How Perfectionism and Anxiety Made Me Sick and What I Wish I Knew Sooner

“Perfectionism is the exhausting state of pretending to know it all and have it all together, all the time. I’d rather be a happy mess than an anxious stress case who’s always trying to hide my flaws and mistakes.” ~Lori Deschene 

“That’s not how you do it!” I slammed the door as I headed outside, making sure my husband understood what an idiot he was. He’d made the appalling mistake of roasting potatoes for Thanksgiving instead of making stuffing.

His cooking was while I studied. He wanted to ensure that I had some sort of holiday. My exams were coming up and we lived apart from each other. I was on the verge of losing it most of the time—and he was walking on eggshells. Or roasted potatoes.

My first year in law school was my first. Every student knows that if you look to your left and then to your right that one of those people won’t be there next year—they will have dropped out or failed. It scared me to fail.

Each morning I suffered from a severe headache. My shoulders sat permanently around my ears (try it, you’ll see what I mean). It was a constant battle with insomnia and irritability that caused me to feel panicked, and I often felt like this. 

At 7:00 in the morning my barista prepared me a triple vanilla coffee. I ran out of energy by 10:30. I bought Red Bull by the case to get through the rest of the day, and in the evening, I’d switch to red wine. I was very upset with my digestive system.

My hustle was so intense, I wanted to do it right. Finally, I received a grade of C in my Torts Midterm. I cried for three days.

It must be absurd. It was what a large part of my mind believed. I beat myself up for being such a “drama queen” and not being able to move past it.

However, it was quite devastating. It was inextricably tied to my achievements, and I felt like an enormous failure.

I didn’t tell anyone. Too embarrassed. They would be shocked at someone like me.

I was aware that I seemed to be very functioning outside of my body, which I found quite remarkable. I was able to have friends and go out for dinner with them. I also went to the gym. I loved walking on the beaches. However, my internal turmoil was a constant.

My husband suggested that I see the doctor. He was able to see the strain I put on myself, and what it was doing to my health. She asked me if I was stressed as I described my symptoms. I replied, “No, not really. Just the usual.”

I didn’t know what to tell her. Partly because I’d lived much of my life this way and didn’t know it was anxiety, partly because I felt so out of control, partly because I was ashamed, partly because I assumed she’d only be able to help with the physical.

And … part of me knew that saying it out loud would shatter the illusion of having it all together. 

My diagnosis was IBS. It wasn’t funny, but it makes me laugh now. While my bowels were definitely upset, the irritation was nothing in comparison to what was happening inside of me. This was only a part of my problem.

It wasn’t so long ago that I figured out I’d struggled with anxiety for a long time before I even knew what it was. Like many of us, I learned that if a feeling wasn’t “positive,” it wasn’t acceptable. So I stuffed down all the “negative” emotions we’re not supposed to have: fear, rage, jealousy, and sadness.

Because I’m a highly sensitive person, I have a lot of big, deep feelings. It’s hard to suppress, negate, ignore, project, shove it all down. This is something that I did well at, so I really admire people who express their feelings.

Their needs were what I assumed. Truth is that I was afraid of my emotions. And I didn’t know I had needs.

To avoid expressing my feelings and needs, I used perfectionionism instead. Perfectionionism caused me to feel anxious. But I couldn’t admit that because it would be acknowledging a problem.

It’s difficult to get help. It’s also exhausting. As Lori Deschene said in her quote at the beginning, “I’d rather be a happy mess than an anxious stress case always trying to hide my flaws and mistakes.”

Stressing out about the appearance of others is a way to make life difficult. It’s just not worth it. When I allow myself to be fully human, I can laugh at myself, talk about my struggles, and show up in my imperfections. It’s so easy.

Here are five things I wish I’d known earlier:

1. Perfection is unattainable because it can’t be quantified.

Is perfection possible? Are we really able to define perfection? I don’t.

It’s something I kept setting up for myself—an arbitrary standard I thought I was supposed to meet. But once I’d achieved something, I was already looking for the next thing.

It doesn’t end there. It doesn’t, and that’s the problem.

2. No one looks back on their life and wishes they’d had worse relationships.

This seems obvious, but it’s something I think about. I don’t know if I’ll ever completely untie my self-worth from my achievements, or find an amazing balance where I feel fulfilled yet not striving. Maybe? There is hope.

I do know that when I’m on my deathbed, that’s not what’s going to matter. It will be my people that matter. And I don’t want my striving or perfectionist tendencies to get in the way of those important relationships.

3. Anxiety feels very real, and it’s just a feeling.

If you’ve experienced anxiety you’ll know how awful it feels. For me, it’s a racing heart, shaking hands, flushed face, and a feeling of dread.

It’s important to remind yourself to breathe. It’s important to continue breathing. It’ll pass.

Anxiety is fear, and fear can’t hurt you, as much as it can seem like it might.

4. Anxiety refers to the stress response. It’s physiological and nothing to be ashamed of.

Anxiety was my brain’s way of telling me my body there was danger. That’s it.

While the fear of falling short is hardly a saber toothed tiger running toward you (as our cavemen ancestors had to worry about), my brain didn’t know the difference. And where’s the big stigma in that? To be clear, I believe there should be no stigma around mental health either, but I’m painfully aware that there is.

Remembering that I was not a Tiger and was therefore in no actual danger was helpful.

5. Imagining the worst in every situation isn’t as helpful as you’d think.

At the time, it was helpful to look at the worst-case scenario. On some level, I believed if I could plan for the worst, I’d be prepared for it. It can lead to unnecessary anxiety over unlikely, even extremely unlikely possibilities.

Here’s an example:

“If I get a C, I’m not going to make it through the first year. I’ll get kicked out. This would be disastrous. It also means I’m a failure. Some people might feel sorry for me. They will definitely think differently of me.”

These are some helpful thoughts:

“If I get a C, that means … I got a C. Nothing more. Maybe I can learn something else. Maybe I can seek additional assistance. Or perhaps I could remember that I’m doing my best and that is enough.”

This journey has allowed me to understand what is causing anxiety and to learn how to handle it differently. It also taught me to be compassionate towards myself. Wherever you’re at with yours, I hope something here makes a difference for you.

Sonia Voldseth

Sonia Voldseth, a former attorney turned mental health counselor in Aotearoa/New Zealand. She strives to be human and normal. Get her Mini Guide of 10 Pages: How to manage anxiety like a boss. Follow her @sonia.voldseth on Instagram

Join the conversation. You can click here to comment.

Tiny Buddha’s post How Perfectionism and Anxiety made Me Sick and What It I Wish I Knew Sooner was first published on Tiny Buddha.

Related Posts