perfectionism. I suspect I loved working on that paper, but holding it my hand actually scared me a bit.

Stay tuned. I suspect I will have more on this as this project continues to unfold.

Update: September 1, 2013

Pile of unsorted research for perfectionism book, early July, 2013.In July, I met with my co-author at a resort in western Virginia. We worked in this totally comfortable setting—which was perfect for a writing retreat—going over the huge piles of content we’d come across since I first agreed to this project.

I had a lot of catching up to do and had spent much of the previous months researching, reading, interviewing, and investigating the topic. I arrived with a foot-high stack of papers I had printed out, as much as I could bring on the plane, and she arrived with cloth bags filled with books and papers of her own. (The pileup on the left is from the table behind my desk a week or two before I left for this trip.)

Over the course of my study into this topic, I became especially interested in material that pointed away from a “gifted,” “teen,” “body dysmorphic,” or “uniquely American” focus, simply because the more I read and interviewed people from around the world, the more convinced I became that although the majority of the literature explored one of the above categories, that this topic was far more universal (and pervasive) than this emphasis might suggest.

Working in the condo in western Virginia with a much neater pile.I had two primary goals when I met with my co-author: First, to solidify an agreement on both an outline, some linear thread we could follow as we started writing, and a voice or tone for the book. I normally start with an outline and then code and file the research and interviews accordingly, so this process was a challenging departure for me.

Since I had no real sense of the depth or breadth of this topic when I started, I was working backwards: Piling up research and a huge, messy list of related topics that eventually shaped itself into an outline. (The photo on the right is at the resort condo, with a slightly better organized pile of research.)

I needed, for my own sanity, to go back over that monstrous pile of paper and code every bit of useable stuff (most of the research I had printed out) and then cut and file each bit, coded with the topic and the number referring to one of the 200 or so resources we had.

It’s a ridiculous part of the process, as this would have made much more sense in a data base, but I tend to work best with the relevant research spread out around me—in print—where I can see everything at once and pull the material I need as I write. And frankly, it was easier to cut and collate already printed resources, than to go back through every bit of electronic data, so this really was the only sensible way to go—tedious and non-geeky as it may sound.

As of this moment, I am stapling and taping the scraps I cut onto larger pieces of paper, which Jerry has agreed to copy and send, folder by folder, to my coauthor as I finish up this part of the process. It is my intention to have this part of the process finished before I leave town again next Saturday.

RED FLAG I MISSED (or more likely, rationalized): A few friends have objected to the amount of work I’ve taken on, but I’m the new kid on the block as far as this topic goes, and having been asked to bring my voice to the party, I need to to be as well-informed as my curiosity would invite and time and reason would allow. The mechanics of organizing this information have fallen to me because it makes no sense to have two people try to do this and, as I said, I need this structure to be able to pull only the material I need when I start writing.

As far as the voice and the actual process of writing, we did manage to pull together 3 paragraphs, mostly to feel out the tone we wanted to establish and both of us seem pretty comfortable with what we have so far. We really couldn’t go much further until the research was organized, which is within a few days of being done.

How the actually writing will happen is still up in the air. The other books I’ve co-authored were very different in terms of the material we included and the process we used. (Two were done locally with individual contributions followed by meetings to smooth out the rough edges and unify the voice.) So we still have a way to go.

In the meantime, the original contract called for the manuscript to be done today. I am very grateful to the publisher, who has given us until the end of the year to get this done. That still means working around travel and some recent family commitments that have come up, but I’m feeling like I’m actually breathing for the first time in a while.

As far as the process and self-discovery journey go, the only thing really new is that I’m noticing the impact of travel and working out of town. With much of the past 5 months spent on the road (and overseas), being gone for more than a week almost every time, and dealing with up to four flights to get where I was going (or get home), I’m noticing a significant lag in recovery time from what I’ve experienced in the past.

I find this disturbing and clearly will have to adjust the pace I’ve accepted for the past few decades. 62 is not 32. Hell, it’s not even 52. I am clearly going to have to take things down a notch or two.

Update: December 30, 2013

It’s been an intensely frustrating past couple of months. I finally got my notes sorted and wrote what I hoped to would be the first three chapters of the book, not realizing that my co-author would not follow through on the agreements we had made over the course of previous conversations and communications. I suspect that she never really wanted to do much more than stick with her original gifted-teen book but by mid-November, it was clear that our intentions to collaborate were simply not going to happen.

A little note about writing with another person: It is an act of intimacy and trust almost like a marriage. And of the three previous books I’ve written with other people, I have experienced generally strong degrees of cohesion, flexibility, and effective, productive collaboration. I’m not sure what happened here, but this just wasn’t working.

