The poisoned thread

Today I’ve decided to write about one of the things with the biggest impact on our mental health: perfectionism. Defined by APA as the tendency to demand of others or of oneself an extremely high or even flawless level of performance, in excess of what is required by the situation.

It is a topic long discussed in the field of psychology and cognitive sciences. A personality feature with its own scales to be measured. But, most importantly, it is part of our everyday life, and it affects us all, aware of it or not.

I’ve been a perfectionist for literally all my life, asking a lot from the others, and even more from myself. Because it felt like the right thing to do, the way to evolve, to improve. I’ve been convinced that the only way to be a better person is to be more: to do more, to get involved more, to know more and more, about all things that make you curious. There was always room for improvement, and it still is.

But only when I have lost everything that felt important to me I got to discover that I was, for so long in my life, hanging on a poisoned thread. When everything left with me was the perfectionism screaming in the sleepless nights, telling me that I’m a complete failure.

That I’ve failed myself and everyone else who’s believed in me and my ability of making this life feel worth living. That I am a disappointment, and I have to work harder than ever to gain back all that I’ve lost. That only if I will become twice as good as I used to be before I failed and ruined everything, I will take back the things I’ve lost. That the guilt I was feeling for what happened is the only legitimate feeling, the only thing that I’m supposed to feel.

Easy to say that this whole speech was no good. That it only brought back issues that I have been feeling like I’ve overcome. That every little progress achieved in the past years felt like gone for good. That not the period when I’ve lost the main things that used to give me a feeling of meaning was the peak of the fall, but the period when the perfectionist inside me started to have its monologue over and over.

Obviously, I tried my best to diminish that: had numerous attempts of losing the weight I’ve gained in my depressive period, tried to dive into the freelance writing thing, and started to keep a diary where I was rating my weeks, in order to see how things go. It was supposed to be my recovery diary, but it was nothing like that. In fact, taking a look at what I’ve been writing there, I see no progress, but self-sabotage, self-doubt and guilt. A lot of self-blame, too.

One of the most relevant fragments about the way my perfectionism almost destroyed me sounds like this: I want to believe that everything will be alright, that I didn’t lose everything, but it sounds so fake. I know, sometimes I forget the fact that I’m really, really young, but do I really have enough time left to fix everything?

I’m sure that everyone had moments when it felt like this, but the thing is that, even so, being a perfectionist isn’t, till now, seen as a problematic trait. In fact, we’re encouraged by everything around us to give our best, day after day, caught up in a so-called successful thinking spiral.

You have to work more, to learn more, to achieve more, to do more. Day after day. Ain’t nothing wrong about a person trying to make every single aspect of its life to be close to perfection. In fact, it’s a model to be followed, as that person works hard to improve her life. And this is one of the most important things we should get rid of: the belief that perfectionism means improvement.

This is how you discover that there’s more to that definition. It is associated with depression, anxiety, eating disorders and other mental health problems. And it comes to a moment when you get to be fully aware about these things, usually when you get to experience them yourself.

At a certain point, it is just the logical aftermath: you try to make everything perfect, so you get frustrated when your attempts are failing. This, if it often happens enough, brings up the feeling of unworthiness, and we all try to cope with it in our own ways. And I had to become tired, completely tired, in order to understand that the way to progress is not perfectionism, but patience. That, actually, being a perfectionist is nothing to brag about, but rather a toxic personality trait that one should be aware of and try to manage.

Because my history with being a perfectionist girl is not only my story. It is a small fragment of a collective narrative telling us daily that, in order to be worthy- of appreciation, of respect, of love, we have to work hard in our attempt of becoming perfect beings.

That you’ll receive more as you’ll do more. That only the weak people have bad days or bad periods of time. That the second place is a loser and the first place is the only one worth considering. The all or nothing narrative, the toxic speech of a perfectionist generation, raising other perfectionists, which have, somehow, to address to other types of challenges.

