“Just right” anxiety is a common yet rarely discussed anxiety theme wherein the anxiety sufferer tries to attain a “just right” feeling motivated by a sense of incompleteness. Whereas the need for certainly lives at the center of most anxious themes and intrusive thoughts, with “just right” anxiety it’s the need for completeness or rightness that lives at the root. As such, while other themes focus on the need to develop more tolerance for certainty, the task with this theme is to become more comfortable with discomfort. The growing edge is to accept that as long as you’re in a human body, things rarely feel perfectly right. No matter how you slice it, no matter how much inner work and outer rearranging you do, it’s uncomfortable and messy and asymmetrical being human.
Yet, just as there’s a great spiritual task embedded inside the need for certainty, there are many beautiful invitations for growth encased inside “just right” anxiety, which I’ll be talking about later in this post.
Here are some common symptoms of “just right” anxiety (not an exhaustive list). When reading through these symptoms, think about yourself both as a child and as an adult.
- Maintaining possessions perfectly
- Not feeling perfectly understood
- Having said, done, or thoughts something imperfectly
- Reading or understanding things perfectly
- Writing numbers or letters perfectly
- Not being perfectly honest
- Not looking perfect
The underlying motivator is a need to feel just right and try to compensate for a sense that something is out of place. What begins as an inner sense becomes projected onto the outer world: If the toys are arranged just so, if the volume is in the right spot, if I can write my letters perfectly, if my room is arranged just so THEN I’ll feel right inside.
Once you identify the symptoms, it’s important to distinguish between “just right” anxiety and perfectionism. While from the outside this can look like perfectionism, the motivator is different, and as such, it is worked with differently. It’s especially important for parents to be aware of this anxiety theme so that if it shows up in their child they can identify it and work with it effectively.
While perfectionism is a culturally conditioned and an “inside-out’ experience – meaning the person tries to be perfect to receive approval or “love” from “out there” (“If I’m perfect, I’ll be loved”) – just right anxiety is an inside-in experience: the motivation begins inside – to feel just right – and ends when the person gets the just right feeling from the inside. It’s important to note that perfectionism and “just right” anxiety can co-exist in the same person.
When I first encountered “just right” anxiety, I consulted Dr. Google to learn more. (Sadly, archetypal and common anxiety themes are not covered in most graduate school programs.) What I found, as I frequently do, is that the mainstream CBT literature does an excellent job at explaining the characteristics of this anxiety theme yet fails to delve deeply into the root causes. And as the anxious mind is also the highly sensitive person, and one of the qualities of this temperament is the need to understand why, it’s not enough to name symptoms and address them cognitively and through exposures; a significant aspect of our healing depends on finding meaning in these symptoms that can wreak havoc on psyche.
That’s where depth psychology mindset comes in, which recognizes that our symptoms are not random but are messengers from the unconscious inviting us toward not only our own growth and healing but also toward the repair of the world. Where CBT literature only focuses on getting rid of symptoms, depth psychology seeks to understand meaning and, as such, teaches that it’s only when we delve beneath the surface that we can heal from the root, which means exploring the roots and needs in the four realms of self: physical, emotional, cognitive, spiritual.
Physical Roots and Needs:
The highly sensitive person often has a heightened physical experience, which can look like a supersonic sense of smell, touch, sight, sound, taste. This is often the person who is a “picky eater” (not my favorite term) because they’re sensitive to certain textures. They may also have a touch sensitivity which shows up as heightened irritation with tags, strings, seams, and fabrics in clothes.
I’ve seen this show up frequently with children around the need to urinate. Because they’re highly sensitized to every nuance in their physical body, they become highly aware of the slightest drop of urine in their bladder and end up making frequent visits to the bathroom until they feel that their bladder is completely empty (there’s the longing for completeness). This symptom could also be related to the fear of having an accident, but “just right” anxiety should not be overlooked if this manifestation appears.
At the root of the physical realm is the recognition that being in a body is uncomfortable. I remember when my first son was born and he was constantly fidgeting and twisting, and I could see how uncomfortable he was in a body. Did he remember what it was like to be in the perfect symbiosis of the womb versus the endlessly less-than-perfect experience of being in the world? As parents, we do our best to make our child feel “just right” in their physical world, but we rarely do. And when the child is highly sensitive the task is even more daunting.
