Saturday, August 29, 2009

Finding the Roots of Anxiety & Letting Go of Doing "It" Right

For much of my life I have experienced nagging anxiety, a sense that something about me or what I'm doing is "wrong," and that I need to fix it. This is not a pleasant way to live and so for the past couple of years I've been trying to get at the source of this omnipresent feeling of not being good enough. I've found an excellent therapist, a great women's group, and perused many wonderful books. Here's a summary of my thoughts for now:

One way I have confronted the anxiety in the past is by fixing "it" so I do everything right. That's right, I've spent some time as a perfectionist. The problem is that I suck at it.

I have had aspirations of making lists for most of my life. For coming up with and following a plan so that everything in my life can be organized! clean! easy! It's not just women's magazines that have manufactured in me this yearning for containerized living. I blame growing up in the "Covey culture," that special era of planning mania that gripped Utah Mormondom in the 1980s. My Laurel's leader1 was especially influential. She had a day planner that dominated her life. The idea of "plan your work then work your plan" is still predominant in this lovely Desert, whoops, I mean Deseret.2

I have purchased many day planners in my life. My current one doesn't even have a calendar, it's just a project planner. I figured without the burden of dates, I might use it. Nope. I still haven't accomplished some of the "projects" that I wrote down one year ago when we bought the house. I do have a list of things I MUST DO this weekend. I will probably only accomplish the things that I really must do or face consequences I don't want (like having to pay another $50 late fee to the State Bar).

I've learned that something about me at a deep, psychological level resists order. Strike that and make it "resists being told what to do, even by myself!"3 I have a fundamentally free form kind of self. I prefer to flow with the go. If I make myself a neat plan for how to accomplish a particular goal, I will sabotage it. It's like I am constitutionally required NOT to follow a plan. For example, the only students at my law school who did less studying than me where stoned. Seriously.

If I make a plan for my day or a project (like cleaning the house) or whatever, eventually I'll become convinced I can either a) find something better to do or b) find a better way/moment to do whatever it is that I've planned. It's not an attentional deficit, it's a conscious choice to abandon the plan. So I follow my gut and do whatever I want to do in that moment and all is good - until this little nagging sense creeps up that I must be doing "it" wrong because I either don't have a plan or I'm not following the plan that I have. (I think "it" is life.)

With some self reflection and help from a friendly turtle, I'm approaching that nagging sense with the reminder that letting go of the illusion of control/perfection/doing "it" right, is an essential part of letting life glide me over to where I need to be. Not everything that "goes wrong" is my fault. And not everything that "goes right" is due to my righteous efforts either. I wasn't following "the" plan when I fell in love with Shane, decided to have kids, moved back to Utah (without a job!?!), kept getting blood test after blood test until "they" figured out it was cancer (I already knew on that deep intuitive level that the prefrontal lobes can't argue with).

What I know to be right and good doesn't always fit into justifiable, rational goals. And I am beginning to accept that just showing up - just being present for the present - is a miracle in itself. Living here, in this moment, "loving what is" here before me, is better that living for some moment in the future that I've convinced myself can only come if I follow a letter-perfect plan.

A second source of this underlying anxiety is fueled by other people's dreams for my life that I somehow mistook for my own. These are the things people who loved me were sure I would do/could do/should do because they could imagine me doing it. "You're so smart/talented/whatever, you have to 'do something' with your life!"

I think of my beloved debate coach who told me he expected me to "be on the cover of Time someday." My choir teacher's insistence that if I did not become a professional performer I was "wasting my gift." A dear college mentor's anxious sureness that I needed to represent striving, confident career women in the Church and make the Church safe for feminists. Friends who were sure that I would be the general Relief Society President some day.4

None of the dreams were mine, though I accepted that they should be and tried to accomplish them for many years. And oh the guilt when I decided I should do what I liked and wanted and needed!

But my dream is here, sitting across from me in a downtown SLC park eating a Moochies sandwich, and at the playground taking pictures of new friends then convincing them to play Wonder Pets,5 is simply being okay with the fact that I am not working on my syllabus/predrafting my decisions for next week/trying to take over the world.

I don't want/have to be the next big thing, the smartest one in the room, the one who makes sure everything gets done right & on time (& right!!!!!).

And yet. And yet. My heart still tightens as I realize I'm doing "nothing," that there must be "something" so much more worthwhile I could be spending this moment on. I know these thoughts to be illusions, though the emotions are real enough. So I attempt to stay with the feeling and let the mind flow where it might, sans control. I experience the pain this sense of self-lack brings and do "nothing" with it. Just for a moment I feel what it's like to be "me" feeling pain over not being/doing enough and I don't try to argue with or appease the feeling. I just feel it. And eventually it dissolves and my focus returns to the beautiful dreams that surround me, the life I never thought I would have - with a partner who supports/loves/cooks for me, with children who sparkle with intelligence and love. And I remember now is not only "enough," it's all there really is.

1In the LDS religion, there is an organization for young women called, appropriately enough, "Young Women's." The Laurels are the 16-18 year old group. I think they are still called Laurels.
2It's a Mormon thing, please don't make me explain it. Wait, pretty much everyone who reads this blog has been immersed in LDS culture, whether they are members of "the Church" or not. So nevermind! ;)
3I am hoping somewhere my late Mother will take comfort in this thought.
4The top leader of the women's organization in the LDS church. Oh wait! I wasn't going to explain these things anymore. Doh!
5That's where my dreams were when I first wrote this. They are presently located at the zoo looking at baby tigers and sitting on the couch watching Loonitics Unleashed. My dreams move around a lot.


  1. One of my professors in grad. school referenced an article (I think it was by Valerie Walkerdine) that used the phrase "the good enough mother." I LOVE that phrase. I think it's really easy for women to fall into the trap of thinking they have to be "the best" at whatever they're doing. It's okay to be "good enough" at some things. You have to decide very carefully what to be "best" at, or if you need to be "best" at anything.

  2. Oh yeah-- love the opening picture on your blog. So beautiful!!

  3. Thanks litera! (can I call you that all the time??) I LOVE that good enough mother thing too. I'm working on being good enough at practically everything. :)

    And thanks for the compliment on the picture! I was snapping pics of wild flowers on our little trip to Nevada and I saw these giant things - and had to back up a bit to get a photo of them. I didn't even realize at the time that I had also gotten a good angle on the hole in the mountain. And for sure I wasn't thinking of my blog. More evidence of universe gliding, I say.

  4. Yes, I've decided that "good enough" is good enough for me. It's hard to get out of the high/over achieving world of academics and on into life and learn that just being yourself is good enough. I'm reminding myself that I'm good enough each day.

  5. Hey, I like "litera" as a nickname! Use it, use it!!