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We are all doing our best, but how does that relate to anxiety?
I remember my first anxiety attack; I was 12 at that time.
It happened on a pretty normal afternoon. I was doing my homework and realized that I forgot to take the dog out. Seconds later, I noticed that I forgot to take something out of the fridge to defrost, as my mom instructed me in the morning, and if that wasn’t enough, I already heard my parent’s voices in my head calling out my mistakes.
My heart was racing, and I felt like an idiot.
The reason why I failed to fulfill my duties that day was the fact that my thoughts were circling around everything but the things I needed to get done. I was busy trying to figure out how to not get punched by that one dude who was making fun of me, how to get the attention of a girl who I liked a lot, and not acting like a 12-year-old at the same time.
I was a weird child, and unfortunately, that pattern of anxiety became part of my personality—trying to get everything done, pleasing everyone, and pretending to be on top of things.
At that time, I didn’t know anything about self-help, coaching, or mindfulness—but I was already caught up in the loop of anxiety without even realizing it.
My friends noticed that pretty early on and started to use my fragile nervous system to make fun of me. Up to this day, some of them love to push my buttons and watch me explode. I can’t even be mad about that because I have to admit that my erratic troubleshooting is often hilarious to watch—it’s like a puppy dog trying to be in control of things, but often, making things actually worse.
But I was always doing my best and followed good advice that I heard from parents, friends, and, later on, therapists.
After being caught in a loop of anxiety for decades, I started asking myself, “What is it that actually drives me crazy?”—and wondered if some of the solutions presented to me were actually part of the problem.
Here are five examples of so-called positive actions that actually caused my anxiety:
1. Looking at the bright side
None of us want to be “negative Nancy” or “Debbie downer” all day long, but pretending to be “raving Robert” who cherishes everything around him is also quite unhealthy.
Often, we try to be positive even when things are falling apart. We feel the urge to radiate self-confidence and gratitude when we are actually upset about something. Not speaking our truth can be one of the main triggers for anxiety.
2. Setting goals
It is nice to have goals in life, but they have to be realistic. I was a pretty good student, but instead of celebrating that, my dad had bigger plans for me. He always told his friends that I was the smartest kid ever who would be a successful entrepreneur by the age of 18. At that time, I didn’t even know how to spell that word—neither in English or German.
His intentions were good, he was a proud dad, but he never realized that the expectations based on my talents actually crushed my creativity, my ability to accept failure, and my ability to grow up like a normal child.
3. Getting inspired by others
Nothing better than getting inspired by the actions of amazing folks around us, but there is always the danger of belittling ourselves when looking at others. Of course, there will always be someone who is better at something.
“Look at that 20-year-old programming a new software” can be motivational but also scary for a 12-year-old. Just because someone is doing something super impressive, doesn’t mean that we suck if we can’t keep up with that. Most adults understand that, but many, like me, have a hard time accepting this because of toxic patterns from our childhood.
4. Micromanaging everything
It is helpful to be conscious of what we do, but there is this phenomenon called “overthinking.” Obviously, it is a good idea to look at our actions and ask ourselves how we could improve, but if we continuously see the world through the lens of “could have and should have,” we will most probably experience anxiety at some point.
Sometimes we make mistakes, often we feel that there is room for improvement, but it doesn’t mean that we didn’t try our best. Usually, all of us try our best, and failure is just part of our journey. Analyzing every aspect of our life prevents us from feeling good about ourselves.
5. Creating healthy routines
When I first started therapy, I was told to establish healthy routines. The perfectionist “little Robert” tried to take that to the next level. A strict vegan diet, two hours of yoga every day, and other healthy habits really helped me to get my feet back on the ground after years of ruining my physical and mental health with drugs and alcohol.
But at some point, it started creating anxiety. “What if I travel and can’t get my morning smoothie? What if there is not enough time and space to practice yoga for two hours?” Following my healthy routines almost became an addiction itself at some point—and that was definitely not what my therapist had in mind for me.
I am not saying that we should stop looking at the bright side of life, setting goals, getting inspired, managing our lives, or creating healthy routines—all I am saying is that we need to find balance and stop ourselves from unhealthy perfectionism.
Like every medicine, these actions can help us, but overdosing can create the opposite effect.
Especially when positive actions amplify our need to get everything done, please everyone, and be on top of things, we run the danger of suffering from a disease called obsessive-compulsive personality disorder (OCPD).
OCPD is a mental health condition that often gets overlooked because it can be convenient for folks around us. We get things done and receive compliments for flawlessly executing tasks we are given—but when we collapse under the pressure caused by this disorder, we might end up depressed, isolated, and grumpy.
Perfectionism originally caused my anxiety, mindfulness helped me to deal with it, but I (still) have to constantly remind myself that this is an ongoing journey. It is an endless challenge to balance “trying hard” with “not trying too hard.”
As an alternative to this vicious circle of positivity and perfectionism, I keep reminding myself of the best advice anyone has ever offered to me:
“It is about consistency. Touch and let go, do your best, but don’t attach yourself to the outcome. If you keep trying, you will eventually succeed. Don’t be too hard on yourself. Just fully show up every day and try to be of benefit—and the rest will come.”