The Physical Toll of Perfectionism: Emma Newman Interview

Aside from busting Somedays, my other passion is writing fiction, however living in a non-English speaking country, my local writing circle is non-existant. Thanks to the Internet (and specifically Twitter) I now have a huge circle of other writers and authors that I can turn to for advice, support and idea sharing. Emma Newman is one of my Twitter-found writing contacts and this week she talks about how her body was sending her messages she chose to ignore until recently.

Emma NewmanWho: Emma Newman of Post-Apocalyptic Publishing
Emma is a writer with a dual-life; by day she writes optimised copy for websites and search engine marketing for clients of her new business, by night she writes short stories and post-apocalyptic fiction for young adults.

Name one moment in your life when you threw a pity party for yourself and the reasons why you felt you weren’t able to achieve your goals. Were you feeling stuck? Had you felt you failed? What wasn’t working in your life?
The only party that happened for me over the last festive season was a great big pity party that I had thrown for myself. I had decorated the room perfectly; a carpet of respiratory illness spread out over the deserted dance floor. Fatigue draped decoratively over tables and chairs at which no-one sat. The DJ only played a repeated loop of coughing whilst the food and drinks table was strewn with medication packets and cups filled with honey and lemon.

It was the sixth year in a row that I had suffered from a major bout of illness. And I was feeling pretty damn sorry for myself. Every winter I came down with either pleurisy or a severe respiratory tract infection. The Christmas leading up to the latest New Year misery-fest had been awful; I was coughing up blood on Christmas Eve, only out of bed for a few hours on Christmas day and then laid up until the end of the first week of January. I was put onto steroids to ease the asthma and lost half a stone in two weeks. I was pitiful.

The worse thing about it though is that I knew it was a pattern. You don’t get desperately ill every year without a reason. I thought I was just the kind of person that didn’t know when to stop, got run down and then got ill. But this year it felt different – it felt like there was a message I just wasn’t capable of hearing. Like a faint star that you can only see out of the corner of your eye, but then disappears when looked at directly. Not knowing what that message was made me more miserable. My body was rubbish and I clearly wasn’t clever enough to figure out what was going on. Illness, self-pity, despair and then angry self-loathing piled on top. Brilliant.

Even our lowest moments fulfill a need in us or express our desires. When you threw yourself that pity party, what did you hope to gain? What need did you fulfill?
This is so right, and on some level, I knew this. I began to wonder whether I was getting ill just to have a break – it sounds stupid but illness was the only thing that would make me stop and rest properly. But it wasn’t that simple; it was only part of the picture. It was tangled up in my personality, and also the fact that I learn lessons far too well.

Tell us what you did to break up the pity party. What actions did you decide to take? Did someone help you buoy your spirits? Push you along?
I had been reading Havi’s blog at The Fluent Self for a few weeks prior to that illness. I remembered her gentle approach and examined how I could apply that to my current problem. Then my best friend gave me some kick-ass transatlantic support and the bit of my subconscious containing the box in which the answer was locked began to let itself be shown.

I woke up one morning towards the tail end of the illness, and consciously tried to talk to that bit of myself before I fully woke up and started hating myself for being ill all over again. In that early morning stupor, I took my mind back to the winter when the illness pattern started. The summer before that I went through an incredibly traumatic time, leaving a family business because it simply wasn’t good for me to be there any more. It caused a rift in my family that took years to heal. I had assumed that the wounds from that were echoing on into the future, and that I was just the kind of person that worked hard and found it hard to relax. I believed that those factors combined meant I was destined to a cycle of overwork and illness until an early grave.

But then I went back further. I realised that this pathological overworking wasn’t actually a personality trait of mine at all. I remembered periods of intense dedication to something, but also the ability to have fun and relax alongside it.

Something had become distorted.

Then it hit me: I had learnt a lesson. I’m good at that you see. When I get hurt by someone or something, there is a very tough bit of me that sucks out the essence of the events, analyses the contributing factors and then distils it into a bitter drink that I swallow and take into my body. It can make me brutal in the way I sever connections to things (and sometimes unfortunately people) that have severely distressed me, but it also means I’m less likely repeat those mistakes.

