How My Anxiety Makes Me Obsess About Strangers' Opinions

Why My Anxiety Makes It Hard For Me To Leave The House

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It takes me an hour to prep for Target. None of this includes dressing the children, locating shoes, herding them into the car, or finding lost keys. No, it means at least a half an hour of make-up. It means a half an hour of trying different outfits, discarding them, trying more, discarding those, examining myself in multiple mirrors from multiple angles, ditching those clothes, and usually returning to the clothes I chose in the first place. This may call for a drastic hair or lipstick change, requiring an extra 15 minutes. I have a Spotify playlist and my kids know not to bother Mommy when she’s getting dressed — all because I’m terrified of what strangers will think when they see me.

The anxiety is crippling.

I know moms who toss on a pair of yoga pants, throw their hair in a messy bun, and hop in the car. God bless ’em.

I have clinical anxiety. And one of its most crippling manifestations is an obsession over the thoughts and opinions of perfect strangers. I’m a perfectionist: I must look a certain way all the time. I must look like The Perfect Mother, Perfectly Put Together, with children turned out in adorable clothing without stains and or rips.

You attempt the last one with three little boys content to live life in their Spiderman underwear.

All of this is because I’m afraid someone will judge me; most of the time, I won’t walk to the mailbox without a full face of foundation. My husband asks if this is because I judge other people. I don’t. I’m envious, in fact, of those who can go without makeup, who can show their real selves: their yoga pants, their t-shirts, their messy hair. I want to give them high-fives for not giving a fuck what I think. They’re stronger people than I am in their not-caring. To me, it feels like a superpower. I’m trapped, instead, in a world where everyone’s always looking at me and finding me lacking somehow: Do I look fat to her? Does she think my hair looks stupid? Is she annoyed with my kids? Does my top actually look too young for me?

And on and on and on. It’s vicious. Strangers become the mouthpieces for my own anxieties. They speak in the same voices that come out of my mirror: you are not good enough. You are not pretty enough, not cute enough, not together enough. You are too stressed and too tired and too distracted. You spend too much time on your phone. You yell at your kids too often. You need to lose weight. I hear them as I walk through Target, when I sit in a restaurant.

I apologize for myself. “I got up late,” I’ll say to baffled cashiers. “I don’t normally spend this much time on the phone,” I’ll explain to confused waitresses. “I’m having an awful hair day, don’t judge me,” I’ll beg the bank teller. All of them just nod. Some of them try to reassure me. But mostly, they’re just soothing my low self-esteem. This low self-esteem manifests itself as runaway anxiety.

And it sucks.

It takes up way too much of my time. It occupies way too much of my headspace. I can’t stand to have pictures taken of me, because I always think they look terrible. I’ve learned to force myself to deal with that, because memories are more important than my own self esteem, but I won’t allow the pics to be shared on Facebook, and they make me cringe when I remember them.

I try to keep in mind the things my husband tells me: (1) No one gives flying fuck what you look like. They’re too busy living their own lives. Forget them. (2) If they do care, they only care for a fleeting second and then move on. (3) Do you really need to spend so much headspace caring about a fleeting second in the moment of the head of a total stranger? (4) You’re not walking around judging everyone else. What makes you think other people are doing it? What does that say about your vision of humanity in general?

Intellectually, I’m able to realize that these are good questions with important answers that lead to messy buns and yoga pants. Emotionally, I can’t get off the roller coaster. Plenty of medication, loads of talk therapy, and positive self-talk still haven’t broken the barrier. I’m obsessed about what perfect strangers think of me. End of story. It’s brutal. It takes up too much time and energy and effort. It’s painful. I feel like a bug under a microscope. I feel like I’m constantly judged and found wanting.

I want to walk out of this spiral. I want to go to Target without makeup, acne scars and all, bad hair and yoga pants. I want to stop stressing that my leggings make me look fat and my new shirt is too young for me. I’m desperate to stop caring. This roller coaster sucks, and I’d give up a non-vital internal organ to step off.

At least then I wouldn’t spend an hour, every single morning, trying to decide what the fuck to wear.