Shared by Cameron Neath
Preoccupation with Perfect
When I was in preschool, or maybe kindergarten, getting me ready in the morning was next to impossible, because I would cry if the seam of my socks did not line up exactly with the edge of my toes. My grandmother called it "persnickety.” My mother called it perfectionism.
I’ve been obsessed with perfection for as long as I can remember. I couldn’t step on sidewalk cracks, my ponytail couldn't have a single bump, I bit my fingernails so they were all the exact same shape and length. In kindergarten, I remember rebuilding the exact same Lego boat every day—because it was perfect, and that felt safe.
When I first encountered letter grades in middle school, getting straight A’s became non-negotiable. It’s not that I loved homework; in fact, I was distinctly lazy at this point in my life. Rather, I associated academic “success” with perfection: being the best in my class would make me the perfect student. The obsession escalated to the point where I sidestepped my exacting value-system (another product of my perfection obsession) by cheating on a math test or a geography quiz to keep up my streak of perfect grades. Somewhere around this time I also stopped drawing from my imagination, instead choosing to replicate other images. The idea of creating anything that would likely turn out sub-perfect caused me anxiety. Eventually, I stopped producing art all together.
Putting Words to a Feeling
It wasn’t until a year ago that I learned obsessive compulsion and anxiety were the roots of this need. I was familiar with the shivers that rolled up and down my spine when our table at the restaurant was not organized so as to create the maximum amount of free space for plates and elbows, but I didn't know it had a name. I remember sitting in Psych class my senior spring of high school, learning about Generalized Anxiety Disorder with a fascination afforded only by those who are thoroughly sure of their own vast distance from the affliction. I thought I was normal—maybe I was a little more particular than the average person, but I was sure that ultimately most people lived this way. Then I started going to therapy.
It was June of 2016 (a little over a year ago now) when I scheduled my first session. My deteriorated relationship with my parents had begun to sour the parts of my life I still loved. In therapy, I learned that my whole life I’ve been high-functioning but highly anxious. That not everyone always switched into the lane with the fewest cars because they needed to drive the most efficient path to their destination. That most people don’t mind if their different foods touched on the plate. That I was among a specific group of people who care a whole lot about (specific) little things that the vast majority of the population does not.
The Trouble with Self-Talk
In therapy, I started learning about self-talk, and that I had been practicing this coping mechanism since I was a child. Whenever I felt anxious, I could convince myself the source of the feeling was in fact benign, that the fear was irrational, that I am strong and I can make it through.
As an example, for most of my life I was terrified that an intruder would come into my home in the middle of the night and murder me and my whole family. To cope with this anxiety, I arranged my room so the bed faced the most doors, and I would sleep with a stuffed animal against my back—all in the hopes that if someone came into my room I could wake up and prevent my own murder. By the time I reached the end of high school, though, this coping mechanism had only magnified my anxiety ten-fold. To survive this increasingly intense anxiety, I developed a new rationalization: if someone entered my room with the intention to kill me, there was nothing I could do to stop that. It may seem nihilistic, but ultimately this release of control freed me. I now sleep best with my back facing the doors, and thanks to therapy I understand that a need for control is the source of my anxiety—allowing me to (ironically) control the power it has, or doesn’t have, over me. I’m still far from tackling my anxiety all together. It still rules many facets of my life. But what therapy has given me are the tools to recognize that anxiety is causing my emotional and physical stress, along with a framework for overcoming it, bit by bit.
Good Enough is Good Enough
If there’s one thing I’ve learned in college, it’s that messy is okay. It took me three years to realize, and I still struggle with remembering sometimes. I still procrastinate on writing papers, because the thought of writing something less than my best scares me half to death. I limit the amount of time I have to complete an assignment so I can only do my best under those circumstances, so I never have to worry about confronting my true potential (and whether or not it meets my astronomical expectations). But the more I remind myself that grades don’t truly matter (at least not in my industry), and that they only ever mattered to me because they mattered to my parents, teachers, and college admissions people who I wanted to impress with my perfection, the closer I come to believing it and to letting go of control.
Even this story is difficult to write. I had a hard time getting started, because I didn’t want to try writing something if it couldn’t perfectly explicate what I was feeling, if it couldn’t achieve the poetic beauty to which I aspired. I put it off all summer because the idea of trying to write it gave me those shivers of anxiety. But if I’m going to write about messy being okay, I have to embrace it, and writing this piece is one way of doing that for me. I’m still going to meticulously edit, write and re-write it to bits, but ultimately I’m going to let go and trust that it’s good enough.
My hope is to remind other Type A, overachieving, first child, valedictorian-type students that even though people tell you you’re gonna mess up sometimes just like everyone else, you won’t. Not unless you allow yourself to. And you won’t survive unless you do just that. Unless you learn to cut yourself some slack, to give yourself a chance to be imperfect for one frickin’ second, you will absolutely drive yourself mad. Before long, the perfection won’t bring you the same satisfaction. You’ll need to do better than perfect, and when you realize that’s impossible the “failure” will crush you. But if you take it in small doses, if you remember that a dent in your car isn’t a death knell, that a B might improve your work more than an A by showing you where to focus your growth efforts, that perfection is frankly boring, you will lead a more rewarding and less stressful life. I wish someone had helped me realize this ten years ago. But it’s never too late to start messing it up, and in the absolute best way possible.