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How My Constant Perfectionism Takes Over My Life

I live with a dual mental health diagnosis of major depressive disorder (MDD) and generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). Of the two, GAD is the stronger beast and tends to take first billing in the screenplay of my life. One of the core contributors to my anxiety is an ever-present and absolutely fervent desire to be perfect. Sure, I try to come off as cool, calm and relaxed — ha! The vicious truth is that the effort I put into seeming nonchalant about things is actually a symptom of my perfectionism.

Anxiety produces hypervigilance in me that is so habitual it pervades all of my life. Everything ends up being calculated and controlled and set up so I have the absolute best chance of not failing or embarrassing myself, even if the threat of failure or embarrassment isn’t actually real.

I have the gift and curse of being so aware of everything I’m doing all of the time. And if I perceive a risk of failure or humiliation, no matter how small, it’s a full-stop.

There are definitely times when I can’t avoid risky situations, but that doesn’t stop me from doing everything I possibly can to mitigate the chances I won’t be successful. I’m not exaggerating: perfectionism rules my world.

In some ways, my perfectionism is good. It pushes me to strive for success, which can be very motivating and, in certain contexts like school, perfectionism helps me achieve at a high level. It makes me an attentive mother/friend/lover/daughter/sister/person and it ensures I give my full effort to whatever I take on.

But here’s the other edge of the sword: perfectionism is my enemy, too. When its hypervigilant voice takes control, it debilitates me and vilifies me with feelings of unworthiness, failure, guilt and shame. Sometimes I can’t do something because I’m too afraid I will fail. Sometimes, unexpected challenges or variations pop up and my carefully crafted perfectionist plan gets thrown out the window, which triggers major anxiety in me. A lot of the time, perfectionism makes things take way longer than they need to because I have to lay out and follow a prescribed set of steps to accomplish whatever level of success my perfectionism has determined for me.

I know perfectionism isn’t a healthy habit. I also know it’s something I’ll have to keep working on, probably for the rest of my life. In fact, one thing I’ve come to understand about a diagnosis of something like GAD is it is a lifelong diagnosis and the effects of this disorder can be managed, but probably never eliminated.

Perfectionism is a part of me that will never go away, but I do practice relieving myself of the pressure to be perfect as often as possible. I try to allow myself to fail. I try to allow myself to make mistakes. I attempt to allow myself to not know something every once in a while. I also let myself ask for help.

I may have to force myself to do these things, but I do them because I know putting myself in these situations prepares me for when it’s not a choice to have things change. Maybe the funny part of this is that in choosing to allow myself these transgressions, I’m still allowing my perfectionism and anxiety to hold the reins, but this way they remain at a distance. I’m electing to put myself in “risky” situations so I can be better prepared for when truly risky moments occur.

So, I’m still being a perfectionist — I’m still plotting out the course I will take every single day. It’s just nuanced so outwardly, it doesn’t appear I’m controlling things; and so inwardly, I still get peace of mind and maintain a sense of control, which helps me manage my anxiety and feel successful.

Unsplash image by Anike Jankovic