I’m Competitive But Very Anxious At the Same Time

Sometimes I feel as if parts of my personality are working against each other, which ultimately causes me significant stress and anger. The concept of opposite forces inside the same personality has never made sense to me: everyone else seems to be oriented one way or the other, but why am I constantly ping-ponging between personality extremes?

Now that I’m back in the USA, I’ve decided to ask my psychiatrist some broader questions during our visit before Christmas. I’m at another crossroads, not a whistle stop. While I was living in Costa Rica, I’d often return home with questions about specific social situations, meds, or negative experiences that I needed to work through. Now I want to refocus the big picture and restructure how I live my life, so that smaller “routine” problems can be overcome with positive results.

One challenge I will be discussing at length with my doctor is the contradiction between anxiety and competitive urges in my personality.

Success in the USA is heavily tied to the ability to perform. I’ve written about this before, but I think it’s worth mentioning again: if you want to make money, achieve in athletics, be the best pianist, or excel in painting, you have to be able to muster your talent and consistently produce outstanding results.

When you’re growing up, initial compete-to-succeed pressures come up in the classroom, where most kids are introduced to the concept of grading and achieving for the first time. Others learn about competition on the weekends playing sports or participating in music recitals. Even though everyone usually wins a prize, eventually, you have to sort out the A’s from the B’s.

If you want to be a top doctor, you need to be in advanced placement classes by the time you hit high school. Additionally, you need to be leading your entire class academically, earn a top score on your SAT or ACT, demonstrate leadership potential, and distinguish yourself in various ways so that you have a prayer at gaining admission to a top tier university. Otherwise, getting into Harvard or Yale Medical School is a pipe dream.

Most people who achieve at a high level have a predictable personality description: egotistical bordering on arrogant, innate intelligence, good social skills, immutable confidence, and the ability to concentrate and perform at a high level on demand. They usually aren’t feeble minded, nervous wrecks who feel nauseous every time they step to the starting line of a cross country race or as they lift their bow before delving into a challenging violin concerto. They have their sh$t together at all times and they know it. To others these types of people are at worst pompous and self centered, at best respectable and worthy of emulation.

To be clear, I’m not saying acing high school and getting into Stanford is the ONLY path to success. Some people don’t get inspired until after the monotony of day-to-day education has dissipated. I’ve heard about highly successful people who joined the military after high school and returned home to expand the family business. Others became entrepreneurs, embracing new technologies or being extremely inventive. Some successful musicians who didn’t make the cut for the Julliard School of Music stubbornly plodded ahead in the years after high school as starving artists, eventually finding their footing after devoting significant time to practice and getting good gigs.

There are many different ways to become successful if and when you decide that success is important to you. You might not feel a competitive spirit reciting Shakespeare in 10th grade English class, but maybe when you make your first big sale at a new job years later, the “Ah-Ha!” moment will occur and you’ll want to take things to the next level.

I definitely have a desire to compete inside me, but it is crippled by severe anxiety. This is troubling because most people who feel the need to compete do so without a persistent sense of self doubt, nervousness, or fear. They are constantly “all systems go” and don’t have to contend with part of their own personality holding them back.

I desperately want to succeed and leave a positive mark on the world before I go. I’d like to not worry about money, having a place to live, or facing an unexpected health problem. How do you get to a point when you can cover all these bases? You have to achieve at a high level, because resources are finite and there are untold thousands of others in the world all vying for a piece of the same pie.

In college I wanted to be a fast runner. Not the fastest, but competitive in elite races. Strike one against me was my Type 1 Diabetes, which complicated training. That problem, however, was not insurmountable. What was more frustrating was stepping to the starting line feeling like a train wreck. In the hours before the race, I’d pace around nervously, feel light headed, and have no focus. Sometimes I’d vomit before, during, and after races. I desperately wanted to succeed, but the high level of anxiety within me destroyed my performance potential and mutilated any sense of self confidence.

The same happened in trumpet recitals. I’d sheepishly slink on stage. Then, instead of feeling ready to blow the roof off the hall, my mouth would go dry, my stomach would churn, and I was so unfocused that I often felt like I was sight-reading my music opposed to performing something I had been working on for months.

None of this would matter if I didn’t care about standing out. The problem is, I do, but the rest of me wants nothing to do with it. It’s an extremely frustrating reality I face on a daily basis. Instead of relentlessly pursuing a goal with confidence and fortitude, I tend to think big but wilt when it comes time to put it all on the line.

Craving competition but being hindered by anxiety at the same time probably sounds completely whacked. The easy answer is “Don’t compete, and you won’t feel anxious”. I’m not interested in the “easy” answer, however, because “easy” decisions don’t necessarily equate long term success. Ideally, I’d like to squelch the anxiety in me forever, but trying to ignore a part of who you are is also counterproductive and only kicks the proverbial can down the road. I wish I was born confident, hungry, focused, and capable. Life would be MUCH better.