That had happened when I left the business in those awful circumstances; the only problem was that a false calculation had been made. Somewhere a zero got carried that shouldn’t have been and the sum of that awful time was this: it had all been my fault, it nearly killed me and I should never let that happen to me again.

Then there was the solution: Work so damn hard that you never, ever screw up like that again.

And how did that manifest? I worked insane hours. My perfectionist streak turned into a river delta. I took personal, deep responsibility for everything I was involved in. For several years after that trauma I taught psychology to teenagers, and felt absolutely responsible for every detail of my job. I then became a mother and had severe post-natal depression, most probably compounded by this deep-seated miscalculation. Then, to escape the PND, I joined a small business and devoted 120% to it – feeling accountable to the level of being the business owner, when I was only an employee.

No wonder I got sick. The constant vigilance, the constant striving for perfection, the constant fear that I would get something wrong and be back in that hellish misery again had turned my inner voice into a slave driver. My strengths and talents were now chained and under the lash, whipped daily into working harder, resting less and deserving no reward for their efforts.

Can you look back on that moment and tell us how you felt when you did decide to take action? What results came about from your decision to take charge and move on?
When I realised what had happened – and I mean really saw what happened – it was like pulling up a weed in its entirety. I could see not only the leaves, but also the huge network of deep roots that spread out from it. At first I was horrified, but when that passed, I felt only compassion for that part of myself that had been protective.

In never wanting to be hurt like that again, it had simply come up with a plan that was great on paper but lousy in execution.

I shifted perspective. I talked to it, like my hero Havi. I made the sergeant major into a glorious knight, resplendent in Tourney colours who had only been pointing his lance in the wrong direction. I turned him the other way and asked him to defend me from the outside, whilst I dealt with the inside gently. I gave it love for protecting me so diligently, admiration for his strength and compassion for his basic error.

Then I felt euphoric. Instead of all the different parts of me warring with each other inside, it suddenly felt like I was moving in one direction again… how can I explain it? When I was not in tune with myself, simply driving on relentlessly, all my actions were accompanied by a chorus of disapproval, self doubt. But after that epiphany, I realised that I could act differently. It wasn’t that I was trapped in the personality of someone who would kill themselves with over work. It was just that the good bits of me had been driven the wrong way.

Everyone has a Someday problem hiding deep inside, even little ones. What variety of the Someday Syndrome do you currently harbor? What would you like to achieve but haven’t yet?
Oh that’s a tough question. I think I have a ship that will come in when I finally get around to it. ‘It’ is putting myself out there, both in terms of getting published and building my fledging business. I always put so many things in the way of both. Either there are too many other things to do or a part of my submission pack isn’t good enough and I’ll be inspired at some point soon (and never am!) or the ink cartridge has run out and… well, you get the idea.

Examining your Someday Syndrome problem, what are you currently doing to resolve it and eliminate it from your life?
Well, in terms of the getting published I’m entering competitions relating to the pitch element, and recently came in the top 5 of a one line pitch contest. That forced me to finally write the dreaded synopsis, so that is a huge hurdle overcome. And I blog regularly about the struggle to be published and the sheer insanity that is called being a fiction writer. The blogging is so helpful.

As for the business, I’m experimenting with finding the best way to get the things I am scared of done, but haven’t quite found it yet. I have quite a bit of client work already, so I put that first, then the fiction writing and blogging, with the business development stuff falling off the list every day. But I’ll get there, I’m sure!

Many people suffer the same problems you do. You’re not alone, and neither are they. What would you tell people in your situation right now to help them avoid what you’re going through?
I would say that when dealing with things which involve internal struggling, be gentle with yourself. My best friend also gave me good advice: “Treat yourself like you would treat me.” That hit me hard as it makes me aware of my double standards: I’m patient and forgiving with all of her faults and struggles, but never give that to myself.

