At the core of High Functioning Anxiety is shame. Somewhere we learned that we are broken and unworthy. That unworthiness causes us to feel anxiety, fear, doubt, etc. We also learned that we received praise when we were productive and accomplished, which eased those feelings of being unworthy and all the anxiety and fear. As a result, we learned many unhealthy coping skills all geared toward making us more productive and accomplished: perfectionism, people-pleasing, overworking, all-or-nothing thinking, and constantly criticizing ourselves. Part of the complexity of treating HFA is that the coping skills that relieve symptoms in the short term are unhealthy and unhelpful.
A trick to treating High Functioning Anxiety is noticing your go-to unhealthy coping skill and starting to unhook the beliefs underneath that keeps you stuck in shame and anxiety.
One of my go-to coping skills is perfectionism.
High Functioning Anxiety tends to be a bit of a rabbit hole. Here is an example of a perfectionism rabbit hole I can head down.
—feel unworthy —feel anxious —believe the Monger’s lie– you will feel better once you are perfect. —enter the trance of perfection —feel better temporarily —inevitably, the perfectionism bubble gets broken —feel unworthy.
This pattern plays out over and over. The trick is catching myself before I go too far down the rabbit hole.
The trance of perfection is when I get wrapped up in doing everything “right.” From cooking dinner to interacting with clients, perfection becomes a driving force.
The unspoken truth is that the only way I will become perfect is to avoid the parts of myself that I disapprove of. If I wall myself off and ignore the imperfect parts, I will feel better. AND as a result, I become more and more robotic. Everything becomes about the to-do list. I narrow my worldview down to a few select things that I MUST accomplish the right way to stop my anxiety. I stop paying attention to my feelings, ignore my needs, and become all about doing. I call this the trance of perfectionism.
To ease this trance of perfectionism, I start with one simple question. When I hear my Monger start criticizing, I began asking, “What if I am?”
My Monger says, “You are so lazy! You SHOULD be pulling weeds rather than sitting on the couch.”
And I ask myself, “What if I am lazy? Is that the worst thing in the world? Being lazy?”
At first, it is a little jarring—because internally, I gasp and tell myself: you can’t be lazy; you can’t admit that! You are a hard worker. You are the person everyone goes to get stuff done! What if your neighbors see how lazy you are?!
Both are true: I am lazy sometimes, and I am a hard worker sometimes. But, when it comes to weeding, I am definitely lazy. My neighbors know that. And that’s okay.
By asking myself, what if I am lazy or sensitive, or anti-social? I start to break the trance of perfectionism.
I then take it a little further— When my Monger starts slamming me for the fact my neighbors are judging me, I say to myself, “What if they are?!” Is that the worst thing in the world?? To be judged for weeds? If they want to judge me for my weedy lawn, that is on them.
When I ask my clients, “What if you are lazy?” they look at me aghast. Then I follow it with, “that wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world. You are human. And from time to time, humans are lazy.” Then they have the look of freedom come across their face, and they smile and say, “Yes, I am a bad mom sometimes, and I am also a fantastic mom.” BOTH are true.
This pattern of pretending I am perfect comes at a cost to my self-loyalty. AND it is one of my go-to coping skills when my anxiety is high. So, when I notice myself starting to find the right way or make sure everything is perfect, I will ask myself, what if you are lazy, anti-social, rude, blunt, too sensitive, too trusting, naïve, etc.? And then I remind myself I am an imperfect human. I am a whole mess of things lazy and energetic, anti-social and super friendly, blunt, and empathetic, sensitive, and kind, trusting and loyal, naïve and intelligent.
This process of reminding yourself you aren’t broken is ongoing. So, the next time you hear your Monger criticizing you, ask yourself, “What if I am?” and give yourself room to be human.
You aren’t doing it wrong. You are human. Humans are complex. Humans are imperfect. Humans are messy. So let’s be human together.