This is how everything begins, by understanding that being a perfectionist can be a huge trigger for things that you’d never want to experience. That it is not the price you have to pay for a successful life. That you don’t have to glorify a toxic trait if you feel like it puts you in a bad place, mentally and emotionally.

Because, at the end of the day, that’s the trick: there’s a difference between trying to do your best in a situation, and trying to reach the perfection. And the difference comes from the fact that doing your best is human, natural, subjective and imperfect. Perfection is just an invention. It is a fiction, a very loved one, but with nothing human in it. We’re not born to be perfect, we’re born to be the best people we could be, and that’s something that changes day after day.

Sometimes your best means that you got out of bed and went to work, when you’ve cried all night before it and just wanted to end it. And there are times when your best makes you proud of yourself, and the whole life seems to glow. Life is not linear, and it is not made to be linear, and trying to make it perfect is the perfect recipe of giving up on the little joys that make it beautiful, human, and, at the end of the day, worth living.

Don’t worry. The anxiety of everyday’s life

Don’t worry. I’ve already lost count of how many times I’ve been told this line. And, I agree, sometimes I really, really should not get worried, but there’s more to it than just that.

Actually, the right answer for How are you? should be, in my case, Anxious. Because I’m anxious a lot, and this got me into a lot of things. You see, the world we live in makes anxiety seem normal, but it’s not. It’s a trap. Anxiety is not a normal response, and if it is, then you’re living in the wrong environment.

Because, if we’re honest with ourselves, anxiety is rooted in fear. We’re scared of things, and we’re mostly scared of things we can’t control. Anxiety is the fear that something bad could happen. We don’t know why, we don’t know when. We only know that it is possible. That it is around the corner.

If I’d have to use a metaphor, I’d say that anxiety is that petty chick who comes at the party only to ruin it. Anxiety is, as much as we hate it, a thief. It steals our ability of enjoying the good we are living now, making us think that we are going to pay for that joy later, when the bad will strike.

While trying to get in a better mental state, recovering after emotional traumas, I’ve got to acknowledge all the things that I was doing and that were signs of my anxiety. People talk about being anxious around us all the time. Many times we have anxiety issues ourselves. But how many of us have the knowledge of the anxiety inducing behaviors as being such?  Here’s a little bit about the behaviors which are signaling anxiety issues, that I thought would  be helpful to share with you.

  • Criticizing my every movement

Anxiety does not come alone. It comes with her best friend, overthinking. And they have learned to play nice with perfectionism, so here’s the big triad.. As an anxious person, one tends to be overly critical with themselves. And this is how the joy and good mood are stolen away from you. By overthinking and criticizing yourself constantly, for the smallest thing, throwing shade at your own progress.

  • Thinking that I have to be perfect to avoid judgement

Remember that wild, wild mix of anxiety, perfectionism and overthinking? That’s also responsible for another self-sabotaging belief: that you have to be perfect, so that others won’t judge you. Here comes the thing: you don’t owe anything to anyone. The imperative of perfection is one of the most common signs of anxiety, but this doesn’t mean that you have to fall for it. Keep in mind that perfection is nothing but a lie, and enjoy every little thing that makes you smile.

  • Resenting myself for not living up to everyone’s standards

The whole thing about anxiety is that it often makes you feel like your best is never good enough, that the ones you care about feel like you’re not that great. Which might lead to the belief that, in order to be loved, you have to meet the standards of all those  people you love. This is not only harmful, as it brings a huge amount of pressure, but is definitely unrealistic. Most of the time, those people can’t fully live up to their standards themselves, and trying to meet them is nothing but a vicious circle. Conditioned love is not love, and the only standards you should make reality are your own. Regardless of what anxiety tries to tell you.

  • Believing that everyone is judging me

Well, this is a bit more complex, as it involves the belief that something is  bad. And, even if sometimes it really is, most of the times,  it is not. People judge people all the time, and this happens for many reasons. Just think about it. A compliment is as much of a judgement as an insult is. The good part is, however, that other people’s judgement is not a mirror of your personality and worth. You can be as much of the person that you feel like as you want, people will judge you either way. Regardless of how much you’d like to have the certainty that you make a good impression, this has nothing to do with your real self. But it is not an excuse for not being a decent human being either.

