Perfectionism and Anxiety: It Will Eventually Break You

I struggle with perfectionism. It seems like a way to always perform at my best and complete work satisfactorily. On the days I feel tired and stressed, and could care less about checking my business email for spelling mistakes, I push myself through the spelling AND grammar check because I am capable of it, regardless of my energy level. I don’t give myself a break even if my mind and body are tired.

Perfectionism also coalesces with anxiety, until the two are a self-defeating combination. Example: You’re anxious about next month’s recital, so you practice your music furiously, hour after hour, until every last note, phrase, time change, and intonation is PERFECT.

Now that you’ve invested so much time and energy into performing perfectly, naturally your anxiety will build: if your performance doesn’t go well you’ll feel embarrassed, but perhaps more devastating, you’ll feel like you let yourself down. As a result, you hold yourself to a perfect standard just to feel adequate about your performance, opposed to a “this is the best I can do today” mindset that is more realistic and forgiving.

I know what you hardcore perfectionists are thinking: “At my level, I can NOT afford to be anything less than perfect 100% of the time or else I lose my job, my prestige, or my confidence”.

That’s an understandable feeling. If you’re the point guard for a pro basketball team, you can’t start missing shots on a routine basis without being benched. Should the trend continue, you get dismissed to the minor leagues. When performing at a high level, perfectionism is helpful, but it ultimately guts you from the inside out.

Some athletes and musicians perform well precisely because they are relaxed and focused. Yes, they put the time in practicing and honing their skills, but they don’t necessarily attach anxiety to their efforts as a form of negative self-motivation. After a bad outing, they reflect, regroup, and get ready for the next event.

This is particularly true for NFL football quarterbacks. They make the big bucks for a reason: 1) They call the shots and engineer plays on the field and 2) [More importantly] They can “forget” a mistake almost immediately, refocus, and persevere. A football announcer once said, “If a quarterback has just been intercepted, he needs to forget about it quick and get back on the field to win the game”. If that failure produces anxiety, collecting oneself before the next football play or movement of a complex piano Sonata is an absolute necessity.

I regarded my own music performances as “good until I missed a note”. After that, I lost concentration and the rest of it suffered. The best performers don’t make many mistakes, but when they do, they are able to move on and complete the rest of the music as if that out-of-tune f sharp never happened.

Perfectionism and Anxiety will needlessly wear you down. If you’ve fallen into this rut, you need to find ways to motivate yourself positively, and realize that you can’t be perfect ALL the time, EVERY time.

If you think I’m lying, go to Youtube.com and type in the name of your favorite athlete or musician. Search for “greatest performances”. Search for “live performances”, when they can’t rewind the tape and start over. Spend an hour or two observing the greats, and eventually you’ll spot a mistake. A superstar baseball pitcher will walk 2 or 3 batters in a row and need to be relieved. A virtuoso trumpeter will squeak out a high note that should have been much cleaner. A gifted public speaker will stumble over simple words that anyone could say, or temporarily be distracted by something off camera. Yes, the greatest among us make mistakes.

Your drive to be excellent should be propelled by love of whatever you do and a sincere desire to improve. You’ll also have to accept that it takes time to reach peak performance levels, and that you’ll need to rest along the way when you’ve practiced so much that your body and mind turn to jello. It’s okay to be anxious about a performance, but it’s not productive to be anxious that the slightest mistake you make will ruin everything. Instead of an A, you might have to settle for a B+, but that’s much better than falling apart and getting a C or D.

High performance capabilities and consistency matter. Would you rather have a baseball player that either strikes out or hits a home run, or someone that consistently hits base-hits and doubles when it counts? Most coaches would prefer the solid performing less powerful batter to the occasionally impressive big hitter. Sure, the big hitter will get a lot of attention when he whacks a ball over the fence, but he’ll also look a bit incompetent when he goes 6 or 7 bats without a hit.

Anxiety and perfectionism, left unchecked, can take over your life and will eventually push you away from something you once loved. You might be able to eke out a couple great moments in the short run that feel good, but months and years of persistent anxiety will drain you. When that psychological energy deficit occurs, you have little chance of competing with the best.

For most people anxiety and perfectionism aren’t a problem; but for others they become self destructive. Luckily these mindsets can be treated by a good therapist who can help you re-frame your self motivation to something less performance-value oriented to something more performance-satisfying. The difference between the two might seem nuanced, but your mind and body will thank you later.

Doing what you love should not terrify you at the same time.

