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How my generalised anxiety disorder affects getting dressed

IMAGE VIA JAMES ROWLAND SHOP

WORDS BY CAIT EMMA BURKE

For my anxious mind, the paradox of choice that fashion presents can be debilitating.

As someone who loves fashion and has worked in the industry for most of my adult life, I should find getting dressed easier than I do. I should be definitive about what will work in my wardrobe and what won’t, and allow that to feed into my purchasing choices. Instead, choosing what to buy and getting dressed is almost always an exercise in stress, disappointment and frustration.

Occasionally, the insurmountable challenge of selecting an outfit results in a near panic attack, as I perch on the edge of my bed holding back tears, surrounded by my failed attempts to clothe myself. So frazzled and stressed does this act make me, you would think that I’d have figured out ways to mitigate these feelings; that perhaps I would have pared my wardrobe back to some type of chic, capsule-sized situation.

Certainly, if I could decide what would go in said capsule, this would be a smart route for me to take, but that’s the crux of the issue; choice, and having far too much of it. You see, too much choice and an anxious mind are like oil and water – no matter how hard you try, they just don’t mix. And boy, do I have an anxious mind.

Even though I wasn’t aware of it at the time, after years of therapy, I now know that I have had anxiety for most of my life. I’m ‘high functioning’, meaning that people who don’t know me intimately would probably be surprised to learn how debilitating my disorder can be.

The extroverted, emotionally astute and humorous side of my personality acts as a foil to the neurotic, hyper-vigilant and agonisingly self-reflective part. But anxiety colours my every waking moment. Unlike many people I know who struggle with this illness, my specific breed of anxiousness has almost always centred around my looks in some way. I’ve been stupidly self-aware of my appearance since I was a preteen, and when you’re battling with deep-set insecurities and self-hatred, fashion can present itself as a shiny and exciting way out.

Sure, you might dislike your face or your stomach or resolutely believe no one will find you attractive until you get a nose job, but fashion can exist outside of these parameters. You can use clothing to control the narrative that people create about you when they first meet you – you can elevate yourself above what you perceive to be your physical failings and create a version of yourself that projects what you wish you were.

Of course, I don’t just dress for other people. As most of us can attest to, finding an outfit that you feel wholly ‘yourself’ in is a deeply personal exercise. Whether it resonates with the barista at your local cafe or your sister is often beside the point – you feel good in the outfit, and therefore you feel good about yourself.

And I have had many moments throughout my life where I have felt fantastic in an outfit. Moments of divine intervention where getting dressed feels magical and fulfilling, and times where I’ve found the perfect pair of pure silk pants that cupped my bum just right at a shitty-looking op shop in a small country town in New Zealand. Moments that make you believe that some type of benevolent all-seeing fashion God is watching over you. 

But more often than not, I have moments where I just feel wrong. Some days I’ll start the morning off feeling right, but it will soon enough devolve into a day where I feel completely and utterly like the wrong version of myself. Perhaps my choice of shoe is slightly off, or the way my top rides up and highlights my breasts makes me feel painfully uncomfortable, far too aware of any looks that come my way.

Maybe I’m fixating on the length of my too-short jeans (why did I think cutting them with kitchen scissors that morning was a wise idea?), or how the denim sags in a way I don’t like. When you have a brain that is predisposed to look for flaws – and neural pathways that have been travelled time and time again, to the point where seeing the negative feels more comfortable – it’s hard to land on a look that you feel yourself in. 

The paradox of choice

These various selves that fashion and the act of dressing presents is something I’ve always struggled with. I want to be everything and everyone but no one all at once. This might make it sound like I have no concept of what I like; on the contrary, I’m extremely particular. I’m so particular that it severely curtails my sartorial options, often leaving me wearing something that manages to strike that difficult balance of engaging in fashion but not making me feel too dressed up or unbearably self-conscious.

