Perfectionism: The Mother of all Anxiety

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, anxiety affects nearly 1 in 5 American adults in a given year and about one-third of U.S. adults at some point in their lives. In recent years, a growth in understanding about anxiety, its triggers, its symptoms, and its impact on daily life has led to more people being properly diagnosed and treated. Unfortunately, stigmatization and misconception about how common anxiety is can sometimes leave people struggling unnecessarily. Misinformation or lack of clarity surrounding anxiety can harmfully conflate anxiety with perfectionism or sometimes fail to acknowledge the relationship between anxiety and perfectionism; a double-edged sword!

Perfectionism can act as both a cause and symptom of anxiety disorders. 

For some, being a perfectionist or having perfectionist tendencies is so stressful that it creates anxiety; they have set the bar so high for themselves that they make themselves sick trying to achieve the impossible. For others, their way of trying to control their anxiety is to strive for perfect outcomes in all scenarios; they believe that their anxiety will diminish if they can control all outcomes.

Perfectionism can manifest in many ways, some even opposite to one another. For example, one person’s perfectionism may express itself as highly organized, whereas another person might continuously procrastinate. These are two very different approaches to dealing with perfectionism, but the common thread that runs through all perfectionist experiences is anxiety.

Because of the interconnected nature of perfectionism and anxiety, it is important to understand and identify what perfectionism is, how it manifests itself, and its relationship with anxiety.

What is Perfectionism?

Perfectionism is a drive for success that quickly becomes a way of life. A person who is struggling with perfectionism will often be hypercritical and view mistakes as unacceptable. The focus on details that comes with perfectionism can cause us to lose sight of the big picture; while we are concerned about the one thing in our annual work review suggested as an improvement, we forget that the rest of the two-page report was positive! 

Often correlated or conflated with perfectionism is atelophobia, an anxiety disorder in which one has a deep-seated fear of making a mistake. Those who have atelophobia would be forced to take on perfectionist tendencies and coping mechanisms to avoid making any mistakes; in fact, the overlap between perfectionism and atelophobia is so vast that it can be difficult to diagnose atelophobia. The difference is that perfectionism is a behavior, whereas atelophobia is an anxiety disorder.

There is more than one model of Perfectionism; P.L. Hewitt and G.L. Flett created a Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale (MPS) that splits perfectionism into three types: self-oriented, other-oriented, and socially prescribed. Self-oriented perfectionism is when you put pressure on yourself to be perfect. Other-oriented perfectionism is when you impose standards of perfection on others. Socially-prescribed perfectionism is when you think that others are imposing unrealistic expectations of perfection upon you.

What is the relationship between Perfectionism & anxiety?

1. Perfectionism and anxiety become a cycle:

This occurs when you set unrealistic expectations of yourself and feel anxious to achieve them. When your anxiety increases, it becomes so heightened that you experience paralysis and inevitably procrastinate. This is very common among perfectionists; indecision and procrastination plague their time until they are down to the wire. At that point, they achieve their task under the gun when they don’t have time to think too hard. This cycle becomes a pattern: perfectionism leads to anxiety, which exacerbates perfectionism, which increases anxiety, and so forth.

2. Perfectionism becomes the way you cope with anxiety:

For many of us who experience anxiety, attempting to “do everything right” is our coping mechanism to quell our anxious feelings. In her book “Self-Compassion,” Dr. Kristin Neff is quoted as saying that rumination stems from the need for security. When our thoughts repeatedly return to subjects, events, or incomplete tasks, we attempt to examine them from every angle to avoid surprises. We feel anxious when we feel a loss of control in uncertainty and turn to perfectionism to gain a sense of control. As time goes on, perfectionism becomes an unhealthy coping mechanism to tame anxiety.

3. Perfectionism defines your self-worth:

When we think, “I am how well I do something,” perfectionism becomes tied to our self-worth. We become convinced that the better results we deliver, the more we achieve, the more we excel, the more valid we are as human beings. As a result, it is anxiety-provoking to think that anything less than perfect means that we are unlovable, we are inadequate, we are unworthy. The constant drive to prove our value by meeting impossible standards plants the ideal garden in which anxiety can grow.

