Q. I try to be good at almost everything and do whatever I do perfectly. That's the way I was raised. I'm always tired but the doctor says there's nothing wrong with me physically. Can I put my fatigue down to an aging brain?

A. There can be multiple reasons for being tired, including:

  • Insufficient sleep or sleep of poor quality
  • Inadequate or inappropriate nutrition
  • Lack of enough water every day
  • Discouragement or depression
  • Lack of "down time" for the brain and/or play time
  • Decreased available energy with aging
  • Prolonged Adaptive Stress Syndrome (Refer to PASS article on the website)
  • Perfectionistic tendencies
  • And so on

Perfectionistic tendencies can be exhausting in and of themselves. Sometimes they are triggered by self-esteem issues in that you may be attempting to feel better about yourself through doing everything so well, so perfectly. That is a dead-end street, however, because it's only a momentary self-esteem boost so you have to do something else perfectly to get another momentary boost.

If your definition of perfect is "flawless," you are continually struggling to meet unrealistic expectations because human beings are never flawless. Making mistakes is a quintessential characteristic of being human. Some dictionaries offer an additional definition for perfect, however: Well suited to the task at hand. I once heard a speaker address this using a screwdriver metaphor.

He began by asking the audience, “If you need to insert or remove a screw, what is the best tool to use?”

“A screwdriver, of course,” was the answer.

When the speaker asked for supporting reasons, the audience said,”

  • Your hand can grasp the tool firmly
  • It was designed to do that job energy efficiently
  • You can apply additional pressure with the heel of your hand on the handle, as needed
  • The screwdriver can easily turn in two directions, allowing for flexibility and adaptability (e.g., use the same tool to insert a screw or to remove a screw)
  • You can use the screwdriver with either hand

And so it went.

“Could you use a butter knife to insert or remove a screw?” asked the speaker.

The audience replied with:

  • You might be able to insert a screw, if the knife edge wasn’t too thick for the slot in the screw and it didn’t require a “Phillips” head
  • It would be very difficult to get additional pressure if the screw was difficult to insert or unscrew
  • The handle of most butter knives is flat and not round, making it harder to use hold onto and less easy for either-handed use
  • It would take more energy, even if it worked

And so on.

The speaker’s conclusion was that every brain and body is different. Metaphorically, each can be well-suited to the task at hand if the individual knows his/her innate giftedness (or talents or aptitudes) and selects tasks with care. That’s like using a screwdriver for screws and a butter knife for spreading butter or jam. That approach will be less fatiguing to the brain and body overall. When you are trying to use a butter knife for screws, and trying to do the tasks flawlessly, it likely will not be a win-win. I can imagine great fatigue.

Secondly, no brain can be really competent at everything. The brain is not designed that way. Every brain is unique and will have some innate aptitudes that can be honed for related tasks and that will utilize relatively less brain energy to accomplish. For these, if you want to put in the time and energy and practice, you may become world class.

Other tasks will require a greater expenditure of brain energy and while you may be able to complete them at some level, you may never become more than average in terms of completion and competency.

I suggest you become aware of how you are living your life. It may be that you can do far more than you think to address the fatigue you are experiencing, especially if your physician can find no physical basis for the exhaustion.