Surviving Perfectionism


Coming to terms with the acute anxiety of needing everything to be just-so.

by Carly Dyer

My brother was the key. Thanks to him, I’ve got what I like to call an outgoing, taking-risks-even-when-you’re-going-to-piss-your-pants kind of lifestyle. Which may not be all that special—in the fashion of all older brothers, mine coaxed me into situations I would never have chosen for myself. He instilled in me a kind of positive vulnerability.

Four years my senior, I looked up to him completely. If he was jumping onto a trampoline from a tree, bouncing off it and into a pool, so was I. I did things that terrified me all the time simply so that I could be by his side. As children we rock-climbed, camped, hiked, started fires, shot guns, cleaned the animals my father hunted, grass boarded (like snow boarding, but on grass), flew down every “black” run on our yearly ski trips, went mudding, and smoked stolen cigarettes.

Many of these experiences can most likely be attributed to a childhood in small-town Texas, but never would I have done half of these things without his lead. Granted, a couple of odd bones were broken in the process, but the fear of missing out was greater than any other anxiety I had. If I was too scared to ski down a hill, my brother would persuade me to. When persuasion failed, he just pushed me. Safely sliding down on my posterior was never an option. It certainly wasn’t the kind of relationship that could always be described as loving. At times there was more dysfunction than not, but I yearned for his acceptance and affection. Even though it would be lovely for this to be black and white, my complicated truth is that part of what aggravates anxiety can also be what keeps it from becoming debilitating.

When Scott Stossel’s “Surviving Anxiety” came out in The Atlantic this January, it resonated with me in a way I’m sure it did with countless others. His anxiety was vividly present in his words, ebbing and flowing. It was a beautiful sort of rambling. And I got it. Many of his coping mechanisms were familiar, as was much of his shame. The drinking, the avoidance, and countless other tactics are not uncommon, just rarely spoken about. Yes, public perception of mental illness—like chronic anxiety—has progressed in the past few decades, but mainly in the abstract. Shows like United States of Tara and films like Silver Linings Playbook have been heartily embraced, but stigma and ignorance toward mental health in America persists.

It’s one thing to simply speak about mental illness as a detached observer, a clinician. It’s another thing to come out and open up about personal experiences in that realm. When celebrities open up about their illnesses, we applaud them and tell them they are strong. However, that label stays affixed to them even as they go on to make more movies or record more albums. No longer are they just “so-and-so who was in this-or-that TV show.” Now they are “so-and-so who suffers from this-or-that.” (Sinead O’Connor, Carrie Fisher, the list goes on.) Get the distinction?

It’s for these reasons that I, for starters, had a difficult time admitting to myself that I struggle with a form of mental illness, and it is additionally why I was so delayed in finding the proper help. There was a very strong period of denial. I told myself that I was just “having a moment,” but in all honesty, it’s been a matter of constantly and desperately swimming upstream. My “moments” turned into an unending desire to make it to some illusory “other side,” some indeterminate point of “getting over it,” whatever that means. I grew up being told that I was “overly emotional” or “too sensitive.” I took this as fact rather than opinion, and accepted that it was just who I was, rather than something that could be treated or changed.

My sweet Southern family certainly never ignored my issues. They just wanted me to be happy. But as is common with families from my sugary homeland, there was always a pervading push-it-under-the-rug attitude. There was always a positive spin, which maybe isn’t the worst thing a family can inflict on child dealing with mental illness. To an extent, I agree that there are certain things that need not be shared, even among members of the same family. But suppressing something very real only exacerbates the condition. I’ve heard many times from my family, “Maybe you’re at the end of this,” but in all reality, there is no “end.” Anxiety is a very real and present factor in my life, and it’s not going away.

I can’t recall the moment when I first felt the need to be perfect, which doesn’t even really mean anything. It’s an idea, a nonsensical goal. Perfection is a matter of perspective; when you desire to meet everyone’s ideal, you find yourself going a million different directions, yet never forging your own distinct path. My anxiety drove me to seek the acceptance of everyone around me. It made me so acutely aware of the tiniest components of every interaction. I was a quirky kid who grew into a quirky adult, and I’m sure this made some people uncomfortable. I was simultaneously outspoken yet fearful of rejection, and couldn’t seem to make who I was at my core coincide with how I wanted the world to see me. I wanted to be great at everything, the best, to earn the affection of my family and peers. But when affection was given, it didn’t seem real to me. It felt like people were being nice to me because they had to, because that’s what you’re supposed to do. It never felt genuine.

And small instances of admonishment affected me far too greatly, sending me into fits of tears, profusions of apology, and, as a child, self-punishment. I’d literally put myself in time-out. Sobbing, I hid my face in my arms when my fourth grade teacher reprimanded me for not turning my homework in on time. (I know—so rebellious!) In retrospect, that wasn’t normal behavior—to react so strongly to the tiniest sign of irritation, disappointment or anger in another.