Yes: You Can Over Exercise and Over Train – Know When to Take a Break

Last year at this time I began exercising regularly for the first time in years. I wanted to lose weight, be more energetic, less depressed, etc. Shortly after my diet and exercise change, I left Costa Rica and returned to the USA. The whole moving process was stressful, but I managed to continue my good habits.

I’ve now lost 30 pounds and run 5-6 days a week. I eat much better and my cholesterol numbers and triglyceride counts are excellent. My Type 1 diabetes is in better control (but still extremely frustrating).

A ton of new mental stressors have recently popped up. At first I slogged through them thinking that being proactive would reduce my anxiety and hasten the process of fixing each issue. Unfortunately, despite my sincere efforts, things are NOT going as planned and my mental state is becoming fragile. Toss in self imposed daily vigorous exercise, and eventually both mind and body begin to quit.

I went out for a run last week and literally felt like I had the flu, even though I knew my general health was fine. My legs felt heavy. I was slow and clunky. My breathing felt more labored than usual. When I tried a few sprints, I noticed I had an anemic energy level, to the point that I was barely sprinting at all. I knew something was wrong: 2 months ago I was doing the same run feeling fresh and strong. Now, it felt like my body was half dead.

I checked all the usual suspects: Type 1 Diabetes, medication, sleep, and food intake. The Diabetes was mostly normal except for a few high sugar readings. Medication was the same. Sleep was deteriorating a bit: I was sleeping longer and having trouble getting out of bed. Food intake was the same, although I definitely felt extremely hungry after some runs compared to previous months.

So I took a few days off from exercising to visit with family. A day after they left, I tied up my running shoes and left my apartment as usual. Even with the extra rest, I was still lethargic, tired, and not very enthusiastic about what I was doing.

Yes, one can over exercise or over train. Pro athletes also call this “becoming stale”.

At first I thought I was wimping out. After doing some reading, I learned that people who exercise at ALL levels can become exhausted – or over trained – if they are not allowing themselves enough rest and/or not eating enough food. In my case I’ve been in the “more exercise/less food” mode for 12 months. While decreasing food intake helps shed pounds, eventually your body will need more energy to tolerate increased exercise.

In other words, you can’t starve yourself indefinitely and expect to improve your fitness level at the same time. Once your body is reoriented at a good weight and body fat ratio, you’re going to need more carbohydrates, fats, and protein if you intend to take your training to the next level.

Also, if your are feeling stressed in other areas of your life, the loss of mental focus and energy will take its toll on your exercise performance.

Signs of over training and over exercising

If you’re not actually sick, here are signs that you need a break:

  1. Sleeping more than usual or having a hard time getting out of bed for an extended length of time (10 days to 2 weeks).
  2. Feeling drained, tired, or weak consistently for days on end, even during “easy workouts”.
  3. Cranky, irritable, less enthusiastic, unable to concentrate performing other daily activities (working, etc.)
  4. “Plateauing” or not actually getting stronger despite consistent exercise.
  5. If you compete, noticing your times or performance quality is decreasing despite continuing to train regularly.
  6. Noticing that workouts you completed easily months ago seem much more difficult in recent days.
  7. Sudden weight loss.
  8. If your resting pulse and/or blood pressure is higher than normal, even after getting out of bed. Those who are over trained will notice their pulse rate is higher than it should be at rest, standing, or sitting.

Of all the above symptoms, I think the resting pulse rate is probably the best way to detect over training. I was at my monthly psychiatric visit earlier this week and the doctor took my pulse and blood pressure. Although it wasn’t abnormally high, it was higher compared to a reading I had a few weeks earlier. Both readings were taken in the morning and I only exercise in the afternoon. Exercising regularly should produce improved cardio-vascular performance, not the opposite.

Also, there is a BIG difference between exercising to lose weight and exercising to improve athletic performance. In my case, I started eating less and exercising more to get rid of extra pounds and it worked. Now that I’m back to square one, I need to eat a little more and focus on building strength and endurance; both of which require patience and small increases in workout intensity over several months.

For the time being, I need to rest and get my mental focus back. I’m going to exercise moderately for 2 days, then take 2 days off until I feel strong again. If that doesn’t work, I might cease exercising altogether until I really feel like I have a surplus of energy and less need of sleep.

Exercising at a higher level requires close attention be paid to getting rest and fueling your body properly. Otherwise, you will exhaust yourself and be forced to take days, even weeks off your schedule to feel better again.