Often, I feel messy and not put together enough. I look at sleeker women around me – women with the aforementioned capsule wardrobes and a penchant for Pleats Please by Issey Miyake – and I aspire to that level of assuredness. To commit to a look and a palette so completely has always been beyond me, and besides, whatever I choose to wear, I end up feeling too much of one thing and not enough of another.

Clothing that is difficult to wear (see: high heels or heeled boots) requires constant readjusting, or is too statement-y (e.g. a froofy tulle Molly Goddard dress or a brightly printed Ganni dress, both of which I objectively love) is, most of the time, off the table for me.

Sure, I have items that I know I like wearing that form the backbone of my style (Levi’s, wide-legged pants, vintage bomber jackets, a black blazer, striped shirts, Converse Chuck Taylors), but the chasm that exists between the me that I can visualise in my head, and the me that I feel comfortable leaving the house as is vast. Most of the time, it feels too vast to bridge.

Aside from my insecurities and self-consciousness, navigating how many choices we now have when it comes to fashion is something I find particularly difficult. Yes, I’m well aware that I’m lucky to be presented with choices. The fact that I have disposable income and a body that can fit most labels’ sizing is a privilege, but that doesn’t negate the frustration and panicky feelings that shopping can provoke.

Do other anxious people feel this way too?

The other night, while doing some virtual window shopping and lamenting my inability to decide what will and won’t work in my wardrobe (or who I am and am not aesthetically), I fired off a quick Google search.

I wanted to hear from other women like me – women who adored fashion but found that the multitude of choices available to them triggered their anxiety. I found article after article written by psychologists about the impact that the wrong clothing can have on an anxious person, and how a great outfit can make an anxious person feel less anxious (if only achieving a great outfit were that easy).

There was no one putting into words what it’s like being so attuned to the details and the specifics of your clothing that you’re dissatisfied and uncomfortable in almost everything you wear. No one exploring what it’s like to be engulfed by the overwhelming nature of deciding who you want to be (aesthetically) day after day, repeat ad infinitum.

Perhaps working in fashion has made this worse for me – being around people who are as particular as me about clothing, but who feel (seemingly) resoundingly confident and comfortable in the outfits they put together means that I compare myself far too much. And as we all know – anxious people perhaps more intensely than others – comparison is the thief of all joy.

While I’m aware this is a decidedly self-absorbed problem to have, the reality is, getting dressed is something we all have to do every day, for the rest of our lives. When you start your day off on the wrong foot (or more to the point, wearing the wrong footwear) everything else feels just a little bit more difficult to weather.

I’ve come a long way when it comes to self-confidence and learning to manage my anxiety, yet fashion still trips me up, time and time again. So I’m writing this in the hopes that there is someone else out there who also feels NQR (never quite right), despite their ability to visualise what they like and how they want to dress.

Never feeling quite right wears you down after a while – it makes you safer and more reserved with your choice of colour palette and silhouettes. It leaves you falling back on items you know you feel vaguely comfortable in, instead of opting for that Paloma Wool dress or a pair of Maryam Nassir Zadeh boots you’re wearing in your head.

It’s not all doom and gloom, though

But there is a glimmer of hope to be had. For all the times I’ve felt like the most particular, picky, neurotic and dissatisfied dresser I know, I’ve eventually – after many failed attempts purchasing clothing that could never work with my preexisting wardrobe – landed on an item I love. However dispirited and frustrated I get, there has always been another moment of divine intervention by the benevolent fashion God.

Whether it’s in the form of a candy pink sleeveless ’90s high neck top, or a ribbed black long sleeve merino button-up knit that sits just right with everything I own, it’s these moments that remind me of the pleasure of getting dressed and the joy that fashion can bring.

And because moments like these are hard to find for an anxious soul like me, the pieces I do come across are valued (and treasured) even more highly for it. And perhaps, as I keep evolving and learning to be kinder and less critical and self-conscious, I’ll eventually get to a place where I feel confident in my choices, and comfortable with myself, no matter what I’m wearing.

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