I live with a dual mental health diagnosis of Major Depressive Disorder and Generalized Anxiety Disorder. Of the two, anxiety is the stronger beast and tends to take first billing in the screenplay of my life. One of the core contributors to my anxiety is an ever-present and absolutely fervent desire to be perfect. I try to come off as cool and calm and relaxed—ha! The vicious truth is that the effort I put into seeming nonchalant about things is actually a symptom of my perfectionism.
Anxiety produces hyper-vigilance in me so habitual that it pervades all of my life. Everything ends up being calculated and controlled and set up so that I have the absolute best chance of not failing or embarrassing myself, even if the threat of failure or embarrassment isn’t actually real.
It’s kinda messed up, right?
These are the levels of thinking that Generalized Anxiety Disorder bequeaths upon me! I have the gift/curse of being so so so SO aware of every goddamn thing I’m doing all the time. And if I perceive a risk of failure or humiliation, no matter how small, it’s always a full-stop.
Okay, there are probably times when I can’t avoid risky situations (okay, there are definitely times when I can’t avoid risky situations…), but that doesn’t stop me from doing everything I can to mitigate the chances that I won’t be successful.
I’m not exaggerating: perfectionism rules my world, friends.
In some ways, my perfectionism is good; it pushes me to strive for success, which can be very motivating and, in certain contexts like school, perfectionism helps me succeed at a high level. It makes me an attentive mother/friend/lover/daughter/sister/person and it ensures that I give my full effort to whatever I take on.
But here’s the other edge of the sword; perfectionism is my enemy too. When its hyper-vigilant voice takes control, it debilitates me and vilifies me with feelings of unworthiness, failure, guilt, and shame. Sometimes I can’t do something because I’m too afraid that I will fail. Sometimes, unexpected challenges or variations pop up and my carefully-crafted perfectionist plan gets thrown out the window, which triggers major anxiety in me. A lot of the time, perfectionism makes things take waaaaaaaaaay longer than they need to, because I have to lay out and follow a prescribed set of steps to accomplish whatever level of success my perfectionism has determined for me.
I can’t even send a fucking text message without re-reading it eight times and checking for typos. And heaven forbid if I edit my text, send it, and then find a latent typo! The shame I feel on those occasions is akin to when you accidentally call your grade 4 teacher “Daddy” instead of Mr. Snair (not that I ever did that!). Or when you’re 12 years old and you catch your toe on an uneven patch of sidewalk and stumble awkwardly while sauntering past your current crush AKA the love of your life AKA THE ONLY PERSON WHO MATTERS IN THE ENTIRE WORLD
Writing this blog is a test of patience and mental fortitude for me. I will admit, I re-read everything I write, including unpublished drafts and the bits and bobs I keep around as potential writing topics in the future, at least 800,000,000 times before I hit “publish.” Then I look them over another bajillion times after publishing to affirm (and reaffirm, and re-reaffirm, and re-re-reaffirm…) that my writing is worthy of being looked at by other people.
In my past relationships, perfectionism fed my codependent behaviour and my abusers benefited greatly from my desire to make things perfect (i.e. the work I put into making them happy, keeping our lives together, making it look like everything was okay to others, etc…). They used this to encourage me into putting more and more effort into fulfilling their desires, instead of addressing my own needs. Emotional abusers don’t care about the amount of effort their victim puts forth, they only care about getting what they want. I was the perfect candidate for the job of codependent and perfectionism was a big contributor to helping me get hired.
I know that perfectionism isn’t a healthy habit. I also know that it’s something I’ll have to keep working on, probably for the rest of my life. In fact, one thing I’ve come to understand about a diagnosis of something like Generalized Anxiety Disorder, is that it’s a lifelong diagnosis and that the effects of this disease can be managed, but never eliminated.
Perfectionism is a part of me that will never go away, but I do practice relieving myself of the pressure to be perfect as often as possible. I try to allow myself to fail. I try to allow myself to make mistakes. I attempt to allow myself to not know something every once in awhile. I also let myself ask for help (well I try to, at least!).
I may have to force myself to do these things, but I do them because I know that putting myself in these situations prepares me for when it’s not a choice to have things change. Maybe the funny part of this is that in choosing to allow myself these transgressions, I’m still allowing my perfectionism and anxiety to hold the reins, but this way they remain at a distance. I’m electing to put myself into “risky” situations so that I can be better prepared for when truly risky moments occur.
So I’m still being perfectionist—I’m still plotting out the course I will take every single day. It’s just nuanced so that outwardly, it doesn’t appear that I’m controlling things and so that inwardly, I still get peace of mind and maintain a sense of control, which helps me manage my anxiety and makes me feel successful.
Does perfectionism rule your life too? Maybe we should start a support group… How about, “Life Will Never Be Perfect So Let’s Get Real About That And Figure Shit Out Anonymous”?