Emotional Roots and Needs:
The highly sensitive child is the lightning rod in the family, which means they can sense if something isn’t quite right in the home. To compensate for this, they may try to make their outer environment “just right.” For example, the child who exhibits “just right” anxiety symptoms may be aware that there’s tension in their parents’ marriage even before the parents are aware of it. An attuned parent will see these symptoms in a child and, knowing that their child is the canary in the coal mine, ask, “What are we not seeing? What is ‘not quite right’ in our family dynamics?”
Of course, no family is “just right” and sometimes this needs to be named for the child. The child may have a Normal Rockwall template in their mind that speaks to a fantasy family life where everyone sits down to dinner at 6pm and addresses each other with utmost kindness, never arguing, never shouting, never being out of sorts. The child may both be sensing into the unspoken underlayers of the family dynamics and need to explicitly hear that perfection isn’t possible in families, in individuals, in life. Again, the root task for the person who struggles with “just right” anxiety is to grow a tolerance for discomfort, not to make their world as comfortable as possible.
It’s essential to name what might be happening beneath the surface, for children and for adults. Highly sensitive people sense everything, and they can tolerate what they sense as long as it’s named and validated. Gaslighting, while crazy-making for everyone, may be especially so for the “just right” anxiety sufferer as it violates their deepest sense of naming what is true and real.
Cognitive Roots and Needs:
Those who struggle with this theme seem to have a high sense of justice, morality, honesty, equality, and fairness. This is true for most highly sensitive people, but it’s especially true for those with “just right” anxiety. Of course, these are exceptional qualities and the very ones that our desperately world needs. The challenge is when the person with these qualities isn’t validated and is unable to accept the imperfect nature of our world and other people who will not always be able to measure up to their utopian ideals of “rightness.” When they can learn to accept “just enough” then channel their demand for justice and equality into their life’s work, they can change the world. These are the people who are working to create a kinder, more utopian world (think Star Trek).
When working with someone with “just right” anxiety it’s important to recognize that they may feel personally offended by other people’s lack of justice and fairness; it’s like an assault to the very fabric of their being. So pure is their vision of human actions, they simply don’t understand how someone fails to understand the very basics of morality and equality. Again, this needs to be validated so that they can work toward acceptance while simultaneously holding to their ideals so they can channel their vision into action.
At the cognitive level of mind and communication, people who struggle with this theme also have a great need to be understood “perfectly”. They have a difficult time accepting if someone doesn’t understand them and wrapping their minds around the fact that both sides of an argument could be true.
A helpful slogan for someone with this theme is, “Perfection rarely exists in this world. What we’re looking for is good enough.” One of the growing edges here is to learn to tolerate paradox and inconsistencies as they recognize that the world is a not a black-and-white place but instead is painted in murky, messy shades of gray. When they can accept the gray, the brilliance of color fills in the rest of the landscape.
Spiritual Roots and Needs:
We all have a template of perfection inside of us. We remember the perfect symbiotic relationship in the womb and possibly before that in the spirit realm. I can’t know this for sure, but I have a strong sense that those with “just right” anxiety are trying to replicate that feeling of perfection in some way – again, not for approval but from the inside-in. I imagine it’s like seeking to step into a familiar suit, one that used to exist and that they believe could still exist if everything were “just right.”
One of the remedies is to proactively move toward actions that create a flow state, which is one of the ways that we simulate perfection. Positive psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, who popularized the term “flow state”, describes it as an “optimal state of consciousness where we feel our best and perform our best.” It involves “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”
As I started with, one of the key tasks for someone struggling with “just right” anxiety is to learn to tolerate discomfort. They need to learn to change the quest for “just right” to “good enough”, which is, at the core, a spiritual quest. It’s also about recognizing that there is a great gift embedded in this need for something to be “just right”. As most people who have this form of anxiety are highly attuned in certain areas, when the need for just right can be channeled into just enough, brilliance can occur.
Let’s take an example of a child who has a finely attuned sense of taste. He doesn’t like his food to touch and is sensitive to texture (common with kids in what we call “sensory processing disorder” – and again, I don’t like the word disorder because I don’t see it as disordered at all.) If the child’s preferences are honored while simultaneously helping them to tolerate “good enough”, they can channel their sensitivity into creativity. I have a sneaking suspicion that many of the great chefs in the world were accused of being picky eaters as kids and possibly struggled with “just right” anxiety. As adults, their proclivity for exactness results in food combinations that thrill the senses.
