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When Anxiety Makes You Feel Like You Have to Always 'Be the Best'

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I am someone who from the outside, looks like I have it all together. I went through my childhood and adolescence with great success, always doing remarkable in school and excelling in whatever I put my mind to. I have earned by Bachelor’s degree and now am at the end of my Master’s in Social Work. I was able to accomplish all of this because of something innate inside me called anxiety. I have always been the anxious type. I make lists, I remake lists, I go over things constantly in my head and nothing is ever good enough until it’s “the best.”

For me, there is no option but to excel because anything less is simply “unacceptable.” When an assignment is distributed in school, I have to analyze it right away and finish it at least a week before it’s due. If I get a new job, I must impress everyone with my work and take on as much as I can. When I make new friends, I am sure to constantly assess my behavior and how they perceive me to make sure it is just as I want. Everything I do must be the best because that’s just a part of who I am. As an only child, I was always told by my family that I was the best, so I had to live up to that title and my anxiety gave me the perseverance to do so.

Now I may have just made anxiety sound like a really great thing to have. I mean, it did drive me to get a 4.0 in grad school, but while anxiety has driven me to many successes, it’s something that constantly wears me down. It’s exhausting analyzing and reanalyzing my every move. Having to be 10 steps ahead of everything makes me feel like I spun myself around for hours. There are moments when I feel such a pit in my stomach and tightness in my chest for what seems like no reason at all but then I burst out in tears from frustration. My mind is constantly thinking and analyzing every step I make. I judge myself harder than anyone else could and doubt how I socialize, how I dress and even how I think. So often at night my mind won’t turn off because it is making to do lists for the next coming week and telling me I’m behind on everything I have to do.

So while I seem like I “have it all together,” inside, I feel like a disaster. I know on paper I am doing so well, but the path to getting there is a constant battle. No one sees it or notices how bad it is because of how well I do in everything I’m involved in. That makes it even harder to talk about. How do I explain to someone how bad my anxiety is when from the outside, my life looks perfect? How can my anxiety be real if I am doing so well? These thoughts play over and over in my head convincing me that maybe my anxiety isn’t real, maybe I’m just making a bigger deal of it than it really is.

Up until recently, I could go without talking about it or having to admit it. In the past few weeks, my anxiety has worsened. I no longer can ignore how it makes me feel and what it does to me. I began crying randomly throughout the day from feeling so overwhelmed by it. My heart would feel like it was going to beat out of my chest and I wanted to escape out of places like work or school. I knew it was all bottled up inside me and I had to let it out. But how could I do that and admit something was wrong? No one would believe me and if they did, that meant I was weak in some way. Even worse, I felt like a fraud. I am getting my Master’s in Social Work in order to become a psychotherapist and treat people with mental illness. How could I treat others for anxiety if I couldn’t help myself?

I finally broke down one night and told my boyfriend of six years how I was feeling. He was shocked by how bad it had gotten, but comforted me. He told me I didn’t have to be Wonder Woman and that it was OK that I couldn’t do it all. Even though I knew what he was saying was true, I heard myself respond, “But I have to be the best.” I now realize my anxiety is what can make me or break me. It has driven me to accomplish so many things in life, but now it’s beating me up inside. How could something be good and bad all at the same time? How do I treat something that helps me yet hurts me? My head tells me if I treat the anxiety, then maybe I won’t have the drive to be successful. But I know that’s the anxiety playing a trick on me.

It’s an interesting perspective being a therapist in training and experiencing anxiety myself because I recognize my thoughts as the thoughts I hear from my clients. When my clients say things like, “I have to be the best” or “I can just handle the anxiety, I don’t need medication” I work with them to be more open minded and accepting of themselves. So why can’t I do the same for myself? I know all the tricks and how I would help treat someone with anxiety, but for some reason I won’t help myself or let others help me. Realizing all of this has given me a new appreciation for myself and given me the time to reflect on who I am and what I think of myself. I am opening up to the idea of getting help without feeling like a fraud or failure. I’ve realized I can be Wonder Woman, I just might have an Achilles heel called “anxiety.” I have to constantly remind myself that yes, anxiety has driven me to do some amazing things, but if I let it take over, it could break me. I’ve chosen to refuse to let that happen.

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Thinkstock photo via Nikkitok.

Originally published: June 21, 2017
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