  • Worrying about my word choice I used while interacting with people

This tends to happen, from my experience, because we’re struggling with making good impressions. We want to have a good image, not offend anyone, and often enough this makes it harder to freely express ourselves. We tend to pay some extra attention to the way we say things, so that what we say would, ideally, bother no one. The truth is that there is no such thing. No matter how carefully we will choose our words, there will always be that someone who’s going to be bothered about what we say and how we do it.

  • Thinking that everyone could see inside my head

This is a common idea, that people can read our minds. Or, anyways, at least our emotions. I’ve had to face this countless times, the thought that people will read my mind through my tone of voice, my facial expressions or my choice of words. This brought, of course, some added pressure and some added social anxiety, as I’ve always hated being misunderstood or, even worse, exposed. The news is, however, that a few people, even those who know us really well, will be able to do this. Actually, it happened to me that some things that in my mind were already really, really obvious, to be unknown by those  people I thought saw them clearly. This remains one of the main reasons why I encourage people to be honest, as no one could read minds.

  • Feeling unable to or too afraid to speak up

Oh, well. This is a huge part of the typically anxious discourse, also known as If everyone will like me, then I will have nothing to fear. There were times in my life when only the thought of speaking up my mind made me want to hide under a rock. Growing up, I discovered two things: that this is called social anxiety, and that the world won’t fall apart if I say what I think.

  • Fearing that I could come off as stupid

And that’s another “pretty” side of being anxious. The one where you doubt yourself so much, that you keep digging for new things. News, books, movies, you’re in a continuous rush to be up to date on  the hottest topics, so you can entertain a smart conversation. Stop. No, seriously. Stop wasting time and energy documenting on subjects you don’t care about, just because anyone else seems to. You’re not stupid, you just have different interests, and that is perfectly fine.

  • Feeling that I have to overachieve, be the best at everything and know everything to be considered intelligent

This brings, by far, the biggest amount of anxiety. The constant pressure of the thought that, in order to be seen in a good way by others, you have to have everything together, all the time. Career, education, relationship, friendships, hobbies, everything. Otherwise you’ll be dismissed, as not being good enough for the people you love. Pause for five seconds, acknowledge that no one has it all together, all the time. Some areas of our lives make slower progress than the others, but that is progress as well. Take things one day at a time, and tell that inner voice to shut up. You’re only human, after all, just like everyone else.

  • Nail biting and skin-picking

Sometimes, our anxiety becomes visible for others around us via some physical signs. These are the most common and, for some people, the most annoying. I am guilty of doing them myself, and even if I haven’t tried it yet, I know that there is nail polish specially made for getting rid of these habits.

  • Avoiding eye-contact

Having social anxiety will make eye-contact appear as a risky move, especially when it comes to meeting new people. And I can totally understand. It must be terrifying to look into someone’s eyes and think about all the ways that they could be judging you, or about every single scenario that could work out wrong. It happened to me as well, countless times, and even if keeping up with making eye-contact helped me be more comfortable with it, there are still days when I’d look anywhere else.

These are the main ways in which  we are robbed of the joy and goodness of the moment. By falling for all the fears and the what could go wrong scenarios. But living with anxiety means that I have also found some tricks to decrease its impact on me. Here are a few of them.

  • Avoid the news channels

I have to admit, giving up on watching TV News was one of the greatest decisions I have made recently. It didn’t only save me time, but it also made me less anxious. This happens because news are usually presented in a manner that makes the world appear as a more frightening place than it really is, fueling one’s anxious scenarios.

