I Was That 'Perfect Mom'––But There's So Much You Didn't See
We all know that mom.
The one whose house was always clean for play dates when it looked like a child-sized bomb exploded in ours.
She was the mom who threw a Pinterest-perfect birthday party with themed cakes, decor, and food.
She always had it all together. She didn’t wear leggings to drop off, and her messy buns were actually cute.
Well, I was that mom — and I was miserable.
Why? Because what I thought was dramatic, perfectionist inner-dialogue was actually something called high-functioning anxiety.
What is High- Functioning Anxiety?
When you’re high functioning, you’re able to cope (function) at a higher level than someone else with the same condition. What this meant for me was even though internally I was drowning in anxiety externally, it appeared I was able to keep things together.
I left my anxiety untreated for years, and outwardly, there weren’t many signs typically associated with severe cases of anxiety. So there was never a concern, and that was just how I liked it.
I kept up with parenting, working and even managed to lead Girl Scouts for a while. Underneath it all, I worried. I worried that I wasn’t doing enough, and I wasn’t doing it well enough.
I was worried if I couldn’t keep up, it meant I had failed.
I was sure everyone in my life who mattered would be disappointed, angry, or worse, pity me because I just couldn’t get it together. I expected myself to do my best, and then maybe, just a little bit more. In my mind, if I was able to outrun these failures and imperfections, I’d be safe. I wouldn’t be left behind and rejected.
Sounds pretty dramatic, right?
No joke. One day, I was late for half-day Pre-K pick up at school and forgot to grab a baseball cap to hide my untamed mop. I had jumped right into work for the day without ever changing out of my lounge clothes.
Once I realized my current state, I’d already parked and emerged from my car. I was so embarrassed I seriously considered going home. Thankfully my daughter was the line leader, and we were out of there in no time. But of course, it didn’t stop me from convincing myself all the other moms thought I was an idiot and lazy. I cried the whole way home.
This is how high-functioning anxiety can manifest.
My untreated anxiety managed to blur the line between reason and illogical inner dialogue. This is where the difference lies between being a perfectionist and having a high-functioning mental illness.
One wants things done a certain way, a way they consider the best. While the other literally knows deep down in her soul, the world will basically stop turning if she doesn’t nail this.
People with high-functioning mental illnesses are faced with a double-edged sword. My high-functioning status meant I tried to keep up with the Kardashian’s (sorry I couldn’t help myself).
Case in point, my internal meltdown the night before crazy hair day circa fall of 2019. And yes, it’s been almost three years, but I can recall every detail and every feeling (another perk of untreated anxiety).
Every year during spirit week, crazy hair day inevitably comes. While my youngest daughter was thrilled to have cupcake buns, her older sister wanted a little bit more finesse (after all, she was in 1st grade).
We had picked out the exact cupcake wrappers she had wanted and watched half a dozen YouTube videos of the hair-do to make sure it was just right. I even compromised on makeup. Instead of a full face, I caved to a tinted sparkly lip gloss and perfectly placed overdone blush to really pull the whole cupcake look together.
We had it perfect. Exactly as she wanted it, but naturally, it kept me up, worried that it wasn’t enough. I had already taken half a day off work to make this special. To make sure this was as perfect as could be. But then, when I tried to settle in my anxiety, masquerading as perfectionism started up.
What if one of her buns came loose during the day?
What if someone had the same hair-do, but it was better?
What if she ended up embarrassed because it wasn’t good enough?
What if she was embarrassed by me? What if she realized I wasn’t good enough?
This is what my inner dialogue sounded like, and no, I’m not exaggerating, even though I wish I was.
Does any of this sound familiar? When you’re struggling with an untreated mental illness, you might be afraid to speak these criticisms out loud. You wouldn’t want anyone to think you’re crazy.
This is the best way I can describe this feeling to someone who hasn’t even experienced anxiety. Logically, you know those thoughts don’t make sense, but your nerves and mind just don’t jive–nothing syncs up.
Maybe if I had confided in someone about the thoughts I kept bottled up, I would have recognized how unhealthy my inner dialogue was. After all, according to the Office On Women’s Health, almost 1 in 5 adults in America have an anxiety disorder. Not only that, women are twice as likely as men to experience an anxiety disorder over the course of their lives.
When I started to receive treatment for my Generalized Anxiety Disorder (14 years later), I balanced back out to a more normal, sustainable level.
Suddenly, many people in my life were concerned.
What was wrong?
When for the first time in a long time, things didn’t feel catastrophic.
Why was my energy so low?
Read as, why aren’t you doing as much like you were before?
The most helpful, supporting question to ask is, how can we help?
If you, or someone you know, exhibit these kinds of perfectionist behaviors, no harm can be done by just talking.
Now, I’m not saying straight-out ask if they have anxiety (a full-scale intervention is not needed). Something as simple as asking, but how are you really doing can go a long way. Having honest, open conversations around mental health and mental illness makes a difference.
It could be the difference between choosing to push through your pain to your breaking point or realizing you don’t have to suffer in silence.
So, consider this my contribution to rewriting the narrative. I share my story because I know I am not alone, and I don’t want you to be either.