When I think back to high school, so many of the memories that float to the surface are dark around the edges, like singed photographs held over a flame. My teenage years were a time when I was struggling with toxic perfectionism and intense melancholy over which I had little control–so all-consuming that I often had trouble focusing on the world outside of my mind. As an adult looking back on that time, I wish I could have protected that beautiful, deeply sensitive, dangerously intelligent girl from the crippling depression and anxiety that I didn’t then have a name for.
When I was twenty-two and in graduate school, I stumbled upon research that tentatively established a connection between obsessive-compulsive disorder and body dysmorphic disorder. I dove headfirst into every existing study on the subject and emerged with an understanding of exactly what I had experienced as a teenager. I then sat down with a stack of my high school journals on one side and a laptop on the other, and with this newfound understanding of my own mind, I wrote the following essay.
My Struggle with Toxic Perfectionism & Self-Acceptance
By the time that I turned fourteen, I had grown accustomed to being anxious.
I had been too high-strung, too sensitive, too perfectionistic for as long as anyone could remember. Depression and anxiety disorders had quietly plagued my mother’s side of the family for generations, while an earthy stoicism ran in my father’s.
These traits co-mingled to create me: a bright, creative, highly sensitive girl with a strong independent streak; an equal blend of Matilda, Pocahontas, and Harriet the Spy. From an early age, I was penning fantastical stories; deceiving librarians about my age to gain access to every book that the library had to offer; or slipping through the tall fence around our yard to explore the curious forest beyond. I taught myself to read in preschool, so I spent kindergarten reading picture books to the class while my teacher took the opportunity to get some work done at her desk, or would be permitted to voraciously devour chapter books on my own. My first-grade teacher discretely slipped notes into my cubby, inviting me over to her house for tea, addressed to “Little Miss Perfect.”
Anxiety had seemed to find a home in my mind when I was very young, manifesting itself in different ways as I grew up. It diminished somewhat when things were calm, and then would inevitably reappear in cryptic, paralyzing forms every few years.
One morning before kindergarten, as my mother called me down to breakfast, I found myself consumed with the task of folding my tiny pastel sweaters in their dresser drawer so that there wouldn’t be a single wrinkle, growing increasingly anxious with every failed attempt.
Earlier still, I have a memory of a placid weekend morning spent sitting in a pale blue cloth chair in my childhood bedroom, sunlight streaming through the window. On either side of me, my mother and father tried in vain to calm the intense frustration that blossomed inside of me when I found that I was unable to sweep aside the millions of dust particles swirling furiously in the air.
In third grade, I had a strong need to perform behaviors in sets of four; I silently, frantically quantified every step that I took and every movement that I made, the calculations filling the empty spaces between every thought.
I grew up valuing the fact that I was subtly different from everyone else, perpetually looking for ways to express my individuality and make my unique insights known. But from the time that I was very young, I seemed to feel things more intensely than anyone else did. Early on, I decided that my emotions were my own responsibility and that I shouldn’t burden other people with them when they most certainly had issues of their own to deal with.
I had always been highly attuned to the reactions of other people, but this became my Achilles’ heel once I crossed the threshold of adolescence. I had developed a close band of friends, each one eccentric in her own way, bursting at the seams with precocious creativity. I never deluded myself into thinking that I was cool; this wasn’t a fact that I readily accepted, but in elementary school, the matter was largely irrelevant. I much preferred fabricating fanciful ghost stories and leading my ragtag group of friends on a wild goose chase through the woods to whatever the prettier girls were doing. I was unrefined and thoroughly uncoordinated, but I had no doubt that I was smart, and I had assembled a collection of kindred spirits who valued my endless imagination; and frankly, competing for others’ approval cut into my reading time.
However, a subtle but unmistakable shift began to occur in middle school. The previously contested line between “cool” and “not cool” became much more rigid, as well as more salient. The most coveted possession among twelve-year-old girls one year was an opulent silver heart pendant from Tiffany’s. I impatiently awaited my June birthday, which would finally allow me to wear the look-alike that I had happened upon in a tiny gift shop that winter. The day after I turned twelve, as I dressed for school, I was bursting with excitement; and in class that morning, one girl noticed the necklace almost immediately. She wordlessly approached me, touching the pendant with her fingertips and then dropping it in surprise, remarking, “Is this plastic? It looked so real from far away.”
