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.