I’m prone to overthinking. I always have been. Sometimes it’s a useful skill; other times it proves to be too much. And sometimes it helps me make sense of who I am in ways I never expect. 

Earlier this week, a friend sent out the newsletter she writes every month to the online community she’s built over the past five years. Usually, it’s chock full of book recommendations, podcast episodes to listen to, and a show or two to binge. 

This month, though, she started it off talking about her son, his overwhelming emotions about school, and the temper tantrums she’s been keeping at bay. Then she gave it all a name — anxiety. 

If you would have told me at any point in my life up until Wednesday that I would have the most significant breakthrough about why I am the way I am because of a fourth-grader’s school anxiety, I would have laughed at you. Yeah, right.

But that’s exactly what happened.

She talked about how he felt stress because he didn’t think he could meet the standards and pressure of the increased workload and challenges of school. And my heart went out to him. I started having flashbacks to my own experiences in elementary school, then middle school. That’s when the lightbulb went off.

Growing up (and sometimes even now), my parents always encouraged me to do my best. That was the expectation. Do your best. But somewhere along the way as I started making A’s, scoring goals, and hearing my teachers compare me to my older sister, the wires got crossed. “Do your best” became “be the best” in my little brain. . .and until recently (as in until Wednesday), it stayed that way. 

Throughout my adult life, I have felt this tension of not knowing what I wanted to do — what I wanted to be when I grew up so to speak. My sister knew before she went to college what she wanted to do. So did my husband. (I think this has something to do with being the older sibling, but I’m not a scientist…what do I know?)

I never did. Heck, sometimes I still don’t. I like to think that it’s because I was “so good” at everything I tried growing up that I never could hone in on what actually set my soul on fire, or to be less American-opportunistic, what I was best at. 

Do you see where I’m going with this?

When the expectation shifted from “do your best” to “be the best” in my little kid brain, it really just left room for a lot of disappointment. Obviously, I could never be the best at all the things, but boy, did I try. And when I didn’t succeed at being the best. . .well, my coping mechanism became superiority. 

If I’m not the best at this thing, it must be beneath me. 

Or arguably even worse, If I’m not the best at this thing, then I must be beneath it. 

After that lightbulb went off on Wednesday, I started seeing this pattern pop up in all areas of my life. Except now, it’s dug in its heels as “Be the best or nothing.” 

Be the best, or don’t bother trying. Be the best, or running isn’t for you. Be the best, or act like a jerk when someone does it better than you. Be the best, or automatically have a bad attitude about something you don’t know. Be the best, or yell at your husband on a ski slope because you’re scared of failing and scared of getting hurt. See what I mean?

They say the first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem. I have a “be the best” problem, and I’m sure we all have a little something inside us that got twisted along the way. 

But here’s the thing, now I know “Do your best” does not equal “be the best.” And a giant weight is off my shoulders. 

“I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.”

–Maya Angelou

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