I find it fascinating that at the core of the two primary obsessions that highly sensitive people struggle with are the need for certainty and the need for completeness, both of which speak to the core of being human: we’re looking for certainty in an uncertain world where the passage of time ends in death and we know that our physical, emotional, cognitive, and spiritual selves rarely feel complete or just right. We see here that the highly sensitive heart is also the highly inquisitive mind, pondering our existence in this vast and unknowable universe on this beautiful and painful planet.
This lack of completeness speaks the very core of what it is to be human. The need for certainty speaks to the core of our existential reality. Those who struggle with these themes are wrestling in exquisite and important ways. To pathologize them as “disordered” is profoundly insulting to their depth. We must seek to understand the wisdom beneath the symptoms, and know that there are, as always, gems hidden inside. I don’t have all the answers; I have very few, really. But I know with the core of my being that only to treat symptoms and categorize in convenient diagnoses is a way to silence a brilliant psyche who is expressing itself through its own language: symptoms, metaphors, symbols. It is our job to decipher the codes, charting the way with lanterns of reverence into the mystery of what it is to be human.
Questions to ask:
When do I feel “just right”?
What does it feel like when I don’t feel just right and can I start to grow my tolerance for being human?
What do I notice when I shift my focus from “just right” to “just enough”?
As I learn to accept this part of me, I remind myself that part of being human means that:
I’m not always going to feel comfortable in my body and I’m going to notice bumps and tingles in heightened ways (physical).
I’m going to be misunderstood and I’m going to be blamed for things I didn’t do. I’m going to misunderstand others and blame them as well (cognitive).
I’m going to sense into the emotional layer and know when something isn’t quite right. I’m going to feel sad that humans are imperfect, that we misunderstand each other, that we hurt each other (emotional).
I’m going to be aware that there’s a spiritual template that I will land in during times of flow and will allow me to feel “just right” but I won’t always be able to live there (spiritual).
These affirmations come from Rabbi Tirzah Firestone and can be helpful to address this particular anxiety theme (and all anxiety):
The Bottom Line:
The bottom line is that at the core of anxiety, and especially worry, lives the belief that you can control others and outcomes if you think or act a certain way. While “just right” anxiety on its own doesn’t seem to be about changing externals, it almost always appears with other anxiety themes. It might co-exist with harm anxiety, for example, which is the belief that I am responsible for pain and injustice. If I do it right, I can right the world. And underneath this is the recognition that I am powerless over most things, and that hurts me because then I’m left with the imperfection, messiness, injustice, and pain of our human existence.
Harm anxiety says: If I hold myself responsible, then I have control and I can try to protect others from harm. All I have to do is stay clean from germs and my loved ones won’t get covid-19, for example. This gives me the illusion of control. Otherwise I am powerless and it feels unbearable to be powerless.
But the misguided attempts to control never work, and here we arrive at what I believe to be the core invitation with anxiety: to grow our capacity to trust and let go. When anxiety arises and we can meet it with an action that helps us to trust instead of control, we’re healing and meeting the anxiety at the root. For me, prayer is the only sane response to worry, but there are many others.
When my son flies, for example, I can meet my intrusive images of catastrophe with more worry or I can acknowledge the worry then transmute it into the prayer that Rabbi Tirzah gave to me before my son soloed for the first time: B-yadcha Afkid Ruchi (Into your hands I place his spirit). As I let go on the wings of prayer, I’m also able to meet my son in his highest place of joy. Joy knocks fear out of the driver’s seat and connects us with our purpose for being here.
Everyone has to find their own way to meet the misguided ways that we try to control with practices that help us trust and let go. For some, it’s prayer. For others, it’s affirmations, mantra, or breath practices. And it’s never too early to find these ways that work for you (which may also change with time). When parents see the seeds of obsessions and compulsions showing up in their child and they meet it with compassion and then spiritual action, the seeds can be watered into strength instead of a lifetime of obsessive and compulsive loops.
Our wisdom is in our symptoms. Our strength is in seeing our attempts to control then transmuting them into spiritual practices. Our pathways home are encoded in our places of pain. We only need to know how to listen with compassionate ears instead of through eyes that seek to label and pathologize. When we listen, we find our way to an order and rightness that helps us serve our broken, beautiful world.