Unfortunately I’m capable and hungry, but when it counts, the anxious part of me smothers each and every attempt at trying to achieve at a high level. I’m my own worst enemy.

How Do You Know When It’s Time to Quit and How Do You Feel Good About Yourself Again?

Today’s batch of self help gurus and arm chair psychologists always advocate “setting goals” as a way to improve one’s life. Although this is good advice in terms of organizing your ambitions, the process of achieving a goal – particularly one that is challenging – can sometimes consume you so much that you begin to lose sight of your former self. The real question these “experts” need to answer is, “When should I quit after making an earnest attempt at achieving a goal and how do I feel good about myself again?”. Those infomercials for “turning your life around in 6 months” are great at pumping you up in the moment, but terrible about giving you the mental framework for the time consuming process of making a substantive change in your life.

Want to lose weight? Train for a 20 minute or better 5K. Want to make money? Start a business and work day and night until you’re a millionaire. Want to have a good family? Spend every waking minute nurturing relationships with your children, spouse, and relatives. All of these goals are definitely worth attempting, but is it worth all the sacrifice?

I would like to refine some of the finer points of the “goal setting” process for people with BPD because we’re unique cases. When you operate with a distorted view of the world, are constantly searching for something to fill you up, and have trouble interacting with people even on a basic level, the psychological soundbite “set a goal and achieve it” can often be misleading and disappointing. People with BPD make up less than 2% of the population. Therefore, advice geared towards the 90+% who otherwise have normal mental health is useless for those with Borderline Personality Disorder.

The stakes are higher for people with BPD because “quitting” can feel like we’re throwing part of ourselves away. When this happens, BPDs take it extremely personally.

Suppose your goal is to find a life partner for marriage. Relationships for people with BPD are always rocky, but this time you’re going to put it all on the line in order to achieve a level of happiness you’ve never experienced before. You signup for all the internet dating sites, spend a few hundred dollars on a new wardrobe, and maybe hit the gym 3 times a week to get your body back in shape. Then you meet someone you like and are convinced he or she “is the one”.

Off you go, head over heels into a new relationship. You’re in BPD “idolization” mode, when you practically worship your new partner and love everything about them. Every date feels like a chapter of a romance novel. You feel like you’re finally on solid ground, have true love, and most importantly a potential partner for life. Everyone around you is happy, and you’re happy.

Now for the reality check. Things probably go great for 6 months, but when the inevitable “commitment” talks loom, your partner isn’t quite ready to go all in. But why? You’ve poured your heart and soul into this relationship for months, and feel a fresh excitement about your life you’ve never felt before. Now, there are some real doubts. Maybe your partner starts to dodge your phone calls, cancel dates, or tells you outright that “I’m not ready to move to the next level”. What about your goal now? You’ve become a new person, but suddenly that identity is on very shaky ground. You might be one bad argument or a late night “let’s breakup” chat away from failure.

The goal you set and the work you performed to secure a healthy relationship is now in jeopardy, potentially down the drain. You feel as if you will be left with nothing – materially or emotionally – should the relationship ultimately fail. All your efforts might be for not.

How do you quit and walk away feeling like a unique individual, worthy of giving and receiving love, worthy of another chance and worthy of good fortune in your life?

You DON’T head for the last chapter of the latest self-help best seller. Instead, you must reflect on what you had BEFORE you made a big change. Your immediate emotional reaction might be that you had nothing before and nothing now, but your emotions can be wrong. If you have BPD, emotions can be wrong most of the time.

A thought for a positive mental health exercise popped into my head partway through dinner about how to set goals, go for them, and then walk away without feeling like a loser when things don’t work out.

Immediately before you embark on a new chapter in your life, a new goal, a new relationship, or a new job, find a piece of paper and write down what makes you feel happy about yourself right now. It might be hard at first because you’re thinking of the future, but with some deliberation and deep thought, you’ll probably be able to come up with at least 3 things that give your life some purpose.

Set this paper aside the instant you launch into version 2 of your current life. Go after your goal. If you achieve it, great, you’ve improved your life. If you don’t, and think all is lost, dig out that paper of things you were happy about before you began a big change. Reflect on them: even though you didn’t get what you wanted and feel devoid of any sense of self or individuality, chances are, those things you wrote down months or years ago are still a part of you. You will realize that all is NOT lost, that in the fog and confusion of defeat, there might not be a light ahead, but there is certainly one behind.

Take it a step further: remember those things you wrote down as you effect a major change. Remember how happy they make you feel, how important those people, places, or things are to you. As you progress towards your new goal, take time out to experience the emotional comfort and peace of mind you had from an earlier time. When your new dream starts to sour, know that there ARE things to fallback on, no matter how empty you feel.