For the first time in my 30-some years as an author, I wrote to the publisher asking to be released from the contract. This was an incredibly stressful and infuriating experience for me, in part because it took what I believe was way too much time before it was clear that I needed to get out.

Update: I later discovered in a meeting with the person who had wanted to publish this book that there was an awareness of “certain problems” with this author and that he had hoped that I would “be able to pull the project together.” None of this information had been revealed or even hinted at until after I had walked away from the project.

I was stunned by the lack of ethicality, professionalism, and simple courtesy in withholding this information, not to mention the impact of this betrayal on my mental health. I just could not make this work—and that burden should never have been put on me.

I’ve deleted some of the details (and names) I had shared in an earlier version of this post, but suffice it to say that by Thanksgiving, I was close to a breakdown, furious at myself and everyone else involved, and absolutely done with what had become an increasingly insane situation. It has taken more than a month to get even a shred of this frustration, anxiety, and anger out of my nervous system, and I’ve absolutely needed to walk away from any writing for a while.

That said, I do not believe that this journey is over, although the original partnership and intentions definitely are. I am back in touch with a former editor who is back after a long break to raise her family and working with a publisher who knows my work (and already has five of my books). At some point, perhaps before this year is out, I will send the outline and my intentions to her. I’ve learned a great deal and still believe that this is a critically important topic to explore. So a project on this topic is still a strong possibility.

Although I’ve spent much of the past couple months questioning the guidance that led me to say YES so loudly when I was first invited to explore this topic, I suspect I have yet to see the final outcome to which I may still be led.

In the meantime, I’m still discovering things about myself and while I haven‘t always liked what I’ve seen, I am grateful for the opportunity to finally recognize toxicity and crazy-making when it’s in my face, and life. And while I still have a hard time accepting how long it took me to recognize an untenable situation for what it was, I am very happy that I was able to disengage before I did a lot more damage—to myself or anyone else.

Update: Recap of 2014

By the beginning of the new year, I had spent nine months intensely researching and organizing data on this topic. While I needed to break with the people initially involved, the topic had hooked me, and when HCI offered me a contract, I couldn’t pass it up. This was the publisher I had originally pitched as being a great match for the topic and market, because the more I learned, the more I realized that the topic was so much bigger than the niche for which the initial venture was planned.

RED FLAG #2 I missed: I pitched HCI to the person with whom I was originally going to write. I knew they’d reach a much bigger market, but she dug in her heels, insisting we write for a small publisher of materials for gifted individuals, especially teens. Although she expressed interest in a larger target audience, she had already connected with this publisher and insisted it would work out. 

In April, I signed the contract with HCI which, by the way is several times more generous and respectful than the hideous contract—which I had talked myself into signing—from the publisher in my first go-round with this project.

I headed off for an incredible week in Havana to clear my head before making a fresh start, and once home, I dug back into my notes, tossed nearly all of what I had written, and started with a fresh voice and a new attitude. Other than a road trip to the east coast for my niece’s wedding and a few jobs here and there, nearly all of 2014 was spent glued to this laptop, reading, researching, and writing. By the end of the year, I had finished the first seven chapters—parts I and II.

papers-smallUpdate: May 11, 2015

I still had a ton of topics to address and stacks of notes printed out for Part III and IV. The image on the left is what my writing area looked like for months of my life. I had an idea that I still had two more parts left to write, but other than part III being about the negative impact of perfectionism and part IV being about how to heal and get real, the specific topics for those chapters were really pretty vague.

Coaxing an outline out of a foot-high pile of papers took most of the next four months. In January, I was invited to participate in a publisher’s retreat in southern California, so we decided to make a little road trip out of it. Jerry and I packed up the car, including my laptop, two tote bags filled with my notes, and a bunch of markers and pens.

Of course, I got no writing done at the conference, and little on driving days. So Jerry suggested that we find a place where we could stay for a week or so after the conference, someplace where I could make a some progress.

At breakfast, I just happened to sit next to someone I had never met or spoken to before and mentioned what we were thinking about and this total stranger (whose name I don’t even remember and doubt I’ll ever see again) told us about Vacation Rentals By Owner, which I’d never heard of before. I ran back up to the room, got online and charged Jerry with finding a place where we could live and work for what turned out to be the next 10 very productive days.

It was wonderful! He found this little cottage in Laguna Canyon about a mile from the beach, secluded and quiet. It had a kitchen and living room and a separate bedroom, plus bath, patio, washer and dryer, and owners in the attached house in case we needed anything. Just perfect.

I got through chapters 8, 9, and 10, as well as most of chapter 11 before we left, and finished 11 and much of chapter 12 at a place we stayed at in Carlsbad, CA before turning east to head home. We spent a couple days in Tucson (where I finished chapter 12), and then back home after close to a month on the road.

