Get to the Roots of Your Anxiety and Perfectionism
Having to grow up too soon might be why you could never relax.
Posted March 5, 2019 | Reviewed by Jessica Schrader
Some of us only know ourselves to be highly anxious, perfectionistic adults.
When something goes wrong, we immediately assume it is our fault.
When mistakes happen, we are unable to forgive ourselves.
We feel guilty and ashamed for even the smallest error.
We jump to the worst possible outcome so we could prepare for it.
We become socially anxious because we do not believe our real self would be accepted.
When our partners distance themselves, we become frightened of abandonment.
When conflicts arise in relationships, we rush to rescue the situation, sometimes sacrificing our own dignity.
Even when we have done our best, we blame ourselves for not being perfect.
If we were to dissect our life history, we might realize our breathlessness stems from having to grow up too early, too soon as a sensitive and empathically gifted child.
"Parentification" occurs when a child is put in a position where she has to grow up ‘too early too soon’, is burdened with a huge amount of responsibility, or is made to be a parent to their siblings and parents.
Many emotionally sensitive and naturally empathic individuals have automatically taken on the role of ‘the little adult’ in their family- sometimes concretely and practically, but most of the time covertly and on a psychological level.
They are the old souls who are by nature more attuned and mature than their chronological ages. Because of their extraordinary warmth, compassion, and depth, their family members have come to—usually unintentionally and unconsciously—lean on them. It might even have started in the womb when we detected our mothers’ fears and absorbed all the transgenerational trauma.
Parentification can also happen if one or both parents are physically or mentally ill, unavailable, or for any reason not able to fulfill parenting duties. Children who are parentified often grow up feeling hyper-vigilant and hyper-responsible. They are used to being the ones who make sure that everything is in order, and to be responsible for meeting not just their own needs but also others’. They are programmed into feeling that if they let go of the control wheel for just a minute, things will go wrong.
Children naturally blame themselves for what happens to them.
If they are bullied, they believe it is because they are not beautiful, or smart enough.
If they are neglected, they believe they are too needy to begin with.
If they are burdened with demands that they cannot fulfill, they believe it is their failure—failing to be a perfect child, failing to take good care of their siblings, failing to soothe their parents’ anger.
When parents blame a child, the child believes that they are in the wrong.
This feeling doesn’t just go away, and many of us carry it into our adulthood.
Some sensitive and intense children are cast as the black sheep of the family, the carrier of all blame.
But even those of us who were not explicitly scapegoated, if our parents had not taken full ownership of their responsibilities and shortcomings, or if due to their vulnerabilities we felt we had to take care of them, we would still end up with the subconscious belief that whatever happened was because of us, and that somehow we should have fixed the situation.
On the surface, we might say we don’t believe we are responsible for our family’s dysfunction.
But deep down in there, we feel as though if we had been a different child, things would have been better.
Our childlike mind thought perhaps if we were less difficult, less sensitive, our parents would treat us differently.
We thought if we were somehow "better"—a less needy child, a more helpful child, bad things would not happen.
We thought if we silenced our needs and desire, if we never expressed frustrations or sadness, they would be less angry.
We thought if we became hyper-vigilant and hyper emphatic, picking up the earliest smallest clues of our parents’ outbursts, we could protect our siblings.
We thought if we were our parents’ confidant and counselor, we could take away their pain.
The deep-seated urge to "fix things" is the root of many of our suffering. Albeit unconsciously, we have bought into an insufferable myth- the myth that says somehow we could and should control whatever happens. This belief may not be conscious; but seeps into our lives in the form of chronic anxiety, nameless guilt, and the inability to feel safe.
One reason we are unable to let go of the past is the deep-down longing that we will be able to make things ‘right’.
Yet no matter how hard we try, reality is not perfect, and our family may remain in denial of their wrongdoings.
Even in our own lives, we cannot control the many uncertainties.
When bad things happen, we get into the habit of driving all blame to ourselves, drowning in cycles of guilt and shame.
But you are reading this because you have had enough.
The childlike part of you is still terrified of conflicts, and fears abandonment and rejection.
But the wise, healthy part of you wants to break free from the myth that had kept you stuck.
The art of surrender is at the centre of many spiritual and healing practices; knowing that we cannot control reality can paradoxically bring the biggest relief.
To reclaim love for ourselves, we must undo the childhood conditioning that has trained us to always be in high alert to emotional signals, to put others’ needs before our own, and to hyper-empathise to the point where we lose ourselves.
Relieving ourselves of the impossible duty to rescue, help, or emotionally caretake anyone is the biggest gift to ourselves.
You do not need to punish yourself for not living up to an impossible standard.
It was never your task to live your parents’ unlived lives.
You could not have protected your siblings from your parents’ dysfunctions.
It should never have been on your to calm or comfort anyone. You were only a child.
You are allowed to be imperfect, to make mistakes, to make a mess.
You do not have to do anything to be worthy of existence.
You are not here to help others, achieve things, or be productive. You deserve to exist just as you are.
You do not have to sacrifice your needs to accommodate others. People can take care of themselves.
You could not change who your parents are, how they behave, or what they believe.
There might never be justice, but your happiness is not contingent on what they say or think.
The first step to releasing past hurt is forgiving yourself- even there was nothing to ‘forgive’ in the first place.
Let it go. You have done more than enough.
Unburden yourself, and live your own life, not according to anyone’s scripts.
Here is a poem from Rilke on releasing the burden you could not hold:
Fear not the pain. Let its weight fall back
into the earth;
for heavy are the mountains, heavy the seas.
The trees you planted in childhood have grown
too heavy. You cannot bring them along.
Give yourselves to the air, to what you cannot hold.
(Rilke in Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy’s translation—"What you cannot hold.")