Enough is enough

And perfect never happens.

I’m not good enough. It’s not perfect enough. I haven’t had enough time to prepare.

This is a mantra that I know well; I can’t count how many times I’ve repeated it. It’s the internal monologue that plays incessantly in the days and hours before any big event. It doesn’t matter how competent I am, how many details have been pored over, how much time I’ve had to rehearse. It’s never enough.

This feeling — that all the preparation in the world can’t save me from failure — has led to some heavy experiences. I’ve faced debilitating anxiety attacks before nearly every important presentation or speech I’ve delivered, and I’ve faced more than my fair share of important presentations and speeches.

All of this panicking makes me wonder why I agree to do so much public speaking. More often than not, though, I wind up doing a good job and later find myself basking in an adrenaline rush. Before you know it, I’m ready to do it all over again. I’m like a kid who is terrified to get on a roller coaster, and winds up wild-eyed with glee after the ride ends.

This newsletter has gotten me into a solid routine of self-reflection, and this topic is a timely one. Just last week, I was in Nashville, leading a day-long training for journalists. And days before that, I had one of the worst anxiety attacks I’ve ever experienced.

After several hours of preparing for the training — answering emails, tweaking slides, memorizing details — I forced myself to take a break and go on a long walk. Healthy, right? But I couldn’t stop that internal monologue of not being enough. I told myself that, although I’d somehow managed to do well in nearly every other speaking engagement in my life, this time I was definitely going to fail. I was convinced of it. As I walked, I thought about how much work I still had ahead of me, how I wasn’t as familiar with the material as I’d like to be, how much more awkward I felt in front of crowds since becoming a widow.

As the fears tumbled around my brain, I started to get short of breath. Then I got dizzy. I had trouble seeing clearly. I felt nauseous and panicked. I thought about whether this is what Jamie felt like before he died. I was spiraling, fast.

I stumbled across the street into a park, collapsed onto the grass, and fumbled for my phone. I called my friend Nicki, who gently talked me through everything I was experiencing. I immediately started crying as I told her how scared I felt, how overwhelmed I was, how no amount of preparation would save me from failure.

Nicki, bless her, calmed me down enough so I could get home. The next day, I confessed to a colleague how unprepared I felt, which also helped ease my burden. I listed out all the things that made me feel stressed out so I could tackle them one by one. And yet I still couldn’t shake the feeling that I was going to fail. I was holding tight onto the fear and anxiousness inside of me.

I’ve repeated this miserable pattern for years. I commit to an engagement, create unreasonable expectations, experience extreme anxiety, wind up doing fine, and start the cycle all over again.

This performance anxiety isn’t grief-related (though grief does exacerbate my panicking), nor is it exclusively work-related. Years ago, Jamie and I would host big, fancy house parties — shindigs that included elaborate menus, themed photo booths, curated playlists, and dozens and dozens of guests. By the end of each party, I was already thinking about how we could make the next one better. Planning these parties took a ton of work, and each time I’d whip myself into an overly anxious frenzy beforehand.

I’m not good enough. It’s not perfect enough. I haven’t had enough time to prepare.

I’ve figured out ways to respond to the anxiety. That’s not the root problem. The issue is that I create completely unreasonable expectations for myself, which causes the anxiety. I panic while prepping for presentations for the same reason I hyperventilate before hosting parties: It’s not perfect enough.

The thing about perfection is that it doesn’t exist. I’ve given some pretty good talks and have hosted some pretty fun parties, but none of them were perfect. No matter how many times I tweak my presentations or rearrange party decorations, there will always be something that could have been better.

So I tried a different approach before Nashville. Or, rather, I was forced to try something different. The anxiety attack I’d experienced was especially intense, and the incredible amount of stress and expectations I’d created were negatively affecting the relationships around me. Something had to give.

I adopted a different mantra.

I am good enough. It will never be perfect, and that’s okay. I can make the most of the time I have.

Instead of aiming to get EVERY LITTLE DETAIL right, I focused my anxious energy on centering myself during the weekend before my trip. I practiced my presentations, and then I took time for some deep breathing. I wrote a list of all the things I needed to do, and then I ate a healthy meal (sitting down! not rushing! savoring the moment!). I spent more time outside than I did in front of my laptop. And I thought about all the ways the training could go well, instead of visualizing failure.

You know what? It worked. I felt more prepared than I could have predicted. I didn’t have every word memorized, but I knew the material enough that I could confidently deliver it. More importantly, I felt calm. That never happens before presentations!

I’m sure I’ll be tempted to fall back into my old crippling-anxiety patterns before my next speaking engagement or house party. My brain is a little dumb that way. But damn it felt good to not relive that anxiety attack. I wouldn’t mind experiencing less of those.

So here’s to trying out new mantras. It will never be perfect enough. And that’s okay.


Good job, brain

I'm currently reading: The Life List of Adrian Mandrick by Chris White.

I’m currently inspired by: The 145-year-old psychiatric hospital turned hotel I visited last weekend in Buffalo, New York. I’m a big fan of historic preservation (my first internship was with The Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation), and the revitalization of the Richardson-Olmsted campus is massive and fascinating.

I'm currently aiming to: Read every night before bed this week. (My current book is a page-turner!)

Additional resources

For your sweet dumb brain

What’s a pattern that you tend to repeat, and what causes you to repeat it?

It was a glorious realization to discover that my own unreasonable expectations were causing my anxiety attacks. I’m certain my therapist has told me this before; I know my friends and boyfriend have mentioned it; and if Jamie were here, he’d respond with a well-natured “uh, doy, Katie.” But you can’t change behavior until you figure it out for yourself. (And even then, change is hard.) Take some time to think about a pattern that you’re frustrated with repeating, and try to explore what causes it. Bonus points if you take some time to write about it, or talk it out with a friend.

My Sweet Dumb Brain is written by Katie Hawkins-Gaar. It’s edited by Rebecca Coates. Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash.