Thursday, October 14, 2010

Cloudy with a Chance of Anxiety: A few Perfectionistic Reflections

When I forget to do something, or make a mistake, or feel for .25 seconds that I have come up short (incidentally, .25 seconds is the time it takes Google to retrieve 22,500 hits on "air pollution" when I searched for my research project), I freak out. Physically. My palms sweat. My heart starts to race. My mind begins to spin like a top unleashed from the grubby hands of a six year old at the park. My muscles tense up as if they are preparing to run the 100 meter dash in the Olympics. And most importantly, my thoughts begin their daily calisthenics of self-reproach.

"You are so stupid!" I tell myself. "Why didn't you double check the spelling of that email address? Why didn't you make sure it was to the right person before you sent that email? Why didn't you think to CC persons X and Y and Z and confirm that they had received it?"

And then the story gets subtler. "Come on, Hilary, everyone is counting on you not to make a mistake. Everyone expects you to be perfect, to be the one who doesn't mess up, to be the one who is always right, always together, always successful, always responsible, always logical and always there. How could you let them all down like that? How could you make this huge, huge mistake and potentially create a problem for others? It's all riding on you now to fix it and make it better and they are all going to be so disappointed in you."

Sound familiar?

I have a firm belief that while only some of you who faithfully read this blog may struggle with psychologically-diagnosed anxiety, everyone feels the weight of these expectations. Everyone tells themselves, I have to be the best. Everyone feels anxious thoughts and anxious feelings. What follows is my (hopefully comical, definitely true) rendition of what I hear people say about failure, anxiety and being perfect, and my translation...

Actual Words: "Mistakes are what help me learn. I love to fail because I love to see myself grow!"

Hilary's Version: "Yeah, I like mistakes - I can forgive other people's mistakes. I don't hold it against them! I love to fail if I'm in a fool-proof, no consequences, padded room where the failure is just designed to humble me but it won't change my reputation among my peers and my community."

Actual Words: "Being perfect, and the desire to be perfect, is very short-sighted and very sinful."

Hilary's Version: "Hilary stop being such an overachiever! How could you ever have been duped into thinking your achievements are what it's about?"

Actual Words: "I used to feel anxiety, but now I just turn it over to God and choose to trust that all things are working together for His will."

Hilary's Version: "Um, sometimes if I have done everything I can imagine and at least 10 things I didn't imagine and run around the every office on campus and cried and yelled and cried again and done yoga and then solved the problem 6 different ways, then yeah, I turn it over to God... wait a second..."

Actual Words: "Don't Worry (doo doo doo dooo) Be Happy! (doo dooo doooo dooo)

Hilary's Version: "FAT CHANCE!"

You get the idea. I want to be carefree. I want to put dandelions in my hair and run around barefoot and not worry that my email is 35 minutes late, or that I annoyed a coworker by talking too much about my blog, or that I'm appearing overly eager to register for my classes this spring. Yet for several years now I have struggled to remove life from my tight fists and let it unfold before me.

I heard a wonderful sermon on Sunday, though, that has gotten me thinking about this "perfectionism" thing. It was about Psalm 134:

1 A Song of Ascents. Come, bless the LORD, all you servants of the LORD,
who stand by night in the house of the LORD!
2 Lift up your hands to the holy place, and bless the LORD!
3 May the LORD bless you from Zion, he who made heaven and earth!

The sermon talked about the need to bless the Lord, not in the sense of benefiting Him or bestowing on Him something He does not already have, but rather acknowledging who He is and what He has done. For the Israelites, blessing the Lord meant giving thanks for the Exodus and deliverance from Egypt. For you, it might be God's provision of a home, a job, that one missing library book or your missing debit card. For me, this semester, it has been the wonderful people I have met, the girls I live with, and the wonderful chaos of Washington, DC. I want to bless the Lord for bringing me to a city where "pedestrian" could be equated with "reckless risk-taker" (YOU try to cross the streets where the cars look like they'd like nothing better than to run you over as you innocently make your way to Cosi!). A city where there are more suits than the entire Brooks Brothers warehouse. A city where you look out the window of your bus and discover that the Capitol building is sitting serenely in front of you, and where you can get espresso doppio from a little hole in the wall across from your office, and you can buy a newspaper called "Street Sense" that is a voice for homeless people.

I bless the Lord for all these things, and the list goes on and on and on... and so it occurred to me that perhaps the best solution to perfectionism is not practice but praise. Maybe we should spend less time trying to "learn how to fail" - because that's really an excuse to be perfect; just perfect at failing - and more time being thankful for the blessings we have been given. Think about it: to trade perfectionism for praise, we have to risk not only the security of our anxiety but also its dramatic thrill. We won't get to make a big hulabaloo when something happens, because we won't be at the center. We won't get hoop-la. If we praise, we risk need. We risk asking for things we do not have and being unable to get them ourselves. We risk being shown up as human, as falling short. I once infamously said to my mother, "But I'M NOT SUPPOSED TO EVER FAIL! I'M NOT SUPPOSED TO BE A PERSON WHO MAKES MISTAKES!" (yeah, it was about something lame, I promise). And I want to hold on to that idea of who I am. But if I praise, if I turn my words and my thoughts to blessing the Lord, as Psalm 134 commands, then maybe I will no longer need to be a person who never makes mistakes. Maybe I will be able to be Hilary, who sings praise. I like the sound of that.

Goodnight, goodnight.


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