In the Wake of the Boston Bombing, A Contemplation of Evil and All Sides of the Story

Part of my family and I were at the beach in Florida on Monday afternoon when we heard about the Boston Marathon bombing on April 15, 2013, at 2:50 PM. My brother was waiting near the finish line for his girlfriend who was running the race as part of a fundraising event for charity. Luckily the bombs went off before they were close enough to be injured. My brother and his girlfriend eventually connected. They were quickly evacuated from the area. It was a close call for our family involving terrorism and everyone walked away alive. On September 11th, 2001, we weren’t so lucky.

When horrific events like this occur, people turn to their own belief system looking for answers. Some find solace in religion, others observe a period of introspection, while others might spend time with loved ones, renewing the tenuous ties that bind us all. Of course, those not immediately involved in the event want answers, which might take months or years to find. Families who lost loved ones or must now care for a survivor with multiple amputations will be changed forever. Those who were lucky enough to walk away will never forget the day they set out to watch 23,000 people run a marathon and instead witnessed a disturbing scene of confusion, chaos, and destruction.

Most cultures would immediately call this event a perpetration of evil. Although we might not all agree about its source and nature, most human beings fundamentally understand that any act contrary to the existence and well-being of others is considered evil. This is the basic foundation of right and wrong. Of course the reason for hurting others is often more complicated than the mere act of violence itself. Killing is wrong, but is it ever justified?

Personally, I am deeply saddened and outraged by what I saw in Boston. I feel for the victims families and hope they will eventually find peace in the months and years to come. At the moment, my outrage is directed at a yet-to-be-determined individual or group. They MUST BE evil, utterly devoid of any moral compass.

Borderline Personality makes me prone to black and white thinking. That means I see things at polar opposite sides, lacking any gray in the middle. I’m mad at whoever did this, and I believe they should rot in jail for the rest of their lives. When I’m not mad about it, I try to consider what their motivation was and if it might be justified. To be clear, such actions are never justified in my eyes, but others might disagree.

Was the perpetrator a completely insane individual? If so, we must balance our disgust with a desire to identify and help those among us who are dangerously mentally ill. This person’s existence might have been very painful and troubling. Perhaps he or she was hearing voices or thought they were in touch with God. We can’t assume everyone’s mind operates within the boundaries of normalcy. The deranged bomber might have no idea what he or she did.

Was the perpetrator a domestic terrorist? If so, what was his or her motive, assuming they are not deeply disturbed? We need to examine American life more closely and discover why fringe elements might feel the need to kill others to make a political point. This process is potentially more perilous than deciding whether or not to retaliate against a foreign enemy. In this case, our society has allowed an individual or group to develop such malevolent intentions that we’ve turned a blind eye to the real problems facing our nation. Have unhealed wounds been left festering for years without proper attention?

Was the perpetrator an international terrorist? If so, what was his or her motive? Are they part of our well established enemies in the”War on Terror”? Or, could it be a family member of someone killed as collateral damage in a drone strike? In the former case, we can resolutely stand opposed to our sworn enemies and punish them. In the latter, we must consider the fact that our foreign policy – right or wrong – might be making unnecessary enemies. Someone killing in revenge for a family death might be considered honorable and justified in their culture, while we would tend to think otherwise.

All of these potential scenarios each parse out variations of evil: unmitigated insanity, disaffected fellow citizens, or desperate foreigners trying to make a point.

Of all three, I think the bereft foreigner bombing in revenge for a family member killed in a counter-terrorism operation would produce some profound questions for us to consider, many of which could not be easily excused as “he’s just evil”, or “he’s our sworn enemy”, or “we must exterminate them all”.

Similarly, a domestic terrorist hoping to make a political point could put our nation on the brink of self-implosion when people lineup for or against the bomber(s). We are already polarized over many issues. If the bomber is one of our own with a political vendetta, no doubt many will take his or her side. Lincoln famously said, “A house divided against itself cannot stand”. Could this incident plunge the nation into turmoil (at worst) or tie us together even stronger than before (at best), realizing that our own existence is dependent on being united and supportive of each other, political disagreements aside?

Our legal system is one of the most developed and refined in the world, yet it still continues to fail in so many ways. Our deterrence of theft, drug addiction, or terrorist acts is always predicated on reacting to the guilty party and penalizing them, not asking ourselves how the crime could have been prevented in the first place.

When trying to hear all voices at the table, I wonder whether or not human evolution can progress without first questioning the notion that evil is far better punished than prevented?