The time to surrender chasing a new goal is when your life deteriorates towards a lower point compared to where you started. How do you remind yourself that you are still worth the trouble? Reflect on what made you happy before you decided to make a change, and carry those feelings with you as constant reminders that happiness – even in smaller quantities than desired – is still a part of you.

This can be very hard for those of us with BPD, however a written reminder of what made you happy – no matter how insignificant – can serve as foundation for finding yourself again and moving forward.

Now in Jacksonville, Florida: BPD Treatment, Social Opportunities, Meds

I didn’t post last week because I was in the air somewhere between Costa Rica and Florida. By the time I was on the ground in the USA, I was extremely tired and didn’t have time to post a blog. I met my father at the airport, who generously agreed to drive all the way to Florida from southern New England. We took care of some immediate errands, got dinner, and then went directly to our hotel.

Now I’m back up and running. I’m still moving into my apartment and need to buy a few pieces of furniture. There also many loose ends to tie up with legal issues, taxes, bank accounts, and my various businesses. I’ll have plenty to do in the coming days.

Naturally, I also worry about my mental health during this big transition. My first international move to Costa Rica 8 years ago was nerve wracking but logistically much easier: I packed 2 suitcases and headed off to the airport. Moving back proved much more difficult. I had to mail all my belongings to the USA, get my cat into the country, find a new apartment, get car insurance, get renter’s insurance, and arrange utility services. It was a ton of work.

Here is what I need to accomplish with respect to my mental health, ideally before the Christmas Holiday:

  1. Find a competent doctor. I have no clue where to begin my search other than the “rate my doctor” websites all over the internet. I’m sure there is a BPD specialist in my metro area. The trick is finding a doctor who is convenient and reasonable in cost. My health insurance continues to go up every year. I can’t afford weekly appointments for $250 an hour unless I desperately need that frequency of treatment. Hopefully I can see a doctor monthly, get prescriptions for all my meds, and keep my current health insurance until I can find a cheaper option.
  2. Research a DBT (Dialectical Behavioral Therapy) group. Despite having BPD for over 10 years, I’ve never been to a DBT session. This form of treatment wasn’t available in Costa Rica, and even if it was, there would be cultural and language issues that would have rendered it ineffective. I’d like to find a unisex group that meets on a regular basis and has a good leader/therapist at the helm. I’m open to paying a little money if necessary, but would prefer a community support group opposed to indefinite out-patient treatment at a psych ward. My options might be limited because males are in the minority population of the BPD cohort, however I’m sure there is a group in the city somewhere.
  3. Get prescriptions filled at a local pharmacy. Meds in the USA aren’t cheap. I need to find a pharmacy that carries all my meds and doesn’t charge an arm and a leg in fees. So far, I’ve heard Walmart is inexpensive and accepts most health insurance programs. That’s where I’ll go first unless I find a better deal somewhere else.
  4. Research viable social opportunities. I’m self employed and don’t report to an office. I spend most of my time at my computer building websites. It’s great because you can live life on your own terms, but stifling in terms of creating a good social life. Now that I’m back in the USA, I can’t excuse myself from getting out of the apartment because of cultural or language issues. I’m very introverted as it is, and socializing doesn’t come naturally to me. That’s problematic. Further, I have no friends or family nearby who can introduce me to the lifestyle in Jacksonville. I’m starting from scratch, and it’s terrifying. I’ll probably reactivate my eHarmony.com profile with my new USA address, find the closest Starbucks, and go to places where people like me hang out (clubs/bars excluded). Seeing a local doctor and/or participating in a DBT session might help me get on solid ground socially, although I’ll have my guard up: networking through a mental health group can be unreliable and filled with many potential pitfalls. It might be wiser to gravitate towards groups of people who make their living online and meet professionally or socially here in Jacksonville. That’s probably a safer bet in the long run.

That’s it for now. There are several other things on my plate that take priority at the moment, but I can’t put off taking care of my mental health and social life indefinitely. Part of the reason I moved was to enjoy life in a familiar country with a familiar language and culture. I also wanted to be somewhat closer to my family. Still, no matter where you live, you have to reach out and take that crucial “first step”.

One of my friends from Costa Rica liked to leave the capital, San Jose, on a regular basis because it got him “away from his troubles” for a few days. I never understood that mindset, because my problems follow me wherever I go. Costa Rica, USA, Europe, Australia, or Africa I’ve got BPD, Type 1 Diabetes, and I’m socially awkward. The setting really doesn’t matter: it’s the life you lead and the chances you take that can potentially make you happier.

Anyone know a reliable website for getting a good BPD psychiatrist in the USA? Thanks in advance! 🙂