I spent a year after high school working at a discount store where people only shopped because there was a recession going on, but somehow still expected the same customer service they had gotten at Nordstrom — or wherever people who make more than nine dollars an hour shop. One day I was working at the customer service desk when some lady with a coach bag and a fur coat that screamed “I only have first world problems” began shouting at me for just being able to take back her merchandise for store credit. She screamed that I was a terrible employee, that she spent millions (or was it billions?) of dollars in our store every week, and that she would have my ass kicked out on the curb. I knew she was out of line, I knew I hadn’t done anything wrong, but it didn’t make any difference. Sweat began slipping out of poors, my limbs began to shake, and I felt panic pressing against me as if the walls were closing in. After one of the managers took over the situation, I excused myself to the bathroom and tried to muffle the audible noises that accompany tears.
For many of us, anxiety and perfectionism do a terrible little duet inside our heads. We put our entire heart into something, and if it fails we don’t perceive “the thing” as the failure, it is ourselves that is the failure. Constantly it seems like we are being judged by our friends, colleagues, or supervisors, and coming up a million times short. Life begins to suffocate us under a ridiculous weight of unachievable expectations and self doubt. It is because we are anxiety ridden perfectionists. We worry about whether our jokes are funny enough at dinner parties, and then after we amp up the humor, we worry about whether they were too off color. We widdle away countless days and weeks with our worry, and soon we stop living life in favor of worrying about life.
Sometimes we justify it. We say it is because we are dedicated, it is because we care. But I promise you, there is a world of difference between caring about your work, and freaking out all evening because you might have forgotten to refill the stapler before you left. I’ve literally done this. One day I promised my boss that I would take the trash on my way out of the store, and when I didn’t, I drove back to work to throw it out.
We freak out about what people think. We endlessly ask our “bffs” what the “talk” is about us, or what the new guy in the group is saying about us. We could run an entire gossip website about the rumors and innuendo that surround our own lives. Sometimes we wish we could commission a Gallup poll and see what people think, but even if we did that, no data would convince us that we are cared for and enjoyed. We are the people who signed up for a formspring a few years ago, in hopes of standing up to our insecurity, but then ended up hating and deleting the damn thing within a week.
We want to be perfect, but we aren’t. We never will be, and somewhere deep down we know that, so we worry. We convince ourselves that our worrying is building us a bridge closer to perfection, but rather it is driving us closer to disappointment and despair. We exert so much energy being enslaved to an anxiety that gives us back so little in exchange. There has to be another way.
I have a challenge for everyone who could identify as an anxious perfectionist: try not giving a shit.
When a customer complains that you are taking a long time to ring up their merchandise: just don’t give a shit.
When you hear about a coworker or ultimately insignificant acquaintance complaining about you: just don’t give a shit.
When you forget to do an extra credit assignment for class: just don’t give a shit.
I know it is so much easier said than done, but I encourage you to try. Try to separate the truly urgent and important stuff from the superficial obsessive crap that our convoluted minds convinces us is important. I’m suggesting that you become callous or unempathetic. Feel a wide range of emotions, but not everything in your life deserves your concern. Not every small minded person’s opinion should matter to you. Not every criticism should bog you down. Not every mistake should haunt you. Focus on what matters, and for everything else, try not giving a shit.
I don’t know you personally, but I know that you are a beautiful human being who deserves to breathe the fresh air and enjoy everyday for what is, not for what your worst fear of what it could become. You owe it to yourself to go for long walks on the beach without worrying about something someone said weeks ago. You owe it to yourself to enjoy your career without treating every minor mistake as a prequel to a pink slip. And yes, sometimes you owe it to yourself to tell anxiety to fuck off and just not give a shit.