To the Person With Anxiety Who Wants to Be a Robot
I know what you want. I want it, too. Every morning is an opportunity to achieve it. Every Sunday is a chance to test your dutifully crafted routine. Because this will be the week you nail it. This will be the week you get it right. This week, your New Year’s Eve prayers will be answered. If only you could get through that check list. If only one day could go according to plan.
Then, you would be perfect.
Then, you could finally be happy.
But before you can complete that perfect day, an inconvenient need inevitably arises. Maybe you sleep in, so there goes your morning ritual. Maybe you eat a little more than you “should.” You can’t focus and won’t get enough done at work, so you might as well crawl into bed and admit defeat now. You’ve failed today, and you will be nobody if you don’t do better tomorrow.
You want to reach out to someone, so you text that person one more time. It feels good in the moment, but almost immediately the repercussions are harsh. Pathetic. Weak. Needy. Why can’t you deal with this on your own?
By now you’re feeling so “off,” nothing you do feels right. The inadequacy freezes you. Because if you can’t do anything perfectly, you might as well do nothing at all. You might as well be dead.
That’s how critical these “screw ups” feel. It’s not just about making a mistake (or your version of a mistake). It’s a deviation from the master plan — that’s what feels worth dying for. If you’re not going to wake up on time and you’re not going to be efficient at work, and if you’re not going to supplement that work with a perfect balance of exercise, social time and entertainment, then what is the point of living? You’ve figured it out (the secret of life), but your inconvenient humanness keeps getting in the way.
So you practice your version of self-sabotage: watching TV and being “lazy” but not in a restful, joyful way. No, you do this because you’ve fucked up, and you can’t try again until tomorrow. You have to wait out the rest of the day for that coveted fresh start. Only when you wake up early enough to do that morning routine can you redeem yourself. Then you can finally get it right.
But beautiful, here’s the problem — you think what you’re doing is called “living.” You think this is how people manage their time — minutes that alarmingly pass before your eyes every time you do nothing, every time you pause. You think this is just regular self-improvement, something every magazine cover and inspirational commencement speaker told you to strive for. You’re just being the best version of yourself. You’re just shooting for the moon. This is you giving it all you’ve got.
Here’s the real secret: You’ve been tricked. Your mission is impossible. Your anxiety set you up. Because the truth is, you’re not trying to become a better person. You’re trying to become a robot. A robot who can execute a plan perfectly and call that living. A robot without needs. A robot who can dodge the emotions that clutter your path to perfection.
The truth (and you know this already, don’t you?) is that you will keep failing to live up to your standards, week after week, month after month, not because you’re not good enough, not because you’re not disciplined enough, but because this isn’t what you were meant to do. This is not living. This is not the secret of life. Your anxiety is wrong.
I want you to know something: The humanness that makes you want to die is the same humanness that makes you love so much. The same humanness that learns from each beautiful mistake you make. Your need to be better makes you a better person — not because there is an end goal of perfection, but because it makes you care so much. Instead of using your greatest strength as a gift, you’ve been treating it like a weapon, as if hurting yourself is the only way to make you better. As if depriving yourself is a noble cause.
Please know your needs are not weaknesses. Please listen to your poor, perfect body that gets hungry and tired and cranky and vulnerable. Don’t punish it for wanting to spend a few more extra minutes in bed. Don’t punish your soul for being lonely — send that extra text. Don’t punish your mind for daydreaming when it should be working. By tiptoeing on a floor scattered with shattered pieces of “shoulds,” you haven’t been walking freely. The irony is that while you’re so obsessed with doing, you’ve been sabotaging your ability to run.
I want to give you permission to get off the merry-go-round. To let go of obsessing over fresh starts. To value personhood over perfection. To understand it’s not your mistakes you should be trying to avoid but the quicksand of self-hate you step in every time one crosses your path. Make a plan, don’t follow through with it, and see how you survive anyway. Watch the plasticity of your brain stretch and relax with every mistake you live through, every checklist that goes uncompleted. Watch in awe as you survive through moments that made you want to die. Throw out your master plan. You don’t have to “fix” yourself before you do everything you want to do.
And no, you don’t want to wait until Monday to start. You can start now.
If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, the Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386 or text “START” to 741-741. Head here for a list of crisis centers around the world.
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Thinkstock photo via davincidig