The break gave me the momentum I needed and by the time I got home, I was only a chapter away from starting part IV and what ended up being the last five chapters of the book. I pushed myself much harder than is good for me, doing pretty much everything I was saying not to do in this book.

I’d roll out of bed and into the chair in that picture above. (My work space was only about 4 feet from the foot of our bed, which is really less than ideal for sleeping, but it really is the most comfortable place in the house to write, so that was my life for the next several weeks.)

Perfection Deception Cover-x-smlWhat also helped was getting a copy of the cover while we were still on the road. There were several to choose from, but this one really spoke to everyone at HCI and looked damned good to me. The woman on the cover is perfect—vulnerable and a little freaked out—very much the person about whom I’d been writing.

The only thing that bothered me: I’d gone out of my way to include examples about men in this book and wanted to be sure that we didn’t alienate a big part of my intended audience. Unfortunately, Marketing tells me that men don’t buy books like these, so I just shut up and let them do their thing. (I am also sure that the men I know who will want this book will not be put off by the image of a woman on the cover.)

In the meantime, once I got home, I cut out appointments, get-togethers with friends, massages, Zumba, even phone calls. If it hadn’t been for Jerry making me healthy, delicious breakfasts and (most) dinners, I’d probably have eaten little beside pretzels, pistachios, Oreos, and iced tea for the last three months. And I wrote. And wrote. And wrote.

There were days I felt like every word was agonizingly wrung out of me from someplace deep and dark and just hard. And even then it wasn’t always good when I looked at it the next day, although even the crappy stuff ended up inspiring something that really was worthwhile, and closer to what I wanted to say.

I know that I could have asked for an extension, giving myself a lot more time to stretch this out. But after more than two years of working on nearly nothing but this book, I just needed to be done with it.

I enjoyed the writing and would have enjoyed it much more without interruptions about tax crap (US and Canadian), trying to help my mom through a bout of pneumonia from 2000 miles away, and three gall bladder attacks between mid-January and mid-April. There were days I’d be in tears just wanting to write but feeling like I was being “nibbled to death by ducks” instead.

Researching topics like attachment disorders, existential depression, body dysmorphia, and the impact of perfectionism on relationships and mental and physical health felt like swimming in shit some days. I love writing and was frustrated by how hard this book was to write—and not because I was feeling especially perfectionistic about what I was putting down (seriously, that’s what editors are for).

But I did need for the content to be coherent and accurate and readable, and that it flowed in a logical progression. Plus, this topic was so much bigger and leaches into so many aspects of how we live, interact, and think about ourselves, much more comprehensive than I ever, ever could have realized.

It brought up a lot of stuff for me, and took a very, very long time (and some ritual shredding and burning) to get some of 2013 out of my nervous system. I learned a lot about myself, including just how much I’m willing to lose or let go. My patience with crazy-making is pretty much gone, and things like my sanity, talent, and goodwill are absolutely not up for grabs. This is non-negotiable, and if I had any doubts before this experience, I have purged them all.

I submitted the manuscript on April 14th, my 64th birthday. The book is currently in production and on schedule for an August release.

Update: August 18, 2016

TPD signed orders 0816-sm

This popped up on my Facebook feed as a memory from a year ago today. I had just gotten my stock of books from the first printing of The Perfection Deception and was signing books to fill the pre-orders that had come in in previous weeks.

It’s hard to believe that it’s been a year, but I’ve been busy during this time promoting the book through interviews that have taken me into diverse markets including meeting planners, massage therapists, sports radio, entrepreneurs, and high-society sophisticates! This part of the journey has validated what I’ve known since I started this project three and a half years ago, that perfectionism is a non-discriminatory pathology that touches a whole lot of lives in a whole lot of ways!

The Perfection DeceptionWith the help of web designer, Tom Todd, I launched a new website dedicated to the new book! Unlike this site you’re currently on, the new one will be a good bit more static, with handouts and articles, as well as a place to read reviews and see links.

And best of all, I recently introduced a new workshop session on “Perfectionism: What’s it Costing Our Kids?” to a packed room at the American School Counselors Association and to another group at an international convention on Supporting the Emotional Needs of the Gifted.

With the launch of the new website and the new presentation, this journey feels like it’s come full circle. And while the project itself feels complete, I would like to take the content to the next level, getting this book into more hands somehow, and reaching more people by speaking about what I’ve learned about perfectionism, and how it’s affecting our lives.

Because this project pushed me to the edge, forcing me to improve my ability to say “enough” and just walk away, and reinforcing my confidence in my ability to ultimately make decisions that are good for me. I would have liked to have gotten these lessons a lot faster, but it takes what it takes (as they say), and my emotional growth during this period is the true outcome of this journey. The book and workshop are just bonuses.

 

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