Recovering Perfectionist

I prefer good coffee and a circle of digital connections for this conversation about recovery. So why don’t you grab your drink of choice, and let’s gather around the glowing screen. It’s time for me to reflect on my journey of recovery, and I’d be humbled if you served as witness.

I’ve come a long way in at least naming my symptoms and tells rather than being utterly oblivious to them–consumed by the latest obsession. That thing I absolutely had to get PERFECT at the expense of every aspect of self care and relationship prioritization. You know because you’re here in my digital circle baring witness and raising a glass of your favorite beverage.

I now know that my perfectionism manifests in a laser-like focus that feels as good as a drug and crashes nearly as hard. I can block out nearly everything and forgo sleep, conversation, regular meals to Get. It. Right. Which of course means the definition of “right” in my own head. Which of course is nearly always unrealistic for the time and resources I have. Which nearly always disregards all of the priorities and intentionality I claim I want to live by. But for hours and maybe days, I can be in a manic flow state.

The dark driver I hadn’t named until very recently has always been a likely bedfellow to perfectionism but a symptom for which I never had a name. I called it “insomnia” when I was 12 and would wake up in absolute terror, unable to fall back asleep for hours. Calmed only by the rhythmic breathing of my much younger sisters as I would crawl into bed with them, desperate for peace.  I called it “stress” in my 20s when my muscles would contract so deeply I couldn’t relax them even if I focused. Only doctors could untangle those knots I had woven–my muscle tissue calling attention to what I could not identify.

In my 30s I can now name it: anxiety. A spiral of thinking that takes hold of me when I am stuck in a particular battle with perfectionism. And while perfectionism is the constant companion lurking in nearly every thought process, anxiety is more like the hype man–jumping in with the explicit goal of accelerating everything to twice the speed. It becomes the enemy of sleep, of focus. It usually rolls with its best friend, desperate distraction. That guy usually just suggests a constant, frantic screen scrolling and as-often-as-possible TV binging.

And there is something so incredibly freeing in naming this roil of emotions as anxiety. Because how do you solve “night terrors” when you are 12 and too ashamed to not know how to sleep? How do you work on “stress” when the word itself doesn’t begin to describe the experience of losing control of your mind and body, sometimes together and sometimes separately? Having language to name something bigger than both circumstance and self-control feels like an accomplishment.

And in my recovery journey of perfectionism, I’ve learned to celebrate all kinds of accomplishments. Here’s to us, my friend. Those of us learning how to name our dark companions and those of us learning how to celebrate in spite of their presence.

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