At the root of anxiety

I recently read a blog post by Harriet Lerner about anxiety-driven mantras. In the post, Lerner talks about how certain thoughts run through our brains over and over again, usually having to do with being mistreated. These thoughts suck up tremendous time and energy and get us absolutely nowhere.

But Lerner's definition of an "anxiety-driven mantra" was different than what I expected. I immediately thought of an anxiety-driven mantra as the fear that's at the root of all of my angst-ridden ruminations. For me, that fear is pretty simple. My anxiety-driven mantra is this: I'm a failure.

It's what I fear most.

I realize that fear of failure is fairly common, and, to some extent, at least a little bit understandable. My problem is how I define "failure." My definition can be summarized as "anything less than perfect." And since nothing is really perfect, I'm pretty well f*cked in that respect. Even as I am praised by friends and family for writing a book/tweaking a recipe/tying my shoes, I feel like a failure inside because inevitably, it wasn't perfect. The anxiety leaps in here, because I fear that it's just a matter of time until my innate failure becomes obvious.

Hence the never-ending feelings that I'm a fake and a fraud, and the all-consuming fear that one mistake will mean everyone will find out they've been fooled.

The more I think about it, the more I realize that this mantra is also linked to my eating disorder. Gaining weight would make me a "failure." I would have "failed" not only at anorexia, but it would mark me as someone who was weak-willed, and that would make me a failure. Our culture's idea that losing weight is always superior to gaining certainly played a role, but rarely did I fear that others would think I was a failure for gaining weight. I knew pretty much everyone would think that gaining weight would improve my appearance. But it was my own personal standards against which I would judge myself a failure.

And here, too, the AN was a way of telling myself that even if the rest of my life goes to pot, at least I can do one thing right. My not eating made me feel better both in terms of anxiety and depression, and it provided a reassurance (however flimsy) that as long as I was undereating and overexercising, then things would be okay. I would not be a Total FailureTM.

This is irrational. I'm aware of that. But it's how I've always thought. This is how my standards have always been, despite reassurances from friends and family that a B really was okay and not the end of the world. But it was, I insisted. Where will a B end?

So that's my anxiety-driven mantra: a fear of failure and a desperate need to avoid it. What's yours?

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Flannery White said...

I just wrote a post about this, too!
Mine is exactly the same. It centers mostly around looking stupid, but failure, yes, always failure, always, always. But instead of holding on to something I thought I could still control--weight--I just tried to zone out and disappear--by bingeing.

Anonymous said...

Goodness.. reading your post feels like reading something i'd written myself! I feel exactly the same with regards to the failure thing, and with exams in school: if its not 100%, its not good enough. Even if it IS 100%, it doesn't FEEL good enough.
Even with ED - i've just been referred to a specialist clinic in my local area, after my first successful doctors appointment in terms of recovery (ie. they took me seriously), and i'm terrified that when I turn up they'll take one look at me and tell me that theres "nothing wrong with me", and that its "all in my head".
Logically, I know this isn't true, but the fear still stands.
And, yeah, with weight, when I realised I could be 'successful', and go '100%' with my diet and weight loss, it felt very good, and naturally, the feelings are affirmed by those around us: modern society sees getting 'thin' as in, and 'healthy' as out. Its sickening, but.. one can learn to move beyond it, and change one's own standards. I hope.

Madeleine. :) said...

I have a lot of the same thoughts and experiences as you on this topic. Eating more makes me feel like a failure (failing at the ED), but reverting back to the ED makes me feel like a failure too (because and ED means I have a "problem" and I shouldn't have problems... that's pretty much the thought). Anyway, this has regularly put me in a catch 22. No mater what I do, I fail. If I stay eating disordered, I fail (because it means I have a problem), and if I eat more, the ED tells me I fail. I just so badly didn't want to fail... so I'd go back and forth between trying to recover so other people didn't see me as a failure, then feeling unhappy with this decision to try to recover and going back to the ED so that I wasn't a failure at being eating disordered.... I might not be describing this well. I just wanted to add that, while I understand gaining weight and eating more making you feel like a failure, I also have felt like a failure when I wasn't eating more - because being EDed isn't applauded... it makes other people concerned. And when other people had to be concerned about me, I felt like a failure too. It's a lose-lose situation.

Lou Lou said...

I'm a bad person.

thats my mantra.

following close behing is:

you don't deserve it.

later comes:

you are not good enough.

My new one is:


Cathy (UK) said...

Hmmm, this all sounds familiar!

For the 2-3 yrs that preceeded the onset of my anorexic behaviours (at age 11 yrs) I gradually became more and more certain that I was a failure and a 'waste of space'. (Depression, as well as anxiety, pre-dated my anorexia nervosa). I felt a failure mainly because I was bullied at school - and so I came to hate myself.

