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Panic. Anxiety. Perfectionism.

Anna Birnbaum, Asst. Dean of Students
This was originally shared by Ms. Birnbaum during an All-School meeting.

When I decided to share a personal story with the community, I thought long and hard about how to make my story meaningful and ultimately decided that I wanted to build off of Senor Mucino’s concept of “don’t let your circumstances dictate your attitude”. This line has and continues to resonate with me deeply. I will share something that some of you might not believe, some of you might relate to, and some of you will question.

I share this not for me, but to show you that everyone is human, even your teachers and we have all had to and continue to overcome struggles. In July of 2017 I had a panic attack. I was driving on a long windy road through the hills of New Hampshire when I began to have sharp pains in my chest, loss of feeling in my arms and legs and almost fainted. I thought I was dying. It was horrible.
I spent the next three weeks somewhat debilitated: I couldn’t drive, I slept almost all day, and the things that once were routine, were not a reality for me anymore, or so I thought. I went to doctors, no one could figure out what was wrong with me. In fact, it appears they couldn’t find anything medically wrong with me. I couldn’t help but question myself and also these individual’s expertise, because something had to be wrong with me.

But then summer ended. I had to go back to work. And, work was hard. If you need to know one thing about me, it’s that I love to work, I love to be busy and I couldn’t imagine not working. That might sound crazy, but the work I do with students and my colleagues is the one area of my life where I feel most fulfilled; it is where I get my energy and fulfill what I believe to be my purpose. So, for work to be hard was saying something. It wasn’t until one doctor said it so simply, “you might have anxiety.” I was taken back, I was sad, I was angry, I felt like a failure. That’s where Senor Mucino’s message resonates with me. I had two options: ignore what was happening and be negative, or face it head on and be positive in the process. I share this story not for sympathy, not for empathy, not for myself, I share it to reiterate that all of us face challenges. We’ve had to look ourselves in the mirror and say I have two choices: to show up or not. I made the choice that I wasn’t going to let the circumstances, in this case having anxiety, affect my attitude or what I would do moving forward. Was it hard? Yes. Did it require a counselor to help me work through why I got there? Yes. Was I surrounded by people who supported me through the process? Yes. Is counseling hard? Sometimes. But I was faced with a choice, to engage or not engage and I chose to engage.

Counseling is hard because sometimes you have to face and own things that you’re not proud of, or things that are out of your control that have impacted your life or things that cause you tremendous amounts of pain. For me, I come from a family where there is a history of mental health challenges, which had a significant impact on me during my childhood and early adult life. I also come from a family where we didn’t talk about the challenges my siblings faced. There was a total disengagement with this aspect of life. Thus I, on the other hand, was always the child who didn’t have any struggles. I learned to be a perfectionist and to not cause any problems and that was how I identified. I didn’t want to be like them.

I want to take a moment to talk about what it means to be a perfectionist. Brene Brown states that,

Perfectionism is the belief that if we do things perfectly and look perfect, we can minimize or avoid the pain of blame, judgment, and shame. Perfectionism is a twenty-ton shield that we lug around, thinking it will protect us, when in fact it's the thing that's really preventing us from being seen.
She goes on to describe perfectionism to be about our acute awareness of what other people think of us, not what we are trying to achieve for ourselves. It turns out that perfectionism drives anxiety and results in us “hustling” to prove our self-worth. My perfectionism was really code for a different word: Shame. Shame, and I quote, “is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of acceptance and belonging.” For me, in this instance where I began to acknowledge this aspect of my life, I saw the very real ways that me not wanting to be like my siblings was rooted in my own fear of failure and my fear that I might not be meeting others’ expectations. It would be an instant where I felt like I was “not good enough”.

Ultimately, we all have times when we feel like we’re not good enough. But rather than letting this feeling of not good enough drive my life in this instance, I showed up. I arrived in counseling having had years of experiences that I had not processed, but I embraced them, rather than ignoring them.
I have never had to be more vulnerable than I had to be in counseling. However, I actively made the choice to continue showing up. Many people stop engaging in counseling when it gets hard, but it turns out in life, it’s when things get hard that the real lessons and learning happen.

So, rather than being stuck home, unable to work, I addressed what was beneath the surface and for the most part, just 2 years later, live as though this never happened. I also continue to actively work on the things that would make it surface once again. This type of work is hard work, but it is the most important type of work. However, the one way the I consciously live knowing that this happened is in the work I do with all of you. I recognize now that I started to develop the habits and patterns that led to my anxiety when I was a small child, but that it truly started affecting me in high school. Where I went to school, counseling was not an accepted part of life. It was always the talk of the town if you were seen walking out of Ms. Spooner’s office. Even though I had many teachers who cared for me and supported me, I am the product of an environment where you tough it out and just continue to show up.

What I’ve learned now is that showing up can mean something entirely different. I know now is I missed a tremendous opportunity to learn and grow when I was in high school, and I then had to deal with the first 15 years, plus 11 more, by the time I got to work. Avoidance is a defense mechanism, and a really effective one at that. But, the way that I let this experience guide me going forward is in the impact I strive to make in the lives of my students.
Brene Brown in her Ted Talk on “The Power of Vulnerability” talks about the different ways we orient towards the world. She says some people operate from the lens of “Life’s messy, love it, and I’m more of the life’s messy, clean it up, organize it and put it into a bento box.” There is no quote that resonates with me more. Yet, as an educator, I have found the most reward in moments where students become willing to open up or take part in a dialogue about their struggles. In these moments, I am afforded the opportunity to engage in the communication about mental health and well-being that I was denied in my early family and school experiences.

So, what do I want you to take away from this? Show up. Sometimes life is hard and you’re not sure where to go next, but if you don’t let your circumstances dictate your attitude, you show up and you accept that it’s ok to need help, you might just find that you are better on the other side. And, know that I and any other adult, and your peers are here to support you along the way.
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