On anxiety and perfection in writing

On anxiety and perfection in writing

This isn’t the post I set out to write, in fact I had that post all done and ready but as the days turned into weeks, the message I wished to convey seemed to morph with it. I had changed. My mindset had changed too but the words on the page remained the same and so it felt like a great disservice to myself not to speak to what mattered the most to me. I mean, that is why any writer does what they do, to speak to the core of their personhood on topics that matter the most to them.

So I went back to the drawing board and ruthlessly picked apart what I had built, searching for a way to pass across a new message, a different message but with the same core elements. With a year gone since I began my first staff writer role and a multitude of lessons learnt and mistakes made, it felt a better time than any to confront my fears.

Anyone who knows me personally would know that I’ve been writing for most of my life. It’s how I expressed myself creatively and it’s what helped me pass across messages I was too scared to speak aloud. When I was younger, I got nicknamed Professor (might’ve also been the glasses) because I would sometimes handwrite notes more than I would hold conversations. I was an incredibly shy and anxious kid because of my lisp and words gave me comfort and solace. Their power, the emotions they conveyed and how they could be strung together made me fall in love and it became how I related with the world.

So when I made the transition from writing for myself sporadically when the inspiration came to writing everyday as a staff writer, I can’t say I was wholly prepared for the challenges that came with it. It called into question everything I thought I knew and raised questions on how good I actually thought I was–surely couldn’t be that good if I was writing entirely in my own time. For me, having to write everyday meant having to confront those inner voices that echoed sentiments of not being good enough.

Let me paint a quick picture for you, you see working within my own time meant no deadlines and the freedom to walk away and close all the tabs when I had reached a wall. That wall could stay up for weeks, months, some even years as the files on my laptop would reveal. With staff writing, when I hit a block, I didn’t have the luxury of hiding away from myself, and I had to confront my fears. This is not to say I was made to do anything I couldn’t take on. I had a team of writers who supported me through any block, but I had unreasonably high standards for myself to perform at the level my peers were, even at times where that was unfair to my year-old hand.

I guess I’ve always been an overachiever with high personal and professional standards. Growing up, I was told that the human potential was limitless, and I could be whoever I wanted to be if I worked hard enough. That limit, for a very long time, was measured by how happy I made my parents because they were the meter through which I gauged my success. My folks wanted perfection because ‘to whom much is given, much [was] expected’ and this was instilled into me from very early on. There was never room for ‘silly mistakes’ and I learnt back then that my value was in the work that I produced and how well I executed it.

This led to years of striving to independently solve everything myself so that I didn’t upset my parents, my teachers, my peers, my readers, my editor. I created from a place of fear because I couldn’t fall below the standard I had for myself and I would strive to execute the work so well that it never had to be called into question. I’m sure you may be wondering why I’m fretting over what some may call a good working habit, but in my experience, constantly thinking you should be perfect from the jump leads to the irrational belief that you can do everything on your own and that you have somehow embarrassed yourself by trying and failing.

It would be embarrassing to try and to fail or be told your work is not good enough, because like I mentioned earlier, I was always met with negative reinforcement for falling below a perceived standard. I am hard on myself because it allows me to claim autonomy of my shortcomings before someone else can point them out to me–that way we don’t get hurt, you see.

Being in my early twenties now, I no longer see myself through the eyes of my parents and their expectations. I have since realized that the title “parent” does not grant any additional traits on a person, as it simply means they’ve birthed someone. My parents aren’t perfect and they will get it wrong sometimes–just like I will. With this awareness, I am not mad at them for how they chose to raise me but it has taken me a long time to break out of the toxic cycle of sinking into a deep depression when the quality of my output is called to question. It’s the reason I always overachieve and overextend while shunning failure at every turn.

As a writer, that is literally the worst thing you can do, believe that your output is tied to the way people see and value you because there will always be something you can improve on and it takes the seasoned eye of a great editor to guide you there. This year has taught me lessons and boy have I grown. When I look back on the past year at the nervous girl who wasn’t quite sure how to work SEOs or how to conduct an interview, there’s a lot to be proud of. I am grateful for it all. I’ve had highs (I mean I interviewed Bebe Zahara Benet!!!) and I have had lows – I regularly consider quitting (if my bosses are reading this, please ignore). But I cannot quantify how proud I am of myself as I never thought that the day I would be a published writer would ever come and to actually be living it–fairly well I might add– is truly the stuff of dreams. Thirteen-year old me would be so proud of the woman I am today and that’s more than enough validation than I need.

If you’re wondering how I ever did work past those feelings, I’m here to tell you that I still am, even as I write this piece. But, now, I am being a whole lot kinder to myself and I’m learning to adapt better to constructive criticism while constantly reaffirming myself. It’s so easy to lose sight of why you got into this in the first place and it helps to ground yourself in the familiar when these heavy feelings set in. I can’t stress how awful it is to undergo a phase of dimming your own light and being so wrapped up in your head that you lose sight of who you are and why you began creating. 

So simply put, question everything: who is the measure for how good you should be? Is it the people around you? or mutuals on the Internet? Why do you feel unfulfilled? When does the imposter syndrome end? Heck, I don’t know. I’m still figuring all these out myself and while I fall sometimes, I now move with the awareness that my journey is mine and mine alone. My journey doesn’t have to look like anyone else’s and there’s a hidden power in coming to this realisation.

You are not the sum total of your occupation or your grades. You are not the output that you produce or the speed at which you produce. Your value is in you and because of you, and even in spite of you because just being who you are the gift itself. The sooner you realise this, the easier it is to walk in your light and move with intention, and I’m speaking to myself as much I am to you reading this. In the words of Donna-Claire Chesman Do right by yourself and your art will do right by you.

I hope things get easier for you and I hope you learn to be kinder to yourself. you deserve it. So here’s to a year of talking my shit, a year of immense growth and change and here’s to many more years of telling OUR stories. Thank you for believing in me.

Image credits: Courtesy of me.

Where it all began

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