NEDAwareness Week Day 2: The Burden of Perfection

I have always been prone to anxiety. I remember sitting in pre-algebra, my right arm warm from the dusty projector crammed between my desk and a peer’s. The week’s fraction quiz glared at me with a large red C circled in the top right corner. A brick dropped in my stomach, weighing me down to the point that my shoulders slumped and my chest tightened to bear the load. I blinked back tears and ended up in the nurse’s office. A “stomach ache,” I said. I called my mom, hoping to escape the anxiety and embarrassment prompted by my disappointment. My mother, being the wise woman she is, comforted me, told me I “did my best,” and did not let me come home. She was right – everything was fine – but the disappointment consumed me. It gnawed at my bones, leaving me hallow and void of emotion. The anxiety – the quickened heartbeat, the sweat trickling down my temples – came with every opportunity for disappointment. Failure terrified me. I learned to clench life’s reins and white-knuckle my way through each day’s anxiety. I lived in a constant state of fear – fear of failure, fear of disappointment, fear of never being enough.

I’m not sure where this anxiety came from – my parents never set performance expectations at home. In fact, I can’t recall getting rewards or punishments for my grades. I was always encouraged to “do my best,” because that’s all you can do. And yet the anxiety, the pressure to meet and exceed some absurdly high expectation, was ubiquitous. Now, I know I set these expectations for myself. That voice within me, the one reminding me that I am not enough, was never satisfied. It crept its way into every nook and cranny of my life and always made its presence known. The self-criticism in front of the mirror. The comparisons with teammates at practice. The missed question on the fractions quiz. This voice thrived under any condition, and, like a parasite, it fed on my insecurity, fear, and deep yearning for acceptance. Perfection became my only option.

But perfection doesn’t exist.

I spent years living in fear, blindly chasing this elusive concept of perfection. Every aspect of my life was defined along cautiously tailored lines and boxes – every choice carefully calculated to avoid failure. Happiness was not the goal; avoiding disappointment was. I avoided stillness – for fear of being trapped with my own inadequacies – and instead sought constant movement, rushing though life as a means to an unachievable end. I was on a treadmill, stagnant, running from who I was and chasing who I wanted to become.

An unhealthy need for control seeped its way throughout my life. Friendships suffered and relationships were nonexistent. Vulnerability – letting others see behind my carefully constructed walls – invoked anxiety and fear. My self-confidence deteriorated, and I turned to my body as a source of control. Controlling my appearance had an allure, an addictive quality. Restriction became incredibly satisfying; exercise, an easily accessible expression of control. I measured my worth by pounds on the scale and notches on my belt. Every mirror was a reminder that I was not enough. There was more to be done. There was always more to be done. I became a slave to my own misperceptions.

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