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Anxiety Made Me the 'Perfect' Student – but at What Cost?

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In high school, I was often labeled as a “perfectionist,” “workaholic” and an “overachiever.” I used to think it was just this abnormally great intrinsic drive to be the best I could be. Now I wonder if my anxiety was driving my behavior.

Why did I spend triple the amount of time on my science project than the “normal” student would, especially when the average student just put it together the day before? Why did I spend hours upon hours doing Algebra 2 review and practice questions online when others simply scanned their math notes before a test? Why did I come into my AP English class with literally a portfolio of creative assignments for summer reading while others wrote half-assed essays the night before?

Anxiety pushed me. In order to avoid the overwhelming test anxiety that would occur when I reached a test question that I did not know, I studied for hours and hours. It never occurred to me to just read Sparknotes instead of the actual book, because I had to do everything correctly. If I was going to do something, I was going to do it right; it was going to be the best because “good” wasn’t good enough. Anxiety pushed me to participate in every single honors club or organization I qualified for at the time. It made me work endlessly on my science project, eventually getting me recognition and awards at the state level. I may owe many of my accomplishments to this drive, this “high-functioning” anxiety.

But, anxiety is not always high-functioning. It can build you up, but it can just as easily tear you down. When I got to college, I could no longer be the perfect student. I couldn’t make A’s in every single class. I couldn’t be a major part of every student organization. I couldn’t give my all and more on every single assignment, essay or lab report. There was simply too much to do and too little time. I had to sacrifice something in order to do it all, so I sacrificed my mental health. I set unrealistic expectations for myself and became severely depressed when I failed to meet them. Obsessive-compulsive personality traits transitioned into a personality disorder (obsessive-compulsive personality disorder), associated with my first major depressive episode and eventually bipolar disorder type 1 (characterized by full-blown mania and depression).

So, I am nearly done with being a college student with: a decent GPA, numerous volunteering activities, academic research experience and even published article, but at what cost? At what point should one be satisfied with “good enough,” for the sake of their own mental health? How can we prevent anxiety about being the best from becoming all-consuming, a monster that tears us down rather than motivates us? My anxiety tells me to keep going, but it also tells me nothing I do will ever be good enough.

Don’t let your anxiety get the better of you. You are more than your anxiety or perfectionism.

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Thinkstock photo via diego_cervo

Originally published: July 31, 2017
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