The other piece of advice I have is to acquire some sort of physical reminder of any mental and emotional epiphany. I find them so hard to hold onto – the old patterns are deeply ingrained and so easy to fall back into. I bought myself a little figurine of a jousting knight (he is very beautiful) to remind me to direct that passion and energy outwards, rather than levelling the lance at myself. He is on my desk, right next to my computer, as a constant reminder.

If you could ask for one thing, right now, to help you overcome your Someday Syndrome, what type of help would you ask for?
A literary agent. No, seriously, for my new business I think I need accountability – I turn work around for clients quickly and to a high standard that I never devote to my own business. I’m doing it all backwards; I still don’t have a business website, which is pretty embarrassing for a web copywriter, and is a major hurdle to growing the business. They say the cobbler is always the worst shod I suppose! So if I could find someone to make my own business into a client in some way, I think that would help. Hey, that’s got me thinking…

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11 thoughts on “The Physical Toll of Perfectionism: Emma Newman Interview

  1. Joely Black says:

    It’s great to finally read your story – and to see your face! Huzah!


    Joely xx

    Joely Black´s last blog post..Monthly check-in: May – the silent edition

  2. Great interview. I really enjoyed reading it. I definitely have some issues with perfectionism so I could relate a lot to this post.

    Positively Present´s last blog post..who’s afraid of the big, bad past?

  3. Alex Fayle says:

    That’s one reason I love this series – I get to know so many people much better!

    @Positively Present
    For all that I don’t pay a whole lot of attention to details, I too am a perfectionist and so often don’t start things because I’m not going to do them perfectly the first time through.

  4. “My best friend also gave me good advice: “Treat yourself like you would treat me.” ”

    Isn’t that just like a best friend to give such wonderful advice? We are so often tougher on ourselves than we would ever even consider being with anyone else. I like love that you found a touchstone to go with your epiphany. I would be lost without some of those, kind of a short hand reminder. 😉

    Janice Cartier´s last blog post..Time

  5. Zoe says:

    Wow, great to see this whole new facet of you — and your face! 🙂

    I really like your advice about a physical reminder of epiphanies… epiphanies often require a lot of conscious effort to create true change.

    It’s also funny that both of us happened to be reading Havi’s blog before the turnaround moment… !

    Zoe´s last blog post..Think First, Move Forward, Think Again

  6. Emma Newman says:

    I hope you don’t mind me chipping in on my own interview Alex! I just wanted to say thank you for the kind comments, I have been a bit wobbly about this today and it’s been so reassuring to read these.

    Emma Newman´s last blog post..Is there a book big enough for me to hide behind?

  7. Paisley says:

    Interesting interview. You showed a lot of yourself and that takes guts. I relate to a lot of your struggles and wish you all the very best Emma.

    Paisley´s last blog post..The Last Word

  8. Andy Hayes says:

    Zoe, I don’t really think it’s a coincidence with regards to Havi… 🙂

    Thanks for all the insights Emma.

    Andy Hayes´s last blog post..Euro-Fabulous Shopping with the Antiques Diva

  9. Emma, would it help if you actually treated yourself like a client, i.e., block a certain number of hours per week to work on your website? It might take a while, but small steps are better than no steps at all, right?

    Janet Barclay´s last blog post..The Value of Time

  10. Diana says:

    You look just like I pictured you – adorable!

    It is sooo hard to do the business end of creativity, for me anyway. But you sound like you are working through to getting there.

  11. Alex Fayle says:

    I’m so much tougher on myself than on anyone else. If anyone else treated me the way I do sometimes I’d so not be their friend. 😉

    I agree completely that physical reminders help which is why I never suggest that people get rid of everything they own. We need the mementos to remind us of the journey (of course too many and we get bogged down in the past). 😉

    Please do jump right in! This is your interview after all!

    I love the interview series for that specific reason: connecting and relating to other people – we’re not alone on our journeys even though it feels like we are at times.

    I don’t think so either – people on the edge of an epiphany are out looking for good resources and Havi’s blog *is* a good resource.

    What a great idea! I do that – set aside time to work on my own business writing the same way I set aside time for my client work and it certainly helps.

    For creative types, the business side can feel as boring as watching paint dry – I try to spice it up by putting some sort of creative spin on the business tasks.

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