Not that long ago I’ve seen a post on Social Media asking ‘What’s your favorite lie?’ I did not answer at the moment, but I know that my favorite one has always been I’m fine. It is the lie I’m telling most of the time, and even if I know I should not, I keep telling it even when I’m anything but fine. Or especially then.
It is bad, yet a deeply rooted habit, and a costly one in terms of mental health and general well-being. But it is far from being something special. In fact, this is part of the factors leading towards what is known as The Caregiver’s Burnout. This is a common condition amongst the caregivers, manifesting as anxiety, depression, physical and emotional fatigue.
But here’s the catch: there are way more caregivers than we tend to admit. The caregivers are defined as persons caring usually for family members suffering from a disability or a chronic disease and are mostly associated with adults caring for their family’s elders. They are not.
A caregiver is also that friend who is always catching and trying to support and lift the others. That friend taking everyone else’s hand during their mentally challenging times and never talking openly about its own. It is that one person that always seems to have their life together, to know exactly where they’re going and what they have to do.
Because not every suffering is visible. Some of us face mental health challenges, others are facing losses, grieving times, there is a lot going on in every person’s life. And, every here and there, it is at least one person being the safety net of their social group. That one person who got the others coming to them for guidance in their tough times. They are caregivers as well, highly empathetic people that care and feel deeply responsible for those guided by them, even if not witnessed as caregivers by society.
And that leads them into a very dangerous trap. It makes them feel like the time for them to talk about their struggles is never now, always later. Now there are others that need their help and support, loved ones that need to receive their best in order to recover or get through the darkness. And this is how they get used to answering I’m fine when they’re asked about themselves. Because they are not a priority on their own list.
This also comes from a strong belief that places bad times as a thing to be kept private. As if, once admitted that you struggle as well, your ability of supporting others would vanish away, making you as weak as they are. Because the strong ones don’t make their dark times public while happen, but only talk about them later, when there are only the scars without the pain. However, truth is we all can struggle at the same time, but not in the same ways. We can (and we do) struggle in different ways, due to different reasons, and at very different intensities. That’s not what matters. What really matters is the ability to manage struggle, frustration and pressure. Because, as an informal caregiver, there’s a different kind of pressure on your shoulders: the thought that you’ve been trusted. That your close one, your friend, the person who asked you for help, did so because it knew you can deal with the situation without being overwhelmed. That you will lift them up, not that they would drag you down. When it comes to a family member that needs to be taken care of, there is a slightly easier burden to carry: you’ve had no actual choice, other than caring for them.
And just like that, the story of I’m fine begins to unfold: with the desire of not being a disappointment to the people which have seen the best in you, and with the belief that there will come a day when you will be free to talk openly about your struggles and allow yourself to ask for the help you need.
Because at the end of the day, what makes a caregiver fail those who trust them by failing themselves is the mix between empathy and fear. You know how it feels to be let down, so you fear that, by saying that you are struggling, you will let the ones that trusted you down. But you’re not. In fact, you would only be helping them more, as they see that it is fine to talk about your bad times. That you can only grow stronger when you learn to be honest. And, the most important lesson one could learn, that it is an act of self-care and self-respect, proof of generosity, as no one has ever been able to pour into other’s souls from an empty cup.
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. 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.
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.
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.