By the next year, my defiance and independence were back in full force. I threw a coordinating necktie over my outfits every day for the entirety of seventh grade. The cacophonous public response was simultaneously humiliating and exactly what I wanted. That one provocative change in my appearance was my way of giving myself permission to transform from a girl who was constantly apologizing for her failure to live up to the standards of the girls who she would never be, to a girl who gave the middle finger to anyone who questioned her right to be whoever the hell she felt like being that day.
I still wasn’t cool, and I wasn’t necessarily happy; but in my thirteen-year-old mind, it was more acceptable to be rejected for being myself than to be miserable in imitating someone else. My teachers, who noticed that I was having a rough time, each pulled me aside throughout the year to tell me that what I was doing was brave, and they made sure to look out for me from the sidelines where they could.
And then, in the last week of middle school, I made my debut as a singer and guitarist at the school talent show. The resounding praise that I received from the entire community—notably including the same people who I had failed so spectacularly at impressing in the past—made it clear that I wouldn’t have to worry about being cool anymore, because I was respected.
It was during the summer between middle school and high school, however, that my mind manufactured an entirely novel phenomenon: a prickling sensation of discomfort within my own skin. I had never truly taken note of my body before—it had always seemed unremarkable in every way. But this seemed to change in an instant: I became aware of my clothes fitting just a little more snugly, and the onslaught of negative emotions that would come to dominate my mind over the next few years began.
As high school commenced, my anxiety took on yet another fascinating, infuriating form. I was suddenly having difficulty reading–my most treasured pastime from the age of three–because without asking my permission, words had begun to morph into groupings of meaningless characters that I was compelled to arrange in seemingly endless permutations. Helpless, I found myself unable to digest the majority of the course material, whether written or spoken out loud; the words would echo over and over in my head as I continued to take them apart and put them back together again, letter by letter, until my brain had completed its calculations.
I had never been formally diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder, as I had seemed to manage without any sort of intervention growing up. I readily accepted that if I could just concentrate hard enough, I should be able to ignore it. For what was neither the first nor the last time in my life, rather than assuming that the solution might have to come from outside of myself, I concluded that if I was continuing to struggle, I simply wasn’t trying hard enough.
I kept diligent journals throughout the majority of high school and college, and the first mention of my body came three months into my freshman year of high school. However, from my wording, it was evident that the topic had been on my mind for some time:
“Been in a bad mood since I got home from school—as usual. It’s bugging me so much how I can only wear certain shirts or my stomach flab is too obvious. It makes me SO FRUSTRATED, almost more than anything else. I’m so self-conscious—when I bend over or sit down, even in my room, I’ll put one arm over my stomach to attempt to cover it. I wish I was thin. I hate my body.”
Over the next two months, I wrote the following entries:
“There are so many things that I dislike about myself, and I feel helpless to change them. Usually I just wish I was skinny, or sometimes smart, pretty, nice, whatever. Everyone but me seems, overall, to be somewhat satisfied with themselves. The majority of the time, I find myself wishing I was someone else entirely.”
“I decided that I really need to take action to put an end to all my insecurities. It’s getting to the point where it controls me. Sometimes I will honestly just break down and hate myself so much for just like, half an hour. Just because I feel so ugly, so fat, and… ugh. I’m such a teenager. So I cover myself up as much as possible. I’ve never told anyone about it. That makes it even worse. I don’t know why I’m so ashamed of it… I guess I put up this image that’s like ‘I don’t care what I look like, people’s opinions of me don’t matter’ but in fact, it’s the complete opposite. And I need to work on that so much, it’s keeping me from living life. I keep thinking that all of my problems would be SOLVED if I was skinny. And I don’t know if that’s true or not, but I do know that I care too much about what other people think of me. I hate this.”
“The most frustrating thing in my life right now is how I’ve been doing exercises that are supposed to help me slim down around my stomach at least once or twice a day, if not more, and I haven’t seen any improvement whatsoever. It’s so hard, because frankly, I don’t like myself just because of this one stupid thing. I guess it comes from comparing myself to others so much… My friends are skinny, people in magazines are skinny… I’ve grown up in a place where right and wrong and good and bad are black and white, and often I come out on the bottom.”
From these entries, it’s clear to me that there was something more going on here than the normal increase in social comparison and drop in self-esteem that happens in early adolescence; I suspected it then, and it’s unmistakable to me now. Rapidly, over the course of my freshman year of high school, my feelings became increasingly dysfunctional and paralyzing; and it was all reflected in my journals, which are still difficult for me to read because of the depth of my self-loathing.
