Still Climbing the Giants
On self-appraisal, standards, and what makes something “great” enough
As I’ve written about before, I often struggle with absolutist thinking when it comes to valuing something. It’s especially prevalent when it comes to myself; I tend to be a lot more charitable with other people.
To repeat briefly: One of the side-effects of growing up as a “gifted” kid was the underlying expectation that I would do something “great.” But of course there was no real discussion of what that actually means. I’ve discussed previously the fact that I was never taught how to figure out what it is I want to do. There’s more going on than just that, however; I also wouldn’t know how to recognize something “great” enough were it to walk up and introduce itself.
In school it’s easy — what grade did I get, and is that fair? Once on the outside, on the other hand, things get far more nebulous. The closest analog is performance evaluations at work, but (1) at my job these are systematized and regulated to be sure they don’t contain any actual evaluation, and (2) are poor proxies for achievement given how easy my job actually is. This shows a lot about my neurosis, though, I think.
One of the things that I do feel like I’m good at is combining different ideas into a whole. Where I get tripped up is not feeling like this involves any real originality on my part. Yes, I know people talk about “standing on the shoulders of giants” all the time, but that still implies building on what has come before, not just regurgitating it. What I do seems to me to be much more the latter (with the possible exception of when I’m writing about myself).
At the same time, I have to recognize that my goals and standards for myself right now are unattainable. Not because they’re too high, rather because they’re too indefinite. Thus the most important question for the moment is how to form more realistic goals and aspirations. Just blowing it off by saying I shouldn’t care isn’t good enough — I need something to be working towards, some way of measuring progress, some way of feeling like I’m improving as a person. Satisfaction is related but also part of the equation, and it’s not something I feel a lot of in my day-to-day life.
I still remember what it was like when I first got on stimulants for ADHD. It felt life-changing; suddenly the inside of my head was calm and quiet for the first time in my life (and this happened in my 30s). All of a sudden I could focus on one thing at a time without an ongoing battle, and I could think about something for more than a few seconds. It was like a weight that had been with me my entire life was suddenly gone, and for the first time, everything that I hated most about how my brain works was no longer there.
Unfortunately, this was in some respects a false sense of progress. It’s great while the meds are in my system, but stimulants don’t work like an antidepressant — they get metabolized out much faster. As a result, it’s only a few hours of relief per dose, and then it’s back to how my brain used to work. But when I first started taking them, the relief was so strong I didn’t care. Suddenly I had hope for the first time that I could remember; hope that I could maybe learn to be different.
Of course, ADHD isn’t a learned thing, it’s chemical. Part of my brain has some kind of structural issue, and so it doesn’t function the way it’s supposed to. Specifically, it’s the gatekeeper, the scheduler; that’s why stimulants actually help us calm down: they wake up the part of our brain that serves as a traffic cop for everything else. But I was so enthralled by the relief that I wasn’t thinking in those terms. Suddenly I could function in a way I’d never been able to before, and I didn’t feel like an underachiever anymore.
It took awhile for reality to set in. Once it did, my already iffy mood took a further dive, to the point where I gave up on stimulants. I simply couldn’t take the loss of those feelings of competence and control. It was like the “my mind is going” scene from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Just like HAL, I could feel it.
The result is a long, slow process of accepting my own limitations. Yet doing so puts me in conflict with my expectations for myself, which remain high. How do I reconcile wanting to do Significant Things (even if I don’t know what those actually are) with not having a brain that’s fully functional in a lot of ways?
Right now, the best I can do is take care of myself. I’m leaning into what I perceive one of my skills to be, namely synthesizing ideas and information from others. One of the things that ADHD apparently does is make one better at “out of the box” thinking, since for us, there really is no “box” in which to sequester a given piece of information. It’s all connected, in other words. I don’t know if that’ll lead anywhere satisfactory for me, of course, but I can’t pretend that I’m good at things that I’m not.
I remember reading a post on /r/ADHD where someone talked about how we should be proud of ourselves for doing basic productive tasks. I get where they were coming from, but that always feels like such a let-down. For someone with such high expectations for himself, this feels like settling for less in a way that’s really uncomfortable. At the same time, there’s something to be said for recognizing that the simple things are simply more work for me, and that’s just reality whether I want to believe it or not. My therapist noted a few weeks ago that I used the word “accept” in this context, in that I was starting to do that, which was not a word she’d heard me use before. So I guess that’s progress.