“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.
He was cooking while I studied, trying to make sure I got a semblance of a holiday. We lived away from our families, and I had exams coming up. I was on the verge of losing it most of the time—and he was walking on eggshells. Or roasted potatoes.
I was in my first year of law school. 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. I was terrified of failing.
Every morning, I had a pounding headache that no amount of painkillers touched. My shoulders sat permanently around my ears (try it, you’ll see what I mean). I had insomnia, was highly irritable, and often felt panicked.
My friendly barista made me a triple vanilla latte each morning at 7:00, and by 10:00, I was out of energy. 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. My digestive system was distressed to say the least.
I was hustling so hard, trying to get it all right. And then, I got a C on my Torts midterm. And sobbed for three days.
I know this must sound ridiculous. A big part of me thought it was. I beat myself up for being such a “drama queen” and not being able to move past it.
But at the time it was devastating. My sense of self-worth was so inherently tied to my achievements that I felt like a giant failure.
I didn’t tell anyone. I was too embarrassed. What would they think of someone who got that upset?
I knew that I appeared to be highly functioning externally, and that was something. I had friends, I went out to dinner, I went to the gym, I walked on the beach. Internally, though, I was in turmoil.
My husband encouraged me to go to the doctor. He could see how hard I was on myself and how it was impacting me. As I relayed my physical symptoms, she asked whether I was under much stress. 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.
So, I went away with a diagnosis of irritable bowel syndrome. It wasn’t funny, but it makes me laugh now. My bowel was definitely irritable, but that irritability was nothing compared to what was going on in my head. It was a piece of the problem, but certainly not the whole 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. A lot to shove down, or suppress, deny or project. I was good at this, and I looked down on people who expressed their feelings.
I thought they must be needy. The truth is, I was scared of my feelings. And I didn’t know I had needs.
Rather than daring to let either my feelings or needs show, I used perfectionism to make it seem like I had it all together. Perfectionism made me feel like an anxious mess. But I couldn’t admit that because it would be acknowledging a problem.
That makes it hard to ask for 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.”
Life is hard enough without stressing about how we appear to everyone else. 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 makes life so much easier.
Here are five things I wish I’d known earlier:
1. Perfection is unattainable because it can’t be quantified.
What is perfection anyway? Do we actually know? 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.
Where does it end? 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? One can hope.
I do know that when I’m on my deathbed, that’s not what’s going to matter. My people will 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. And to keep breathing. It will pass.
Anxiety is fear, and fear can’t hurt you, as much as it can seem like it might.
4. Anxiety is the stress response in action. It’s physiological and nothing to be ashamed of.
If I’d known this, I wouldn’t have bothered to feel so ashamed of my anxiety. Anxiety was my brain telling my body that it believed there was a dangerous situation. 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.
Reminding myself there was no tiger, and thus no real danger, was useful.
5. Imagining the worst in every situation isn’t as helpful as you’d think.
Going straight to the worst-case scenario did seem helpful at the time. On some level, I believed if I could plan for the worst, I’d be prepared for it. But it can also create a lot of unnecessary anxiety about unlikely (even extremely unlikely) possibilities.
“If I get a C, I’m not going to make it through the first year. I’ll get kicked out. That would be a disaster. It also means I’m a failure. People might pity me. They will definitely think differently of me.”
Helpful thoughts would have been:
“If I get a C, that means … I got a C. Nothing more. Perhaps I could learn differently. Perhaps I could seek extra help. Or perhaps I could remember that I’m doing my best and that is enough.”
Unravelling what fuels anxiety, learning to manage it differently, and being able to extend a lot of compassion to myself has been a journey. Wherever you’re at with yours, I hope something here makes a difference for you.
About Sonia Voldseth
Sonia Voldseth is a former lawyer turned mental health counsellor in Aotearoa/New Zealand. She seeks to normalise being human. Sign up for her 10 Page Mini Guide: How To Manage Your Anxiety Like A Boss. You can find her on Instagram @sonia.voldseth