Confessions of a Perfectionist In Recovery: 5 Steps to Tackling My Anxiety

At one point in my distant past, as I worked toward and considered a career in the addiction field, I learned that addicts never fully heal from their disease of addiction. Instead, day in and day out presents its own set of challenges and struggles, and while there may be days where the intensity isn’t as present, there is always a trigger that can pop out of nowhere, requiring intense focus to avoid relapse.

A few years back, I presented myself at counseling because I had just been told (perhaps not in so many words, but certainly in implication) that I was going to hell. Long story short, when the priest called me out for crying at those words, I shared with him, “But, I am trying to be perfect.” When he asked why I was trying to be perfect, I told him, “Because I have been taught by the Church since childhood I need to be perfect, like Mary.” This priest was not a therapist, nor was he very good at reassuring this woman trying to make her way back into the Church feel very welcomed. Perhaps I caught him on a bad day…

That said, I saw the neuropsychologist the insurance company sent me to, for a better part of two years. What I realized during my time with her, is that my streak toward perfectionism is something inherent, deeply ingrained, and something I will have to battle, since it leads to my anxiety. And, it means I will never be fully recovered, but will be a work in progress, always in recovery.

Fast forward several years later, and lots of intense work on myself – with the aid of other clinicians, with the aid of my graduate school knowledge, with the aid of almost a half dozen chaplains (Catholic priests), and the aid of my in-depth research of my Faith.

confessions-of-a-perfectionist-in-recovery

Yesterday, I read an article by Alicia at Sweeping Up Joy. Unbeknownst to her, the article followed on the heels of an incident where I felt my anxiety rise to a level I haven’t seen in years. Alicia’s article, as well as several others I have read recently, made me think of the things I have done to combat my anxiety and self-doubt. I thought it might be helpful to other readers out there.

**Disclaimer: I do not diagnose anyone, nor do I disavow use of medical treatment for tackling anxiety or any other mental health condition. I only offer these as a mere “this helped me.” If you struggle or suffer from anxiety, panic attacks, or any other mental health condition, please seek assistance from a medical doctor or mental health professional. Sometimes, medicine is needed, and that is okay!**

  • The first is to recognize when my anxiety does start to increase. Usually, there is a physiological effect – sweaty palms, labored/short breath, tightening of muscles, some people tense their neck or shoulders. For me, I start having short breath. So, when I start to recognize I am not breathing properly, I start my deep breathing exercises. Slow in, slow out – sometimes, count to ten in, count to ten out.
  • Take a step back and recognize what is causing the anxiety. For some, it may be a smell, for others, it may be something they saw. Others could be triggered by irrational thoughts. This past week, my anxiety was sparked because I felt I had failed my son for a completely irrational reason – I didn’t get him enrolled in the PreK program of choice; instead, he’s first on the wait list. But, my irrationality could not see clearly, and I was devastated because I felt I had failed him. What brought that on was the demeanor of the woman with which I had been dealing during this process of hopeful registration.
  • Take the underlying cause, and address it head on. Some people’s causes are due to lack of sleep – there is something to be said about sometimes having a good sleep or a good cry. It releases pent up emotions and energy and gets. them. out. For me, it was addressing my irrational thoughts – having a back and forth in my head about how irrational the entire thought process was.
  • Implement concrete, realistic parts of the scenario, instead of focusing on the underlying cause. If it’s irrational thoughts, you need to confront them with realistic thoughts (for me, I had to remind myself of the realistic situation… first, it’s only PreK; second, he’s first on the waitlist; third, he has two other options opening up; fourth, there is a reason I place heavy abundance on my faith – there is a reason he didn’t get a slot – I just don’t know it yet.). If lack of sleep is the trigger, leading to exhaustion (which is a huge barrier to rationality), then a quantity filled (not necessarily quality filled) sleep is in order. If it is a flashback, remind yourself of being in the “here and now,” in the present.
  • Reach out to someone – a family member, a friend, a doctor (if needed), a counselor (if needed). Let them know what you are experiencing. Often times, they can provide another perspective, or bring into focus the rational perspective. Or, they can pray for you. Sometimes, you might need to reach out to many people. In my example, I reached out to my husband, who was slightly bewildered at why I was crying; I then reached out to a couple more close friends. Ultimately, that day, it was up to me to recognize the irrational thoughts, and replace them with rational thoughts.

I’m not perfect at following these guidelines all the time. But, I credit three things with not having a panic attack in almost a decade, and keeping my anxiety in check for half a dozen years:

  1. Deep breathing when moments get rough;
  2. Processing the situation that is causing my anxiety (for some reason, having lists make me anxious, so I will rarely use lists to do much – aside from grocery shopping);
  3. My faith – more specifically, the reliance on Divine Mercy and the one line prayer – “Jesus, I trust in You.” It becomes a mantra in times where I am focusing on deep breathing and processing to identify my irrational thoughts.

For those who would like to have a printable with the list of 5 steps, here is a handy printable designed especially for you! 5-steps-to-tackling-anxiety

I will never be “cured” of my perfectionist streak, but now I know anxiety underlies the condition. And, because I will never be cured, I refer to myself as a perfectionist-in-recovery. My perfectionism is merely a symptom of the underlying cause of anxiety.

What about you, dear reader – how have you addressed underlying causes of anxiety?

10 thoughts on “Confessions of a Perfectionist In Recovery: 5 Steps to Tackling My Anxiety

    1. Oh, so true!! For me, that’s where recognizing my physiological cues come into play – knowing what to look for helps me ward off the severity of the anxiety. There are times my body has started to tense up, and I really don’t know why; but, the deep breathing helps center and calm me, along with my “Jesus, I trust in You,” mantra. But, I credit those with catching the symptoms early.

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  1. I’ve struggled with anxiety and perfectionism my entire life. Through the years it’s manifested itself in different ways but I had to really reevaluate things after having my first child premature. I was convinced it was because of stress and anxiety and because of something that I could have controlled. It seems so obvious to me now but at the time I was blinded by the fact that I struggle most with anxiety when I try to implement my own plan or expectations on a scenario. Letting go of that control has really helped me mitigate anxiety attacks. I love all your tips and I’ve used most, if not all of them myself. Great post – thanks for being so honest and sharing your story.

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    1. Yes! I love the “letting go of that control has really helped me mitigate anxiety attacks”! That is so true. I think people that meet me often wonder how I can be so “go with the flow”… there’s a reason – it’s for the good of everyone around me! 😂

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    2. I love the comment “I struggle most with anxiety when I try to implement my own plan or expectations..” How very true that is. Let go and let God is a great prescription, but not always rational in the heat of the moments.

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  2. I experience free-floating anxiety. I am pretty sure it caused by hormonal fluctuation. Since it isn’t caused by anything I am even thinking, I can’t really talk myself out of it–I just have to wait it out.

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    1. And, that definitely is another possible contribution! I think recognizing the symptoms as they set in would allow you help in riding it out – you pretty much know it’s coming on, so hopefully can quiet your mind and get centered in order to ride it out!

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