‘Perfectionism Anxiety’ Can Affect Mental Health

Yana Bostongirl

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Calling my family members a bunch of overachievers is an understatement.

Imagine having an uncle who obtained his Ph.D. in his seventies so he wouldn’t be considered any less (status-wise) than his twin, the medical doctor.

Yes, that’s how competitive my family members are.

And when family prestige is thrown into the mix as it is in our culture, vying for first place can reach toxic levels.

What if I told them all I wanted to do is become a writer?

I did. The result was relative after a well-meaning relative came to counsel me in the hope of making me see the ‘light’ or common sense in other words. They were also quick to remind me that it was my duty to follow the dictates of tradition: obey thy parents, get a good education, land a cushy job (optional), get married to a decent sort and live quietly ever after.

Did I want to do that?

Hell no!

But I ultimately bowed down to family pressure.

I went off to college and dutifully collected the degrees which made my family proud.

Yay for them but what about me?

In college, I suffered from bad panic attacks. Since mental health was not an openly discussed topic, I had zero coping mechanisms. Each time I had one of those I felt like I was having a heart attack or something.

Yes, it is true that I didn’t care much for my major in college but since I was the elder daughter (not a son to carry the torch forth) I found myself working doubly hard to make up for the fact that I was born a girl in a culture that values boys more but also to uphold the family honor by being the best in pretty much everything.

No, I’m not being dramatic. A phrase called ‘losing face’ is very much part of certain cultures that Westerners might not be familiar with. Sean Upton-Mclaughlin in his article about cultural basics explains ‘face’ as follows: “ Face represents a person’s reputation and feelings of prestige within multiple spheres, including the workplace, the family, personal friends, and society at large.” ‘Losing face’ refers to actions that may lead to the loss of respect.

I was duty-bound to not let my parents lose face in this bizarre sibling rivalry that was not of my making but I had been drawn into on account of my birth into the said family.

If you think it is complicated, my reply would be “No kidding! Welcome to my world.”

In her article published in Verywell Mind, Anxiety and Panic Disorder expert Katherine Star PhD describes perfectionism as the desire to be a perfect or flawless person in various aspects of one’s internal or external life. She goes on to explain the downside of perfectionism as follows Having unrealistic expectations about the self can contribute to increased feelings of anxiety, dissatisfaction, and difficulty coping with symptoms.”

Yes, I was under tremendous pressure to succeed and even though I learned to internalize my feelings of anxiety because my culture’s take on mental health is more of a ‘Quit moping around and deal with it like everyone else,’ my emotional distress came out in the form of physical problems like mysterious headaches and pains.

However, mine is not an isolated case. A new study titled Perfectionism Is Increasing Over Time” talks about how young people today are increasingly under pressure from their parents. An excerpt from this article published in The Washington Post explains why “Psychologists Thomas Curran and Andrew Hill found that unhealthy perfectionism has surged among young adults, with the biggest increase seen in those who feel pressured by the expectations of others. Perfectionism, the study’s authors say, is a mix of excessively high personal standards (“I have to excel at everything I do”) and intense self-criticism (“I’m a complete failure if I fall short”). In its unhealthiest forms, perfectionism can lead to eating disorders, depression, high blood pressure and thoughts of suicide.

After a particularly bad panic attack in college, I had had enough. It had gotten to a point where I would open a textbook and all I could see was a blur. It was as if my mind refused to comprehend the words or diagrams. My parents must have realized something was seriously wrong because they were quick to agree that I needed a break for as long as I needed to destress and decompress.

Taking a break did me a world of good. I can confidently say, I came out of it a different person. By that, I mean a stronger and healthier person as a result of following a few simple practices.

Three practices that helped me overcome perfectionism anxiety:

Support system:

I was ashamed of my inability to cope and for falling apart under pressure. But I noticed a strange thing. Like my parents, my teachers and friends were most understanding. They did not judge or pass unkind remarks. Instead, they supported my decision for a break-even though they knew there was no guarantee I would return. Perhaps it was this lack of judgment that encouraged me to open up about my fears. Talking about it to my parents helped. They had not been aware of the pressure they had burdened me with. They had wrongly assumed, just like many other parents from my culture, that the pursuit of perfectionism was perfectly normal. But in their defense, they never once made me feel like a failure and did everything they could to provide me with a stress-free environment to recuperate.

Replacing perfectionistic tendencies with realistic thoughts and expectations:

Perhaps the most important question that I asked myself was “What am I killing myself over?” Life would still go on in the grand scheme of things and the earth would continue to turn on its axis even if I failed at something or several things. I was no superwoman and that was okay too. Replacing my perfectionistic thoughts with realistic thinking like “All I can do is my best and as long as I was fine with that, I don’t need to care what others think” helped change my perspective.

Another strategy that I found to be useful was to work on setting more realistic expectations for myself as opposed to the extremely high ones I had previously set. Although I was initially hesitant to do this because it went against my conditioning, once I was convinced of the benefits for me and my mental health, I was all for it.

Practicing Non-Reactivity to thoughts:

I am an overthinker by nature. I tend to think about every possible scenario and make backup plans for backup plans. Maybe it is my way of controlling the unknown but the downside of that is that oftentimes my thoughts get the better of me which in turn amps up my anxiety levels.

I just didn’t know how to take it easy until I discovered the power of practicing mindfulness.

Bob Stahl Ph.D., the founder of multiple Mindfulness—Related Stress Reduction programs, describes it as follows “ Practicing mindfulness is a process of learning to trust and stay with feelings of discomfort rather than trying to escape from or analyze them.

I imagined myself lying on the grass and observing the clouds passing by in the sky freely. In the same way, I learned to observe my thoughts without focusing on the emotions behind them. And then I came to the life-changing realization which was that my anxiety was connected to my thoughts. By choosing to step back and observe my thoughts as they arose instead of immediately reacting to them enabled me to reduce my anxiety levels.

When I said earlier that the mental health break was a turning point, I meant that I could return to college as a changed person. The break had given me time to relax and rethink my life and priorities. I felt empowered and back in control of my life. This time around I knew I wanted to obtain my degree for myself and not to please anyone, prove a point to anyone, or on account of feeling like I was the hapless pawn in a power play among siblings.

Suffice to say the rest of my college journey was one of the most fulfilling and enjoyable experiences in my life. And you know what the icing on the cake was? I graduated summa cum laude and I couldn’t have been more proud of myself.

This post was originally published on Medium.

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