For me, AN was a means of 'hiding from the world'. Being absorbed continuously in food, exercise and work rituals provided an illusory sense of 'safety'. I have always had such a negative sense of self that I even wondered whether I 'deserved' to recover...

Amy said...

Total Failure is trademarked under my name, so I expect the check in the mail... (;

<3 you

Abby said...

I agree with a lot of this, and although my "issues" are more anxiety-related than body image (not fat-phobic and think I look like skinny crap), I think the fear of success is just as harmful to me as the fear of failure at times.

If I do something exceptionally well, I expect that I will be held to that standard from that point on (even if only in my own head).

However, I also think it depends on our definition of failure. With my anxiety, exercising 29 minutes instead of 30 would be considered a failure, whereas to someone who usually does 20 minutes would see 29 as success. Restricting makes me feel both failure (in recovery) and success (calms the anxiety), etc.

At times, it's easier to have a negative mantra to offset any positive expectations that may cause me to make myself more anxious. Disappoint before something else can.

Anonymous said...

I hope this comment thingy works..
Anyway, yeah, totally feel the failure. I'm always thinking I'm a total phoney sham and people are going to figure it out & then I'll be in trouble. And I'm also not good enough to enjoy things, have this martyr complex, but that's tied up to the fear of failure which I think actually is a fear of success. I say this because whenever I am successful at something, I'm waiting for the other shoe to drop - the higher you are the harder you fall.
Here's something anecdotal too. A few months back, before I was trying to get better, and when I was still at my toxic workplace, they had this pizza day. I had a slice, beleive it or not. Well, one of my co-workers, a very thin, pretty lady my mothers age, said "YOU had pizza?! But your my role model!" And I thought, lady, if I'm your role model you need help. Because I looked like a cancer patient (due to always wearing scarves on my balding head and bony chest). So I think some of that fear of gainig weight is social stigma as well. Not everyone can quit their toxic workplace, and I wonder what my co-workers would think if I went back and had "gotten fat?" So it's not completely our fault to feel like we do, but it is up to us how we react.

Melessia said...

Of course so many of us feel this post from you resonate deep within. Who wouldnt want to be 'perfect'? But as you have indicated, 'perfect' isnt real and doesnt exist. A great man, musician, and poet, Leornard Cohen, said "everything has a crack in it, that is how the light gets through". Why cant our 'cracks' be beautiful and be our reason to smile? Can our imperfections save us? I used to have this fear of being imperfect and not good enough and you know what... I suffered a massive stroke at age 30, I am now 31... I now have a hand that no longer works and a foot that is close to the same - I had to relearn to walk and I had to let go of who I was my first 30 years of life. It is beyond frustrating, but my dreams of being 'perfect' have shattered... when it is taken from you, you cannot command its return. Surprisingly and recently, I realize that with these new imperfections forced upon me - I love myself more than ever before. I suppose my perspective has shifted and I suppose that sometimes, that is all we need.

Kim said...

Not to be unoriginal, but I think my mantra is the same as yours. I think of failure as "anything less than perfect" too. I'm usually befuddled by compliments and things because I can come up with a number of reasons why what I did was not right. I also have that constant feeling of being a fraud. I feel it in my career a lot, like I'm just fooling people. I wonder how I got so far, why there's a "Senior" in my title. I figure it's just "luck." Gaining weight to me seems like a failure too. Losing weight is what everyone strives for, and I did that damn well. Gaining weight? Anyone can do that. People say they do it every day, i.e. "That piece of cake went straight to my hips." It still feels like surrendering to something mundane and lazy to be a normal weight. I know it doesn't make logical sense; it's just my weird standards.

Cammy said...

I think my main ones tend to be "do not let yourself become dependent on anyone else." Not a bad strategy on the surface, but I do tend to take it to slightly pathological extremes and it results in keeping people at arms' length and missing out on a lot.

Harriet said...

Many women feel similarly, Carrie. There's a name for it: the impostor syndrome. Even the most successful, high-achieving people feel that they might be exposed at any moment as a fraud or a fake or a failure. I struggled with this for a long time, and I can tell you that time helps. So do awesome mantras like Lou Lou's! Hang in there.

M said...

My biggest issue is being "too much" ... too much personality; too many words, too much thinking, too much talking; too much success; expecting too much; too many balls in the air; too optimistic; too critical; too rigid, anxious, controlling; too needy, too independent; too trusting, too suspicious; too active; too stubborn; too demanding; too hopeful; need too much intellectual stimulation and too much interaction; need too much structure and too much feedback; take up too much space, and I even take "too little" too far. Yet, my body (and its subsequent effect on the scope of my life) seem to be the only thing I'm willing to squelch to "small." It's as if I'm making up for the too-big-self that is too-big-to-contain.

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I'm a science writer, a jewelry design artist, a bookworm, a complete geek, and mom to a wonderful kitty. I am also recovering from a decade-plus battle with anorexia nervosa. I believe that complete recovery is possible, and that the first step along that path is full nutrition.

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