I wanted to shift things around on my homepage today and found myself lost in a morass of competing prompts and confusing directions. It’s still not how I want it to look.
Do you ever find yourself setting out to do “one quick thing” before settling in to do what you actually wanted to accomplish for the day and then getting lost down a rabbit hole of confusion and frustration, only to find that hours have passed and you haven’t accomplished the very thing you set out originally to do?
I have a persistent and enduring stubbornness and a classic perfectionists inability to walk away when something doesn’t look how I want it to look. My anxious perfectionism wars with my satisfaction with efficiency. I love checking tasks off my list, but my anxious self often prevents me from doing so because I worry that they haven’t been done well enough or in the way that I would want them to be done.
In other words, it’s sometimes hard to open my fist and let things be what they will be. I want to control the outcome and how they are perceived and I worry that if they do not look how I think they should that others will judge me or think less of what I have to say.
So here I sit, wanting to think about anxiety and perfectionism and unable to get the possible ways that I might actually fix the heading on the homepage out of my mind.
When I was an associate in a law firm I had this problem with things that I would write. Occasionally, a simple email to a client could take hours to send because I would want to be absolutely certain that I had drafted it perfectly so as not to be misconstrued. I wouldn’t want to accidentally say something that I couldn’t in a million years mean to say and I would agonize over whether what I had communicated actually communicated what I meant it to communicate.
I’m tired just writing that sentence. Did it communicate what I wanted it to?
Part of a pursuit of willfulness is a surrender to the notion that I will be anxious from time to time. Moreover, that anxiety is normal and tolerable. It’s uncomfortable to wonder how I will be perceived or received, but it is a discomfort that I can tolerate. I can tolerate it by using a number of techniques:
- Controlled Breathing: breathing in normally through the nose and out through pursed lips. The goal is to lengthen the breath out to almost double the time of the breath in. Breathing out being a somatic nervous system “off switch” that encourages the release of rest and relax hormones.
- Distraction: I can return to binge watching Friends with my daughter, I hear the laugh track and know that I will soon be absorbed in the program and not worried about what the homepage will look like when next I log on.
- Exercise: strenuous exercise is the most effective, but even a walk around the block can be soothing.
- Meditation: I posted on my instagram yesterday about the seaside meditation that I often use to relax my mind and take a mental vacation from the stresses of daily reality.
- Ask for soothing: I can express my feelings of frustration and anxiety to my husband and ask for a hug.
All of the above are distress tolerance skills taught in Dialectic Behavior Therapy and, while they weren’t what I set out to write about today, they are so incredibly useful in our daily lives (in my present DAY life). So often clients come to therapy seeking to eliminate unhappiness and discomfort from their lives. They feel confident that if the therapist can just find the right tool or words, they will no longer feel unhappy or frustrated.
It’s hard to disabuse them of this notion.
The reality is that we all will always feel these emotions. They’re normal and healthy and useful. My anxiety made me a great lawyer and a careful writer. It helped me to succeed in school and work. Sure, it’s painful to worry about what people think and I need to challenge some of the “stinkin’ thinkin'” that leads me to worry so much that people will judge me. But my anxiety has been a tool that has helped as much as it has hurt me. I wouldn’t want to eliminate all worry from my life – it’s important to care what others think and to want to succeed and do a good job.
So instead of eliminating these painful emotions, we need to cope with them better. That’s where the distress tolerance comes in. I need to take my own advice and go for a walk. The homepage will be there tomorrow (broken links and all) and can be fixed then.