Anxiety and the need for perfection often go hand in hand. However, as we are all well aware, perfection doesn’t exist; it’s a futile ambition. But it’s one that can drive us beyond what’s achievable to a place where nothing we do feels good enough. This in turn feeds the anxiety and gives it space to grow; overcompensating becomes second nature.
It’s a vicious cycle and one that I often find myself trapped in. I can trace the connection between anxiety and the need for perfection back to my first year at primary school. I was a good student; I was academic and diligent from the outset but, to me, that wasn’t enough. I obsessed about not being good enough, about letting people down: teachers, friends, classmates. Everyone. Even at that age, I felt the need to compensate for, what I considered to be, my failings. I was friendly to everyone. Always smiling. I worked harder than most. But I questioned everything.
I worried about everything to the point of irrational behaviour. I would often set myself little tests that, if I passed, would mean everything was going to be ok. For example, at break time I might walk the length of the playground with my eyes closed. If I managed to get from one end to the other without stepping on the grass, it would be a good day. If I didn’t, I expected something bad would happen and, if it did, it was inevitably my fault. It was exhausting. As I got older I continued to rely on irrational logic to determine what kind of day I might have. It was a coping mechanism; a way of deflecting responsibility and undermining the anxiety. Of separating the outcome from myself.
A fundamental characteristic of my anxiety is self-criticism and blame. If something bad happens I automatically assume that it’s a consequence of something I’ve done. As a result, the guilt starts to eat away at you and the anxiety continues to tell you that everything is your fault.
But it soon becomes ‘normal’. And you learn to manage it. You learn to hide the paranoia and the fear of disappointing people. You start to think that everyone feels the same. And that’s what happened to me. For years. I look back at it now and it seems so obvious. The constant worry for the wellbeing of my family and friends when I was very young, the lack of self confidence in my teens, the depression and eating disorders in my early twenties. It all makes sense. It was my way of controlling the anxiety. I had no idea that it was an illness because no one did. People didn’t talk about mental health twenty years ago. It was considered a weakness, something to hide. So I hid it – very convincingly.
In my twenties, my crutch was teaching. It gave me a purpose. It gave me a sense of achievement. I was good at it and I loved it. But when the illness started to encroach on that too, I couldn’t ignore it anymore. My need to overcompensate became debilitating. If a lesson wasn’t outstanding, I considered it a failure. If my students didn’t walk into my classroom excited or leave with a spring in their step, I hadn’t done my job properly. And anyone who works in education knows that these are impossible standards to maintain. I set myself up for failure. And the more positive feedback I received, the higher my expectations became. Until they were impossible. Nothing was good enough. I wanted to walk in a straight line without stepping on the grass. My approach had become irrational and unhealthy.
Fortunately, I don’t feel like this anymore. Or at least, I recognise the signs. I’m more honest with myself about how I’m feeling. I try not to set myself impossible goals. I try not to overcompensate for flaws that only exist in my mind. Sometimes it’s not that easy. But at least I’m aware of it now and can talk about it without guilt or shame. Because it’s all the symptom of an illness, not a personal flaw.
If you’ve never experienced anything like this, I’m guessing it probably sounds a little crazy. But if we don’t talk about it then we won’t know that there’s another way of thinking, of living. We need to own our feelings – without judgement. That’s what I want my little boy to know. If he ever has to go through something similar, I want him to talk about how he feels without the fear of disappointing anyone, including himself. I want him to know that it’s not a failing and that he has nothing to compensate for. Ever. No shame. No judgement. No fear.