Studies have shown an increase in anxiety and perfectionism over the past few decades, citing societal standards such as educational and professional expectations, the glorification of wealth and beauty, and the fact that those mentioned above are increasingly representative of a small percent of the population. Even if your experience with anxiety has been “mild” or intermittent, the chances are that you’ve been surrounded by it and adapted to anxious thoughts and behaviors as part of your daily life.

If you are in your thirties, you may not even remember a time pre-dating this increase in anxiety; anxiety may be a completely common word that you and your friends use daily to describe your emotional states. But just because something has risen in prominence, or appears to be a foundation of existence, doesn’t mean that there are no tools or methods to help make management more effortless. Letting go of perfectionism can help to assuage the way anxiety manifests itself in our daily lives.

5 ways to let go of perfectionism

1. Identify the fear behind perfectionism:

Whenever we are fixated on “perfecting” something, it stems from some sort of fear. If we are afraid of making mistakes, we may approach a project or a task with hesitation or attempt to control every minuscule detail of our endeavor. We might find that we have a fear of rejection that causes us to try to present a “perfect” facade; how we look, how we speak, how we dress, what our interests are… the list of things we might try to control can be endless when we feel that acceptance is on the line. We might discover that our compulsive need to say ‘yes’ to everything asked of us is a fear of disappointing others. We may also try to craft a life that makes others – such as parents or other mentors – proud of us, no matter the cost or sacrifice. 

A good way to identify the fear is to ask yourself, “Why does this need to be perfect; what am I afraid will happen if it is not?” Your first thought or instinct is usually correct, or at least in the realm of the issue.

If your fears stem from early in your life, this process might be convoluted, and it might take quite a lot of unpacking and detangling. Your fears and concerns may be wrapped up in other incidents or patterns or involve reliving experiences that are unpleasant. For some of us, the discomfort of acknowledging these past events can make us bury them deep inside, hoping we never have to see them. But even if they are buried, we are still carrying them. They are still a part of the load that accompanies us through life and into our jobs, relationships, and hobbies. When we can pull them out and examine them, the work we have to do might be hard, but there is a far better chance that we can let them go if we’ve unearthed them. Or, at the very least, perhaps we can pull them apart from a little and hold onto a smaller weight for the time being.

2. Face your fears:

When we feel anxious, we perceive the task, person, or environment around us as threats. As a result, we tend to avoid it. We delay giving that presentation, or talking to that person, or visiting that neighborhood. However, every time we avoid something we are anxious about, the very act of avoidance communicates to the brain that the external stimuli were worth being scared of. In turn, we strengthen the fear response. By engaging in the opposite, we can rewire the brain and interrupt that signal. This doesn’t mean that we won’t be feeling anxious while doing it, but we re-write the experience and remind ourselves that we can do things while feeling scared. A great example of putting this in action is retold in a Jia Jiang TED Talk titled “What I learned from 100 days of rejection.” It is an inspiring story about moving towards our fears instead of running away from them.

Deciding to confront fearful situations is an act of self-love and self-confidence that teaches us that we are worthy of living a life with less fear. A healthy amount of fear or concern is of benefit; not going into a burning building or making sure we lock our doors at night are acts and tasks with practical application and keep us safe. But we can usually identify when a threat, though real to us, is “in our mind.” Facing our fears can be done on our own or with a supportive loved one by our side. If visiting that neighborhood will be easier with your best friend in tow, make a day of it. Look online to find a shop or café you’d like to visit while you’re there and make a new memory!

3. Practice Mindfulness:

Do you experience more of a need to be “perfect” in different areas of your life, perhaps work vs. home? Are there certain times of the year when you feel especially fixated on perfectionism? Are there certain tasks that are particularly triggering? Similar to identifying the fear behind our need for perfectionism, knowing the ‘what,’ the ‘why,’ the ‘when’ etc., of our perfectionism, allows us to unpack and begin to undo some of those inclinations or tendencies. Being willing and able to pay attention to our emotional shifts is beneficial in general; if we can take a mental break from our impulses and identify and analyze at the moment, we can talk to ourselves about what we are experiencing. Being able to do so enables us to clarify the necessity and validity of thoughts or actions that are hurting us.

Take an inventory of some of the traits or signs you see of perfectionism and remind yourself to identify them in day-to-day life. It can be easy to get cause up in the rollercoaster of perfectionism, especially because it keeps you so busy! When you know that your fear of making even the smallest mistake is a trait, you can catch the fear when it begins and identify it as something to disregard. If you know that a change in schedule or plans tends to upset perfectionists, you can troubleshoot how to deal with such events in advance and be conscious at the moment that you are responding from a perfectionist point of view, but that that doesn’t need to derail your entire day.