  • Do things manually

Even if we talk about writing, painting, drawing, cooking or any other craft, use your hands. You could just be painting your nails in a bright shade, and it’s already enough! When I feel anxious, my go-to move is, usually, cleaning up the kitchen, but whatever you feel it’d be helpful works. Just use your hands, so your brain won’t be distracted and the anxious thoughts will, eventually, vanish away.

  • Breathe

Yes, yes, that simple. Breathe. Inhale, count to 10, exhale. Repeat this as many times as you need. Everything’s going to be ok. You’re safe.

  • Have a routine

Anxiety is all about the lack of certitudes, so work on minimizing that as much as you can. Eat at the same hours, wake up and fall asleep at the same hours, keep a diary to help you have a better view on your days.

  • Spend more time with yourself

Question yourself and your anxiety. Learn about what triggers it, why is it manifesting the ways it does, discover your own ways of making it have a minimal impact on  your life.

  • Be socially selective

And by that I mean Cut people off. Do you know those people that are always worried about anything and everything? Exactly. Your life is way better without them constantly around you. Cut them off, or at least talk to them as rarely as possible.

This is the summary of my journey across the Anxious Land, a journey far from its ending. What I’ve learned about it, and about any other mental condition, is that it doesn’t heal. Yes, it will disappear for a while. Yes, it will get better. But it won’t last forever. There will also be periods when it will return and when you’ll feel weak. It’s ok, we’re all humans. Seek help if you feel like it is needed, but never forget that you are worth more than your anxiety tells you, and that there’s a difference, a huge one, between fear, the real, legitimate fear, and anxiety. And the difference is that fear comes as a message of warning, while anxiety comes as a thief, trying to steal your smile. Don’t let it, you’re better than that.

You’re only owing to yourself

We live, as mom once said, interesting times. In today’s fast and furious world, one can do with less sleep, but not with less social-media. We talk with our loved ones, read, share photos, music, thoughts with others, and, when we put things this way, social media seems to be an inoffensive, happy place. But this is also the problem.

As going through my own recovery journey, I’ve became fully aware of something that I used to know only as a theory: social media is doing more harm than good in the process.

This happens because no one on social media is really honest. We share the bits that we love from our lives, the highlights, and this is how the fraud begins. We are creating a perfect image for the others, but, in exchange, we tend to forget that they’re doing the same thing. We tend to forget that, for some people, social media is a career, what they do for a living.

And that’s how the harm is done. By comparing our raw, unfiltered real life, with the fake, perfect lives of the social media people. We look up to them, take them as standards, and then we’ll look back at ours and see the huge differences between them.

This is how any progress gets lost in the long run, just because we tend to forget the essential: there are no two recovery journeys alike. Every single one is unique, intimate and special. Share yours if you feel like it, but don’t take other people’s perfect social media lives as goal or comparison terms.

Because, if there’s something worth saying about it, then would be the fact that social media is a very, very powerful tool. It connects different people, different stories, different images form all over the world, in no time. This can make or break any kind of mental progress a person’s trying to achieve, being the main reason why social media should be used wisely.

I don’t say that being active on social media is bad. Actually, I spend a lot of time online. But, as I’ve started this rather uncalled for mental health journey, as old scars have opened again in front of me, hurting, I became more aware of the social media influence on me.

Social media, with all the perfect photographs, fueled my body insecurities. I know, it sounds childish, but being overexposed to so many images of perfect bodies constantly has only made me feel worse about mine. Even if, in the back of my mind, I was totally understanding that some of those perfect bodies are the byproducts of a whole team, usually consisting in fitness trainer, dietician, make-up artist, hairstylist, photographer, and the almighty Photoshop.

Even so, I couldn’t help, but ask myself Why am I not looking like that, or even close, at least? and fantasizing about how my life would be better if I’d be prettier- the social media kind of prettier. That was my revelation moment, when I’ve started to unfollow the accounts that were making me feel bad with the way I look.

And that was also the point where I’ve decided that it’d be a good move to unfollow all the accounts that I recognize having harmful potential. It might not be the easiest decision, but it was one of the best taken on this: to unfollow, unfriend and block every single one that made me feel less than enough.