I began to take great care to camouflage my perceived defects, wearing dark, loose-fitting clothing and never appearing in public without makeup. I cried for hours every time one of the few pieces of clothing I had deemed acceptable shrank in the dryer. After school, I would spend the majority of my time in my bedroom with the door closed, dissecting my appearance in the dreaded full-length mirror or trying desperately to avoid doing so. I was consumed with the mental task of perpetually measuring my appearance and my talents against those of everyone around me, and then ruminating over the poisonous feelings of jealousy that always rose to the surface. I desperately wanted something that I could incontrovertibly be the best at—and I hated myself for needing this affirmation from other people so badly.
I was constantly fishing for compliments, hoping that someone else’s words held the key to releasing me from the intense self-consciousness that I was steeped in at all times, but it was an impossible task. By the time that I began to verbalize what I was going through to my closest friends, both to gauge whether they were experiencing similar things and to get the social support that I so desperately needed, the obsessive nature of my thoughts had long surpassed the issues that anyone else was grappling with. Whenever someone responded that they had never noticed the issues that I was talking about, I was shocked—but never to the point where I would finally realize the significant disparity that existed between my perceptions and reality.
The ineffable frustration and hatred that I felt for my appearance spread to every other aspect of my life, resulting in a crushing, inescapable sense of inadequacy that distorted every thought that I had. Although I was never religious outside of this period of my life, I readily credit my involvement with a youth group with keeping me sane throughout those years. I constantly questioned the existential meaning of everything that I was going through, and religion provided a script of comforting answers, as well as a community of kindhearted people that I depended on immensely. I had a place to go where my insight and talent were valued, and I rose to the occasion, taking on as many leadership roles as I could.
However, inevitably, all of these affirmations fed my deep-seated conviction that I was nothing more than an impostor. I had inherited my father’s stoicism; and so while I despised myself with a strength that’s impossible to convey, I simultaneously thrived on others’ perceptions of my competence, even if I was convinced that I was simply fooling them all.
In my journal, I wrote:
“I hate myself. I’m selfish, I’m jealous, I’m hypocritical, I want what others have that I don’t. I am ugly, both inside and out. Are they seeing something that I’m not, or are they not seeing all of me?”
Somehow, though, I made it through my freshman year. As had always been the pattern with my OCD, the cycle continued, with my symptoms lessening once my circumstances were calmer. For years, I still carried a quieter, yet just as deeply held conviction that I looked a little different than everyone else; but the acuteness of my obsession with the imaginary disproportionateness of my figure had dissipated. By my last year of high school, I still had a long way to go; but if you had asked me, I would have told you that I was happy.
Several years later, in the course of completing a graduate degree in psychology, I made a startling discovery: The anxious and obsessive-compulsive symptoms that I had been manifesting, off and on, for the majority of my life were very much connected to my intense self-deprecation as a teenager. At the time, I suspected that I had obsessive-compulsive disorder, and I was certain that I was very depressed; but I had no idea that what I then described as “the mindset of someone with an eating disorder” was body dysmorphic disorder, recently purported to be highly related to OCD.
At different points in my life, in various forms, I had been consumed by a subconscious insistence on symmetry, order, and above all, perfection. I had no idea how common this particular manifestation of obsessive-compulsive disorder was, or that it could all be traced back to a propensity toward negative affect and toxic perfectionism that had likely been present in the inner workings of my mind since birth.
Today, these dark sentiments linger at a fraction of their original strength, making an appearance only in moments of intense anxiety. What it ultimately took to distance myself from the thoughts that I had accepted as reality for so long was for the connection between my anxiety and self-hatred to be revealed; as with so many fearful things, once they’re brought out into the light, they quickly lose their potency. Above all else, I am now grounded in the conviction that I am resilient; I am strong; and I am exactly who I was meant to be.
Toxic Perfectionism: What I’ve Learned
If I could tell other women one thing on the subject of self-acceptance, body image, and toxic perfectionism, it would be this: What would you say if you knew that the most amazing woman you know was holding herself back from accomplishing what she was capable of because she didn’t look perfect? What would you say if that woman was you?
No one is expecting you to look–or to be–perfect. In fact, they’re probably not thinking about you at all–they’re too consumed by their own inner struggles and insecurities. Every day, for the sake of the world and ourselves, we have to push past our incessant insecurities in order to accomplish what we were put on this earth to do. We have to remind ourselves and one another of this as often as necessary. Otherwise, the world misses out on the unique contributions that only we can make–all because we were waiting to be perfect.
Have you ever struggled with anxiety, depression, or toxic perfectionism? I would absolutely love to hear your stories in the comments.
Originally published at www.featherflint.com