4. Redefine your expectations of yourself:

You might see this and think, “But my inability to redefine my expectations is the whole problem!” This tool is also a goal, but they do work hand in hand if you utilize this tool in a healthy way. 

First, begin by examining your values. This is essential. When you can set goals aligned with your values, they will naturally become more grounded. Here is an example of how values can work together: if you value giving back to the community and you also value family time, an awareness of the importance of each value prevents you from favoring one over the other. You will not spend all your time with your family because you understand the personal importance of volunteering your time; likewise, you will volunteer, but make it home for supper, because you want to see your family. When you redefine your expectations of yourself utilizing values instead of fear, you set realistic and achievable goals.

Recognizing some of the ways your perfectionism is hurting you and making your life more difficult can also improve your relationships with the people in your life. You may find that the way you see yourself impacts the way you interact with your loved ones; perhaps you demand a lot of others, or you need to “win” at all costs. You might prefer to be in control of situations and have a hard time delegating responsibilities to others; you may not trust that others can achieve the results you demand. When you work toward redefining your expectations of yourself, you may find that your expectations of others change for the better. You may find yourself more relaxed, more approachable, more cooperative. Often, we believe that we are “deserving” of punishing standards; our failure to recognize that we’re hurting ourselves also blinds us to the negative repercussions felt by those around us as well.

5. Practice self-care:

When we are mired in perfectionism, our need for control tells us that we will fall behind if we take a break and rest. This fear drives us to keep going, keep working, and “push through”; we believe that this is the only way to see the results we endeavor to see. If you focus on achieving perfection, you probably have a hard time relaxing, and you probably never take a sick day. The fact of the matter is that we become more creative, and we are more productive if we give ourselves permission to rest, recharge our batteries, and fill up other parts of our lives. When we are feeling creative, ideas spark, and our instinct guides our process. When we know we can take a break, we can focus and achieve more in an allotted amount of time. In practicing self-care, we also remind ourselves that we are worthy of being cared for; it is tough to punish yourself if you love yourself.

It can be difficult to imagine subverting perfectionism when our anxiety is speaking to us. It has so many ways of communicating whether we are dealing with intrusive or obsessive thoughts, physical symptoms such as racing heart and shakiness, or several other anxiety symptoms. 

Anxiety can show up in all aspects of our lives, so can perfectionism and vice versa. 

It can be challenging to talk to ourselves kindly about what we are experiencing or have experienced. We may feel that anxiety and perfectionism are a lot in life. At the same time, it’s true that an anxiety disorder can be a lifelong companion; there are manageable steps to take to befriend anxiety and alleviate some of the stress it puts on our lives. This, in turn, may allow us to relinquish some of the control perfectionism has taken over our lives, our thoughts, our relationships, our goals, and our dreams.

When all is said and done, we are worthy of identifying and setting emotional boundaries with ourselves and others that provide us with peace, stability, and happiness. Though there will always be tough times and incidents in life, the work we do to prioritize our mental health is priceless. Deconstructing anxious and perfectionist thoughts and behaviors makes a world of difference allows us to pursue our best lives.

Embracing You Therapy Group Practice

Here at Embracing You Therapy Group, we invite you to explore with us how life would be different if you had more control over your thoughts and emotions, and we invite you to consider that it is possible to accept things just as they are, EMBRACING imperfections to create a gentler place for CALM in your life.

At our mental health practice in Woodland Hills, CA, we offer individual therapy and couple’s therapy. Both Dr. Menije and Cindy Sayani, AMFT offer virtual therapy to treat mental health concerns include Anxiety, panic attacks, OCD, phobias, and stress; Mood disorders including depression; Relationship issues, both in couples therapy and with individual clients; Perinatal mental health issues such as postpartum depression or anxiety. 

If you are ready to learn more about ways perfectionism is showing up in your life, Dr. Menije has a self-study digital course on Breaking-up With Perfectionism

Let’s learn what drives your unique perspective on anxiety and stress, and then let’s find the tools-your unique tools-that help you respond to life in a healthy, calm way. Contact us today.

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