How to Cope When Anxiety and Perfectionism Become “Overkill”

If you read this blog with any regularity, you know that I’m more than a little bit of music nut. And, when I really sink my teeth into an artist that I love, I can become something of a super fan. Take, for instance, my multi-decade abiding affection for Colin Hay. He used to be the lead singer of Men at Work back in the 80s. As an aside, if that’s news to you: 1) Slap yourself around a little bit for missing out on lots of good tunes 2) Go download all his solo albums on Itunes. For Pete’s sake–I can help you with your mental health, but you’re responsible for developing a decent taste in music on your own.

Me and Colin HayJust because I need a public venue to share this photo, here is a picture of me and Colin Hay my long-suffering husband took a few years ago at a concert Colin did in Orlando. I *may* have waited outside the stage door like a psycho stalker in the hopes that he would come out and sign my CDs. And look at that, he did. Doesn’t he appear to be thrilled about it too? Just kidding. He was actually super, duper nice–the sort of person you hope your musical idols will be.

A few blog posts back, I mentioned that I secretly have mix tapes (or whatever the youngsters are calling them now–mixed MP3 lists?) in my head for various topics I address in therapy. At the top of my anxiety mix tape is a song Colin Hay first did with Men at Work titled “Overkill.” You can listen to it here in case this topic is of intimate concern to you:

In the interests of total disclosure, I can be an anxious person myself. When I was in graduate school, I had gnarly panic attacks that seriously threatened the thing I enjoy very most in the world–learning new stuff. A professor of mine called the pursuit of knowledge for the sake of knowledge “nerd joy.” I am a total captive to nerd joy on the daily. But, back then, I didn’t have any good tools for balancing my anxiety about the rigors of school with my single-minded drive to be the very best anyone can ever be at everything. I have been guilty of being a perfectionist of the first order.

The thing that anxious people seem to feel most about their anxiety (other than physically unwell because the body process of it sucks) is embarrassed. I know I was. A well-meaning instructor decided that I would become the class project in my doctoral hypnosis class. They were going to “fix” my social anxiety by focusing on me. Yeah, let me tell you about how well that worked. I considered dropping out after 8 years of college just to escape from those kind ministrations. And, the more upset I became that my anxiety was visible to others, the more my anxiety began to eat me alive and the more visible it really was. See how that works? Wishing it away with the utmost fervor you can muster only serves to make it more entrenched. Ugh.

When I see clients presenting with anxiety now, I can empathize with how helpless they feel to address their concerns. Most of the folks that end up in my office complaining about panic attacks and ruminations are extremely high-functioning people. They are smart, capable and have more than a little bit of a sense of humor about their anxiety. However, the more they try to apply the same fixes to their anxiety that they have used in other parts of their lives (study, attack and white-knuckling) the more they struggle. Hey, I’ve been there.

So, what do we do instead?

1) Quit Hating on Yourself: Seriously, it’s not helpful. Research has found that people who are socially anxious actually have increased empathic abilities and an elevated ability to correctly attribute other people’s emotions. That super power can shoot you in the foot big time if you get raw and overstimulated. There is some wisdom to learning that just because you observe something, you don’t have to attend to that thing. Maybe someone in the back of the room is bored by your presentation. Maybe Aunt Vicky doesn’t like your crab salad. Your energies are precious. Give yourself permission to ignore some stimuli and focus on the ones that are salient to your life.

2) Challenge Perfectionism: Perfectionism is not really about having higher standards than the rest of the world, though that may be a part of it, sure. Really, it’s an intrinsic terror of making mistakes and looking silly. Moreover, perfectionism is the thief of spontaneity because it is a form of rigid thinking that drives you like a little motor. When things “have” to be a certain way in order for you to function, you can no longer take joy in what you are doing and experiencing. And, you will make the folks around you miserable as well. Challenge your worst fears about what will become completely unmanageable if you aren’t perfect. And, please, don’t encourage perfectionism in your kiddos. Eventually, they will need to be able to choose their battles and process which things are more important than others. If they really can’t progress through the day unless their partners load the dishwasher a certain way, have you increased their happiness in life?

3) Meditate: There is no possible way that I can emphasize to you enough how important meditation has been in my life. I practice Transcendental Meditation and think it’s one of the absolute best ways for anxious people (well, and everyone really) to manage their health differently. You can learn more about that here: http://www.tm.org/. If that training is out of reach, you can come in, and I’ll teach you a similar technique. I know you don’t want to have to do something every day. I know you already have more than enough to keep you busy. But, do you have time to feel crappy? How much more could you accomplish if you devoted just 20 minutes to good mental health hygiene? Most folks don’t expect that they can work out once a month and have that suffice. So, as much as we would all like to be watching reruns of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (is that just me?) it behooves us to set aside time to take good care of anxiety–a place where our emotional and physical lives intersect spectacularly.

Are you concerned that you’re not handling things as well as you have in the past? Would you like to develop new skills to evolve even more? Why don’t you come on in so we can talk about it.

Your Partner in Healing,

Holly

Are you looking for individual, couples or group therapy in Raleigh? Call me today to schedule a consultation to learn how counseling can help you. Please contact me at (919) 714-7455 or email me at holly@lotustherapycenter.com. Visit me on the web at www.lotustherapycenter.com or:

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