Anxiety and the Pursuit of Perfection

Everyone has their own idea of perfection. Many live their lives in pursuit of that ideal. Some run themselves into the ground trying to achieve it, only to find it wasn’t what they expected.

Anxiety is extremely common nowadays, but due to it’s often ‘invisible’ nature, can be left unacknowledged by the peers of sufferers. Unfortunately, the combination of a media-fuelled, reputation-obsessed society has changed people’s ideals of “perfection” from the spiritual to the material. When the two combine this can all become a bit of a disaster. Here’s why I think said “perfection” can be over-rated.

To be read with ‘Hold On’ by Wilson Phillips playing emotionally in the background.

My friends say I’m defensive and I’ll admit this is true. There are times they question my idealistic views and fantastically irresponsible actions, and I am quick to justify my reasoning behind these as passionately as if I were arguing my case in a court of law. I can be very easy to wind up. There’s always been quite an anxious side to my personality but I think it was exacerbated the moment I stopped being spoon-fed at school and stepped out into ‘the real world’ with absolute conviction that this was the ‘The Beginning’ and every decision I made from now on had to be the right one, disregarding the prior eighteen years as if they were a mere nine months preparation in the womb. I felt freshly invincible, with fierce faith and a desire for perfection too foolish and heavy a burden for anyone to bear.

I did not pace nor forgive myself in any of my gap year pursuits: jobs, dance college applications, my appearance. I was pushing too hard against brick walls until my nose bled and I’d lost so much weight I had to hold my clothes up in public so that they wouldn’t fall down. I was burning enough candles to light a small church, because I knew that if I never became a professional dancer I’d berate myself and blame that one time I missed class. My sunny, broad perspective had petered into tunnel vision and made me completely miserable – debatably depressed. Not just about dance – that was a superficial symptom and not the cause – but everything.

Daily tasks would seem like a battle just because I was convinced I had to complete them flawlessly. It sounds ridiculous, and it was, but that was my thought process and if the outcome was otherwise my self-esteem suffered for it. My mum loathed self-help, being raised in a generation where you ‘just had to get on with things’ if you were feeling down – unlike today where there’s a pill for everything – but she had tears in her eyes as she wiped the blood off my face with concern and a wet flannel, asking if she should dial the numbers I’d already punched into the phone earlier that day in private. I sought help for my neurosis, but increased focus on the problem was the exact opposite of what I needed; It was only making me more self-involved and aware.

Determined that I must succeed in all my goals (or if I failed, to be content with that failure, bounce straight back and persevere), Aaliyah’s ‘Try Again’ was my on repeat in my head (lol), but I seemed to forget I was only human and didn’t allow myself any time for recuperation or reprieve when I’d suffered an emotional blow. Everyone knows that at the age of 18, there are a lot of those. Eventually my physical and mental capacity to keep going became depleted along with my adrenaline levels, and for a year and a half the blood from my nose totally replaced the blood that was meant to appear between my legs each month. I didn’t get into dance college, and though you might think first year at university would smooth out the kinks in my highly-strung psyche – it didn’t.

I was so conscious this was the start of the next big milestone in my life that I spent most of my time perfecting essays and over-analysing the fun out of everything. In addition were the two heartbreaks I experienced simultaneously: one, the typical pain of ‘first love’, and two, the death of the dance teacher who’d made me realise my passion in the first place.* The latter was the turning point for my restricting mentality, a time when I realised the only palpable thing my pursuit of perfection had got me was a beta-blocker prescription. My life was not perfect because I’d lost one of the most important people in my life. Almost overnight I went from one extreme to the other and slowly began to care for myself less and less, so wrapped up in mourning. But situations often get worse before they get better, and this turning point is probably the only blessing in disguise such an immense amount of grief would ever offer me.

Three years later and I can no longer use failure as motivation like others do, but thrive on encouragement and assurance like a child being rewarded with stickers and lollipops for good effort. Because no matter how small the feat, I have learned what it’s like to struggle and lose. Life is better this way, swimming with the current instead of against it and not diving too deep into the murk of my own mind. I have amputated those dark years like limbs I know I am better off without and now, I barely remember them. It almost seems alien typing this, despite my knowledge that they’ve aided me in the long run. I’ve used my experience to my advantage, returned to my original, happy self and my blood now exits from its rightful place again. After eighteen months, I came on five minutes after the relief of receiving my exam results. Mad how in sync the body and mind are.

So, now I know how I work.

Anxiety changed me a bit; I used to work well under pressure, now I’m not so good at that. However, I’ve lightened up and learned that situations turn out well for me when I take things as they come. I no longer worry, about almost anything. In fact, I’ve probably gone too far the opposite way. I’m so laid back I’m horizontal (literally, most of the time) and while I keep this detached, casual attitude, I seem to land on my feet. I’m aware this may at times seem presumptuous and naïve, but personally that’s how I cope and for me it’s the best way. I know I seem away with the fairies half the time, but contrary to popular belief I am aware of what I’m doing and there are reasons for it, so if someone criticizes the way I handle things, I remember all too well the way I used to criticise myself and don’t want to hear it. I like it like this. Yes I’ve cut off those limbs, but there are scars in the form of my defense and that, as far as I’m concerned, is a small price to pay for the comfort I now have in my own skin, and the confidence that my life will be successful because I am happy, whether or not my signature is immaculate when I sign an application form (I really was quite crazy) or I’m able to perform a triple pirouette.

I guess my anxiety was caused by a mixture of both the negative and positive: insecurity mingled with my excitement for “the rest of my life” pushed a bit too far. It took a real problem like death to wake me up. Anxiety is relative and when you’re in it, it’s all you can see. Ranging in shape and size, most of you reading this article have probably suffered to some degree at one stage in your life. Obviously I can’t cure ya, but I can promise you that life WILL improve. I’ve fulfilled more of my dreams this past year than I did back then, with less than half the effort, simply by cutting the heavy junk and sticking to what I love. Idealism and fantastic irresponsibility included. Everyone has the right to be happy and succeed, but what most people forget is that everyone also has the right to be sad and fail; it happens sometimes. You are more likely to achieve an authentic sense of perfection simply by relaxing and thinking positively about life. As T’Pau says, don’t push too hard (sic) your dreams are China in Your Hands (again, lol).

“I wish you well on your pursuit of being.”

*My late dance teacher actually inspired my first poem, and that’s when I started to write. I have her to thank for this article as well as every piece before and after it, because she’s given me another passion to pursue. Thank you Nadine Rahel Mehta.
Photo by Buse Demerci

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