Because, one of the social media’s wonders is that, even though you’re surrounded by content all the time, you choose what kind of content will surround you. And understanding this was a total game-changer. My feed started to look different: more young artists, more mental-health-supportive, more visual (and in a very, very good way, as I’ve discovered a whole world of photographers and illustrators hidden by all those IG models), and, generally, much more uplifting.

Of course, social media connected me with people that helped me become the individual I am today, awesome people I couldn’t see myself without, but I’ve also met people that, by  having contact with them or simply seeing their posts, were awakening my, so-thought, long time burried unworthiness feelings. But, at the end of the day, when I’ve acknowledged for real what it means that my mental health an well-being are at stake, I’ve managed to understand things at a deeper level. To take them more serious.

By continuously looking for answers, as my mental state was worse, I found some, not only about body image, on my relationship with social media. I’ve discovered that social media has a serious impact. More than I’ve thought before it could have. It brought up strange, yet common mix between addiction, exhaustion and not feeling good enough.

It is easy, when you’re a perfectionist nature, to mix all these things up. You want to get that perfection that seems so achievable  in the online.

Because, if you’d ask me, I’d say that is the biggest problem with social media: that it makes perfection look ordinary. It makes you believe that having the perfect job, perfect body, perfect relationship, perfect outfit, perfect house or vacation is not only something that everyone could reach, but that it is so common, that you must do something wrong somewhere if your life ain’t perfect.

And this could be seriously draining for one’s emotions and psychic, even if that individual faces a mental condition or not. It could, if used carelessly, make the individual develop some sort of condition, in time. This is why we have to change the approach. To post relevant content for who we are, regardless if it is matching the trend or not, and be careful about what messages we receive from the accounts that we decide to follow. Also, there is this little thing that, kept in mind, will certainly do the difference.

The truth is, again, that nothing will ever be perfect. Not in the real, daily life. Here everything has ups, downs and stopping points. We have normal bodies, each of them special and beautiful in its very own way, and lives that can be just as pretty as we allow them to be.

Because, if you get out of the social media thing for a second, you’ll see that the world is still a pretty place, and life is still beautiful. That there are people who genuinely love you and care about you, even if they don’t tag you everywhere, spend every free minute of their lives with you or shower you with gifts. That your followers are not a way to measure your worth as a human. And, generally, that there is life outside the social media, too, and we have to live that.

We have to live it unapologetically, without any kind of filters. To stop trying to please everybody, to speak more of our minds, to share our feelings and thoughts more. Because a life doesn’t  have to be picture-perfect to be worth enjoying it.

Actually, what we see on social media is not a life. Is a collage made of cut-outs. A big painting made of the tiny detalis that used to be the highlights of every day, week, month, year, but arranged in such a way that they’d eventually fit.  Everyone out there is building a social narrative of their lives, based on the moments that made them feel and look good.

Even if they don’t put it on display, people still have bad days, periods when everything seems to be wrong. And it’s ok to be like this, as long as the bad times are part of what it means to be human.

Of course, talking on social media about the struggles of existence is a wonderful trend, that I really hope it would last a lifetime. But, in the meantime, things tend to remain the same as they were when, talking to a friend about what made me write this articles series I’ve told her that I do it because I have nothing to lose anymore. If I’d have the smallest thought that I could lose something, that I would be judged, or that my loved ones or the people whose opinions matter to me would look at me differently, I wouldn’t write a line.

But I have nothing left to lose anymore, so I keep writing, hoping that these pieces of text help. Live the life your own way, and, when you’ll have your next scroll, keep always in mind that what you see on social media and what you get in real life can be two really, really different things. No one has it all, and for sure not all the time, but getting guilt trips over not being able to reach social media’s ideals of living is not a thing we should let happen any sooner.

Scroll down wisely, and keep in mind that the reality happens always offline, what we get on social media are just some beautifully crafted postcards from it.