I think we bring up little girls with the understanding that they should strive towards perfection.
Boys will be boys, but little girls should have brushed hair and good manners and neat handwriting. If we can only strive hard enough, work hard enough, we could be perfect: and then, someone might love us.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately: partly in relation to my writing (because I struggle really hard to write a messy first draft, and end up constantly obsessing and editing over stuff that should be left well alone) and partly in relation to my life (because I struggle really hard to cope with the idea that my life like my manuscript might be hopelessly messy, and often out of my control).
That being perfect is the goal is probably a message I absorbed particularly well, because my lifelong hobby has been worrying. I worry almost constantly, about everything. Anything can send me into a spiral of fretful reverie, really. And if the goal is self-perfection what a wealth of material for my Inner Worrier to munch on! (I think of my Inner Worrier as looking like a small grey goblin, with a wizened little beard. This goblin is probably male, but I am unclear on the gender norms amongst goblin folk, so I don’t want to assume.) I can always be worried that I should be working harder, that people don’t think I’m trying hard enough, that I’m not thin enough, smart enough, pretty enough, successful enough.
Sometimes my Worrier has been good to me. My little goblin friend is probably the reason I have a first class degree, why I am extraordinarily organized, why I am complimented for my competence. My Worrier gets recognized on my resume and in performance reviews in phrases like “detail oriented” and “highly conscientious.” I think my Worrier is also responsible for some of what makes me function as a writer: my hyper-attention to the world around me, my desire to know and understand the ins and outs of a situation… All part of a toolkit that shape how I write.
But on a practical level, what I’m actually saying is that my Worrier and I will obsess about every minor point and consider all possible eventualities of a given situation (and prepare for them) because I am petrified of letting people down or being seen as having failed. When I make a mistake, no matter how minor, I often end up shaking, panicked, crying, and texting my mum. Because a mistake means perfection has not been achieved.
This is the less great side of living with a Worrier inside, the part that sometimes leads to panic attacks and missing out on stuff I want to do because some days it is just too much to face other people and having trouble sleeping and then being exhausted because worrying is a really tiring extra-curricular activity, to be honest, and then getting into the cycle of being mad at myself for being so bad at not worrying because, as we all know, worrying is not one of those attractive qualities people are meant to have.
Just chill out, yeah?
Because worrying is not perfection.
It’s only perfection if it’s effortless, right?
Right now I’m trying to work on the premise that I probably can’t worry myself out of worrying. It’s a really hard process to undertake because I sometimes so desperately wish I was one of those cool calm totally chilled out people who are just so #blessed, who seem to exist almost entirely on Instagram.
I’m trying to accept that me and my Worrier are, in fact, one and the same and that is ok. That working on coping strategies for when worrying gets out of hand is a good idea, but that it’s also ok for me to defend and be proud of the ways in which my personality (the personality of a worrier) make me a good or kind or competent person. That not only do I not need to apologize for the imperfection of worrying, but that I don’t have to see it as an imperfection at all.
And maybe once I’ve conquered that I’ll start reframing all those other “imperfections” as just part of the inevitable me-ness of me, too.
I’m writing this post because it’s Bell Let’s Talk Day here in Canada and, however you feel about corporate social citizenship, I think we can all agree the aims of breaking down stigma and broadening the conversation around mental health are laudable.
What I wanted to achieve by talking about my experience of lifelong worrying, is that the discussion around mental wellness shouldn’t just be about serious mental health disorders (although talking about how we treat and respond to those who do have acute or chronic diagnoses is a really important task). My firm belief is that in the same way that we all consider ourselves to have physical health that should be considered, nurtured and treated when something isn’t quite right, we all have mental health – some of us are in great mental health, fit as a fiddle, and some of us are really not doing great right now and need some professional interventions and the emotional equivalent of a hot water bottle and a mug of soup from our loved ones. What I’m saying is: mental health is a continuum that we’re all on, and part of destigmatizing mental health is acknowledging that.
I’ve spent the last few months feeling less ok than usual. One of the hardest things about not being ok is this relentless insistence on permanent happiness in our culture that positions a lack of happiness as failure. I love seeing photos and statuses and hearing stories from my friends about everything that is awesome and cool in their lives. But it is also ok (and should be ok) if they want to moan about how their boss sucks, or share that they’ve been really down and missing a loved one recently, or that they’re really super scared about the world right now. Because sadness, grief, boredom, frustration, and fear are natural, necessary, and human responses to the world around us, and it should be ok for us to talk about it all.