My husband and I went to see Inception last night. No worries. I won't give away the ending. Not sure I could explain it anyway! But the movie's premise about dream and thought control got me to thinking. What if we were to look inside the mind of a worrier or a perfectionist? What would we see.
Well, since my mind is the only one I have ever had the opportunity to look into, I can tell you what I have seen brewing there throughout my life. As in the movie, the mind thinks it can create and control its own reality. We often use our thoughts to try and find ways to control a situation and its outcome. But as we know, often this does not happen. There are just too many external factors going on for us to ever have complete control over any situation.
OK, I write that last statement like it is something I have always known, when in reality I have only begun to grasp it. As a child dealing with perfectionism, I truly thought if I worked hard enough, worried long enough, or thought things through enough, that I could control my life and achieve the outcomes I desired. If I wanted good grades in school, I just had to work harder than expected and I would get them. And I mean "work harder than excepted." Because as a perfectionist, I was already getting excellent grades. But my mind was such that it felt it always needed to be a step ahead to keep those grades up. I often felt that I was one step away from everything crashing down on me. So in order to prevent that, I would do 110% to guarantee that nothing in my present situation would change. Need to do a 5 page paper to get an A? My mind would say to write 6. Need to exercise 3 days a week to stay fit? My mind would say to exercise 5 days. Eight glasses of water a day for health? Better drink 10. 10 books on the summer reading list? Need to read at least 15. And most of all, the trick was to do all of that while still trying to appear "cool" and "care-free" in front of my friends. In my experience with perfectionism, it wasn't about trying to be perfect - but rather trying to maintain what I assumed was the perfect way to be.
Now what about when I knew ahead of time that there was no way for me to control events to produce a positive outcome? Then I often chose not to participate, rather than deal with the fear of failing or making a 'fool' of myself. Competitive sports? No thanks. As a child I would have rather not participated than make a mistake and be looked at as not good enough. Sure, I would participate sometimes when friends would push, but I would hate every minute of it and go over every detail in my head of what I did wrong when the game was over.
Even though I had done well in elementary school, I was very nervous about going to high school. While I wasn't worried about failing, I was worried that I was not going to perform well enough. I was tracked in the honors class and surrounded by smart, popular kids. You would think I would have felt proud of myself, successful, and intelligent. But instead I felt a deep fear of not living up to expectations - my own expectations of who I thought I should be. So with every award, word of praise, or A+ I got, I became more anxious about having to maintain this image of myself. More fearful that at any minute the world would see that I was not this smart, responsible girl they thought they knew, but the inadequate one that my mind viewed me to be.
In writing this, I am hoping to give you a look into the possible thoughts of the perfectionists and worriers in your own lives. I often go back to this younger version of myself (thank God I have grown so much over the years!)and look to see how someone could have helped her. Like I said, it wasn't anyone else's expectations I was trying to live up to, just ones that I created for myself. It wasn't until I was an adult and had to go through some hard times in which I had absolutely no control over what was to happen, that I learned to give up control. To see that I never really had it anyway.
Maybe my younger self could have been shown how to laugh at herself and not take herself so seriously all the time. Maybe if her friends or teachers shared their own failures or imperfections more, she would have realized that being perfect is non - existent and not something to strive for. I wonder if the schools she went to focused on the beauty of individual differences and strengths rather than on grades and class ranks, she would have learned to be more of an individual and discover her own talents and interests earlier.
Or maybe she was just born this way and one of her paths in life was to discover how to accept and love herself for the person she is and to learn to trust in a power higher than her and to just let go. Yes, it was often a hard and long road to get to where I am now, and I still have further to go in my journey. But the path has brought me to the point in my life where I am now, and I am blessed and happy for that. And if my experiences can help my children and others learn how to overcome their anxieties, than every one of them has been a gift.
May your heart be at ease,