My parents never needed to punish or ground me because I was already so hard on myself. They never reminded me to do my schoolwork or clean my room. They didn’t have to. And this was not because I was some ideal child, but rather because I was so terrified of not measuring up to a fictitious expectation of perfection. I feared the most irrational things would occur if I fell short in any way, which could be something as unimportant as neglecting to brush my teeth at bedtime. The world as I knew it would end and everyone around me would suffer for it. I’d never amount to anything. For example: in the fifth grade, I spent a month trying not to sin. It wasn’t a consciously religious endeavor, but I had this outrageous belief that if I could go a period of time without sinning, nothing bad would ever happen to me, no one I loved would ever be hurt, and everything would be perfect.

It was not until the age of 14 that I properly learned how to breathe. My mother sent me to a doctor who prescribed rhythmic music indicating when and how long to inhale and exhale. Turns out, not everyone experiences a sensation of “drowning” whenever their teacher announces a test, or they have to pick up the phone, or when someone gives them a (likely imagined) “funny look,” or even when a full room goes eerily silent. I vividly remember struggling to inhale as a child, always coming up short in this most base function of human existence. In a very animalistic way, I became quickly aware of my surroundings, of the sweat forming under my arms and behind my knees, of the kid tapping his pencil on the desk a few seats away, of how loudly I was breathing. I’d feel this need to get out, to go to the restroom and salvage my sweaty shirt under the hand dryers, but I was glued to my seat. Fight or flight: only, I couldn’t fly, and I couldn’t fight it.

The most insignificant of experiences wielded enormous weight, and I constantly over-evaluated every potentially uncomfortable scenario—scrambling for directions that didn’t exist. I’ll stand on a corner and spent five full minutes debating whether to go to the gym or to get some writing done. The longer I stand there, the more my body tenses up, my mind flitting back and forth between options, obsessively weighing the pros and cons of a totally inconsequential situation. I’ve wasted an atrociously excessive amount of time trying to figure out what I should do, but I never end up actually doing anything.

Before checking out at the grocery store, I go back through the aisles and return maybe a third of my basket. When I’m feeling particularly anxious about something, I’ll keep changing my clothes, switching shoes, shirts, belts and sweaters. Before I know it, I’m running late and I still haven’t decided on an appropriate ensemble. Of course, the anxiety of running late makes it hard to choose which route to take, and then I’m back to standing on that damn corner—train or bus, bus or train?

My anxiety has manifested itself in a number of ways and has led to some rather undesirable effects, including: a misdiagnosis of Crohn’s disease, vomiting, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, erratic fluctuations in weight, job interviews gone terribly awry, irritability towards those I love, failed romantic relationships, flirting with the line of abusing alcohol, being so fearful of social events that they become self-fulfilling catastrophes, insecurity, putting myself down, anger, frustration, depression, feeling trapped, feeling hopeless.

Sometimes it’s just silliness. Sometimes I put my hair up only to immediately take it down over and over for no reason at all. Sometimes I apologize when I’ve done nothing wrong, just because I want to doubly make sure that “everything’s cool.” Anxiety is a fight between the rational and the irrational selves. It’s the difference between knowing something and feeling something. It’s like when a roommate leaves a dish in the sink and you know it’s not a big deal, but it makes you feel like you could rip all your hair out. You end up being more frustrated with yourself for being actually frustrated over something so trivial. It can be an endless cycle.

I have no doubt that anxiety is part of my inherent disposition, ingrained in the fibers of my being. As a toddler, recreation involved lining all of my toys in a row and screaming if anyone disrupted the order. When I lost my very last baby tooth in the grass of our backyard, I cried myself to sleep because I wouldn’t get a final visit from the tooth fairy (which, of course, I did anyway). This has translated into my adult life as a need for everything to be in a very specific place, sometimes even at specific angles. When a friend uses my lipstick, for example, I want to crawl out of my skin when she doesn’t put it back in the proper bowl or box. My close friends know this about me, and are consequently pretty good about maintaining the order of my space. But my own high-maintenance makes me feel guilty and ashamed. I would much rather be all go-with-the-flow-y all the time. I don’t want stupid shit—like a roommate not rinsing a dirty dish—to send me over the edge.

Leaving my house is mandatory to get any work done, because if not, I’ll spend hours reorganizing. Cleaning out my closet, refolding shirts and grouping different items of clothing together is a delicious experience. Placing my books together based on cover color is invigorating. I’ve spent many a Friday night doing just this type of activity. And it all stems from this desire for control, and the inability I had achieving that feeling of control in the past. More often than not, my idea of self-control is to control everything in my environment, which is obviously and irrefutably impossible. This has manifested itself in the form of Benjamin Franklin-esque charts of virtue, with monthly rules and regulations. Although those endeavors have led to some interesting realizations about myself, I eventually realize their fruitlessness.

The experience of trauma is the apex of losing control. Inherently suffering from anxiety, trauma led me to an uninhabitable place within myself. For a while, there was a lot of hiding and a résumé of bad decisions, but eventually my understanding of my own anxiety, as well as my upbringing, forced me to thoroughly self-examine. Because I grew up doing everything I was afraid of, it didn’t take me too terribly long to seek help. Because of my type-A personality, I quickly figured out what steps I needed to take in order to move forward and heal.

