"'Happy is the man who... gains understanding.' " Proverbs 3:13
A few nights ago I suffered the kind of anxiety attack that left me gasping for air, unable to sleep and wishing my dad was there to chase the baddies away (Husband dutifully rubbed my back). It was a mounting attack, two weeks in the making (or maybe a lifetime!) that had its roots in one of my major shortcomings – the inability to make a choice.
You might expect that a girl nearing 30 had made enough decisions to amount to the kind of life experience that would help her discern when something is going to be beneficial and when it is not. Well, not in my case! (Or, apparently, in the Duchess of Windsor's). At least, not when it comes to big-picture, really important stuff.
Oh, yes, I can pick a meal off a menu in a nanosecond, walk into a store and out within 15 minutes with an outfit, purchase a song off iTunes or settle on which film to see on impulse, buy a birthday gift without a care – I am finely in tune with my sense of style and taste to the point of being utterly relaxed about it.
But other decisions I am much less confident about. Part of this is due to perfectionism – those Choose Your Own Adventure stories of our youth? I would read both outcomes. Editing down beauty product to feature on an editorial page? Let's shoot everything! Editing down a month's worth of books to four to review? Lock me up in a padded room and deny me sharp objects.
I have mostly cruised through life taking the path most expected or wherever the wind swept me – I have fallen into most of my relationships with men out of convenience or a fleeting flirtation with their physical form with little regard for their suitability; I have drifted into very nice jobs mostly on my ability to string a few charming words together; and my approach to financial management has been laissez faire or short-term at best. I think I missed the classes in school titled How To Be a Proper, Responsible Grown-Up.
I don't think I'm a stupid girl, but I also don't think I'm particularly wise, either (Fergie could relate). Though I'm morally quite sound and firm, when it comes to the big-ticket stuff – my happiness, relationships and health – I often trip over myself on the way to taking the wrong path. And often that wrong path is the one lined with the promise of pleasing other people or Living to My Potential (it certainly hasn't been lined with 500,000 pound bribes!).
In today's post-feminist world I, like many women, am spoiled for choice – there are just so many options! A while back, I penned a piece for Cleo about ambition for which I spoke to Courtney E. Martin, author of Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters, who said:
"I believe that this generation of girls was raised with the message, "You can be anything," and somehow heard "I have to be everything." This mistranslation was in the modeling--our mothers were, more often than not, total superwomen. We watched them and learned that femaleness was about being caring, powerful, dynamic, beautiful, and yes, pretty damn exhausted...
The quest for effortless perfection is making us achieve at unparalleled rates (we outnumber men on college campuses by 2 million!), but it's also causing unprecedented rates of anxiety, depression, and eating disordered behaviors. We have largely lost sight of happiness in a haze of our own insatiable ambition."
Most recently, a career option (or two) has presented itself and I've been near-paralysed by it: wanting to do the right thing by my prospective employer, but also aware of my own needs and the conviction I have about keeping this here blog bubbling along, as well as my marriage – nothing ruins a relationship quite like a stressful job! – and developing other professional prospects. How many balls can I juggle before they all fall down (ring around the rosy, a pocketful of posies...)?
A friend of mine once advised "bite off more than you can chew and chew it". In some ways I agree with this idea of diving right in and taking on the world when doors are opened. But I really wonder whether it's worth killing yourself in the process (not literally, hopefully). A couple of wise slightly older friends of mine have been quite influential in the development of my thinking in this area – three of them have recently cut back on work commitments in favour of family and down-time, or simply because it no longer felt right.
We can't all be go-getting, Gucci-clad power women tackling project after project on the climb to the top (of what, I'm not sure). Nor can we all emulate the "portfolio" careers of women in the public spotlight (everyone from J.Lo to Garance Dore), who often have extra help on the home/work front. And how terribly boring the world would be if we did.
"Everyone is evolving to portfolio careers or slash careers, depending on your favorite nomenclature, " says Courtney. "Life should be measured--not on dress size, salary, or awards - but on joy, fulfillment, and relationships."
It's sort of ironic that someone who can talk in front of hundreds of people and not feel intimidated, who doesn't blink when having a needle injected, should suffer this kind of crippling anxiety. One thing I know is I'm not alone (in addition to friends, the Bible is absolutely littered with stories of angst) and I will reach safer shores and still waters, hopefully with some newly acquired wisdom in my pocket, and without losing my pants...
"'Do not permit yourselves to be fearful...' " John 14:27
Girl With a Satchel