I have my entire life tried to “do more”. I wanted to read novels before I knew all the letters in the alphabet. Over achiever right here! I strived for perfection because I was led to believe that is how one becomes successful. I wanted to get into college, get a career in veterinary medicine and make a good living. I had a list of goals: become an RVT, get a car, get a Rottweiler, get married and buy a house. Those were my goals. By 2006 I had completed college, became an RVT and was driving around in my car with my Rottweiler puppy and my future husband. In 2010 we bought our house.
However, I wasn’t happy. I wanted to make more money. I wanted a newer car. I wanted a second Rottweiler. I wanted to renovate our house. I wanted to eat healthier. I wanted to “be more” than I currently was.
Fast forward to 2017, when I was put off work on mental health leave and cautioned not to return to the profession I spent my entire life striving towards. This was terrifying.
I took this time to learn about my own mental health and where this constant need to achieve comes from. There are a lot of reasons for it, and some of mine are too personal to share with the world at this point. That being said, there are some simple things I have learned that radically helped me understand my need to be more.
Fear of failure = Perfectionism
I have a fear of failure. Many children develop a fear of failure in their school years, and this is because as a social species we crave approval. Failure disappoints others, or so I believed. This fear of failure creates an internal push to perfection, so eventually even when I wasn’t disappointing others, I was still able to disappoint myself.
I’m not sure where this part comes from. It is probably a combination of the fear of failure, family, culture and societal expectations. At some point I felt that I wasn’t good enough, and I consistently told myself this my whole life. Perhaps my perfectionism created this negative self-talk?
Control (to prevent failure)
I am also a control freak. Fear of failure ties into another aspect of damaging self-talk – control. Control gives the illusion that one can prevent failure. No one can control life, so not only does the fear of failure remain but now there is the added disappointment of “losing control” whenever something goes in a different direction than I had planned. I use the term losing control loosely, because it is the illusion of losing something I never even had.
Knowing when to stop
I did not know when to stop. When is enough? Enough money, enough education, enough exercise, healthy enough. Many of us don’t know when we are done, therefore we continually strive. Society gladly promotes us to strive, because we consume more during the process. There is money to be had in education, sports, beauty, technology, and even health.
There is an expectation in society that we all need to be something better than we currently are.
Babies are encouraged to talk sooner, walk sooner, learn more.
Children are encouraged to be be social, be active, be academic or be athletic.
Teenagers are encouraged to be more academic or more athletic, so they can be more successful in their future.
Adults are encouraged to be wealthier, be healthier, be happier.
It all backfires. Badly.
I bought into the pressures that were relayed to me from childhood that you need to reach for the stars. This created a negative internal dialogue of inadequacy whenever I felt I had underachieved to societal standards. Paired with my perfectionism – a fear of failure and need for control – it was the perfect recipe for high stress, depression and anxiety.
I had various physical symptoms of stress throughout my entire life – GI issues, extreme shoulder pain without injury, depression, acid reflux, optical aurae, anxiety and panic attacks, psoriasis, neck pain and shoulder pain. I should be clear not all my stress was from the pressure of achievement, I have suffered traumas throughout my life that contributed to my current mental health status. However, trauma creates more fear, more need for control and less ability to be resilient to stress.
So how did I undo decades of fear and negative self-talk?
What does any overachiever do? I became educated.
I was introduced to the book Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach PhD on recommendation by my counselor and the message was so simple and complex that it captivated me.
Stop being so critical of yourself, you deserve kindness. You have been through a lot. You are good enough as you are. You don’t need to “be more”.
Can it really be that simple?
I am letting go of ALL of the expectations society has portrayed to me and accepting myself just as I am.
So far it is going well.
The stress of perfectionism is now gone. The frustration I had towards myself when I didn’t achieve my goals is also gone. The judgement towards myself and others is gone too. Embarrassment is becoming less of an issue. I rarely feel guilt for what I think or do. I am overflowing with compassion. I am more forgiving. I am relaxed. I am content. This makes me happy.