This Is the Life of an Anxious Perfectionist

The affirmation app on my phone buzzed my randomly generated mantra for the day: “I can do whatever I set my mind to.”

Immediately I felt conflicted. Those clichéd little words did lift the downtrodden, self-doubting parts of me, but that was only momentary. The mantra also activated the anxious perfectionist in me. “I can do anything” quickly morphed in my mind to “I must do everything. And I must do it perfectly.”

It was twisted, but it was also my normal. For the first 40 years of my life, I didn’t cut myself a break for anything. Perfection was the only acceptable state, so I lived with a constant critical internal dialogue. I was never satisfied. Everything—a test, a social event, even doing the laundry—revved me up. I demanded perfection from myself while simultaneously expecting failure, berating myself for what were sure to be subpar wash-and-fold skills. I can’t do anything right.

When bad things happened (hard breakups, a car accident, hurt feelings), my perfection ate away at my insides even more. I steeled myself and resolved to endure whatever failure I was responsible for (because the breakup, the car accident, the hurt feelings must, after all, be my fault). Showing weakness would compound the failure, like a neon arrow pointing it out for everyone around me.

The irony, of course, was that while I was holding up perfection as the most valuable attribute I could possibly possess, the obsession was actually doing damage, holding me back. Perfection drives achievement but stifles creativity with an omnipresent negative voice that says, “Are you sure you want to try that? You might fail.”

Eventually my perfectionism met its match: parenthood.

The exhaustion and chaos dissolved my steely structure, tumbling me into what felt like an endless well of failures. I don’t like how perfectionism steals warmth and laughter from small, easy moments with my family. The perfectionist in me thinks if we are not 15 minutes early for a movie, we might as well not go at all. The perfectionist wants to micromanage my daughter so her clothes are folded and put away neatly. The perfectionist leaves a birthday party grumpy because she said something goofy to a stranger, unable to believe no one really noticed because they were having a good time.

After the birth of my second daughter, my anxiety was through the roof. “That sounds really hard,” my therapist said. “If you could respond to yourself with compassion, what would that sound like?” I laughed. Cutting myself some slack would sound like weakness. But it also sounded a little bit like hope.

The seed planted, I looked up University of Texas professor of educational psychology Kristin Neff, Ph.D., who literally wrote the book on self-compassion. (If I was going to do this whole self-love thing, I was obviously going to do it perfectly!)

Doing exercises in self-compassion felt silly and self-indulgent, but I decided to try anyway. The How Would You Treat a Friend? exercise was the easiest place to start. When confronting enormous self-criticism over skipping the gym or taking a nap, I imagined what I would say to my BFF if she practiced the same kind self-flagellation I did. Would I talk to her the way I talked to myself?

I knew I’d gotten too used to saying cruel things to myself, but the thought of unleashing my own internal monologue on someone I care about was absurd. Instead, I would tell a friend, “It’s okay to take a break. You have to rest to manage all the things you are responsible for. If you end up sick and exhausted, nothing gets done. Perfection is not worth being too stressed to enjoy your family and your life.” It sounded like smart advice.