As soon as I saw my life with the slightest bit of clarity, I found a therapist and have gone to therapy on and off ever since, whenever I feel myself wobbling. Yoga has changed my life, and I’ve surrounded myself with encouraging, understanding people who hold me accountable. Breathing has become a conscious practice. Yanking myself out before I go down the rabbit hole is a must, clutching to the reality of situations versus imagining the worst. And who’s to say I wouldn’t have crumbled more than I did if I had never experienced coping before? So yes, I’m terrified of everything. But I am also so unbelievably thankful that I have been set up to face those fears. (Sliding down the hill on my butt is not an option.) In the end, taking control of my own mental health meant cleaning out old ideas of what I needed to control, and making space for vulnerability.

Brené Brown is a “researcher-storyteller” who led one of the most inspirational TED talks I’ve ever seen. It’s titled “The Power of Vulnerability.” In it, she discusses her research and personal desire to understand what makes people happy and fulfilled. Overwhelmingly, the single thing that all “fulfilled” people have in common is the ability to be vulnerable. Brown describes this as “excruciating vulnerability,” which I think is an accurate way to put it. She also frames vulnerability as a challenge. Brown says that all happy people were “willing to let go of who they thought they should be in order to be who they were” and “believed that what made them vulnerable made them beautiful.” Beautiful might not be the word I would choose for it. “Real,” maybe. And this realness that comes with vulnerability is what allows us to connect with others.

Moving to a big city after graduating from college can most aptly be described as an excruciatingly vulnerable transition. I spent my first three months in Chicago sitting alone in my studio apartment, watching Netflix, and wondering why on earth I was torturing myself in this city I knew nothing about. I’d always imagined myself moving to a major metropolis in my early twenties, putting myself out there as a writer and editor, being surrounded by a creative group of people who encouraged and inspired one another in all their artistic and intellectual endeavors. I think I’d seen too many movies. But I never really let myself factor in how lonely city life can be. It wasn’t until I’d spent far too much time in isolation that I finally began to reach out, which will always be awkward. I found myself blurting out to random people, “let’s be friends,” and going on a series of what I have come to know as “friend dates.” I updated my LinkedIn and started emailing people I’d never met to see if they would give me a job, any job. And all of this has really worked in my favor. I’ve ended up getting so many exciting responses in different areas of my life that I hardly give the rejections a second thought.

I’ve realized that in order to live a fulfilling and satisfying life, I have to change my idea of how I want my future to look. For years, the idea of a fulfilling life has been to lead a perfect life. I, by no means, expect those around me to be perfect, but I nevertheless find myself wanting to be perfect. I don’t want to get upset about insignificant annoyances, I want to always be gracious, kind, forgiving—but at the same time not a doormat. I want to be smart and successful, but I don’t like the idea of going head-to-head with anyone. I want all of my confrontations to be calm and sensible. I don’t want to make mistakes. But these things are not always humanly possible! (Especially the last one.) And in order to have the satisfying life I long for, I’ve realized that I need to not only expect great things from myself, but that I need to find compassion for myself. And I need to be able to lean on others. I need to surround myself with encouraging, loving people who won’t walk away when I fall short. No amount of medication, therapy, or validation from others will ever erase my insecurities. I need to embrace myself, anxieties and all.

Even after having lived under many different roofs in the last eight years, when I call my brother to tell him what’s going on in my life, what new obstacles I’m facing, he always responds the same way: “Well, you’ve just gotta do it!” And sometimes that response is incredibly irritating. Like, way to make it sound so simple! But, annoying as it is, he’s right. Again and again, he pushes me to jump, to take leaps. And when I fall, he tells me to brush myself off. And right when I think I’ve got it all figured out, he’s telling me to jump again.


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  1. Kathy McCord

    Loved the essay. Beautifully written- the author drew you into her world. Thanks for publishing such a compelling and hopeful look at anxiety,

  2. Anxious Anonymous

    Thank you for writing this. So resonant; it was like holding up a mirror. Until now, I have only thought of myself as having anxiety in “certain situations.” Like flying and singing solos and job interviews. But as much as I’d like to convince myself otherwise, I know that 7 trips to the bathroom before an interview doesn’t constitute “normal” nerves and is instead a reflection of my poor mental state. Still, I saw these events as separate and contained, not viewing myself as “a person with anxiety.” But your essay allowed me to group together paralyzing parts of my everyday life that I had attributed solely to my personality. Things like the inability to play music while hosting a party for fear of being judged or somehow ruining the party’s true potential. Feeling that if I have surmounted a challenge in the past (running 3 miles, say), I must meet or exceed that level forevermore. I can’t allow myself to do less. So instead of running 2 miles, I run no miles. Similarly, I have a debilitating “fear of the blank page” based on prior writing achievement. (Paradoxical, I know). And a self-enforced childhood bedtime of 8:00 that, if delayed or somehow broken, would cause actual stomach aches and insomnia. It’s amazing what we tell ourselves is normal, or just a phase or a quirk. I say this as a woman in her late 20s having just realized that’s not the case.

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