The Hidden Cost of Perfectionism: Anxiety

Is it really all that bad to have high standards and strive to create the perfect, flawless life? Some people may feel that, as far as character defects go, perfectionism is acceptable – even admirable. However, there’s a significant link between the quest for perfection and impaired mental wellbeing.
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Here we explore the links between perfectionism and anxiety and how to let go of unhealthy patterns associated with perfectionism.

From Perfectionism To Anxiety

What Is Perfectionism?

Perfectionism is a mindset that arises from a complex mix of personality, culture, and habit. There is nothing wrong with being conscientious, organized and self-disciplined. In fact, a certain degree of perfectionism can be healthy, allowing us to focus our energies into achieving our goals. 

However, expecting or demanding impeccable performance and perfection has a darker side. Perfectionists may judge themselves and others harshly, dwelling in criticism even when the goal is unrealistic or completely unattainable.

Though striving to be perfect can certainly be a powerful motivator, it becomes a problem when being a normal, flawed human being feels unacceptable to us. The result is depression, anxiety, or the belief that we’re worthless unless we are perfect.

Why Am I Such A Perfectionist?

All of us carry a set of unconscious beliefs about ourselves and the world, which stem from lessons we were taught when we were very young children. This inner narrative shapes the way we behave, the choices we make, and how we construct our identity.

At the heart of perfectionism lies some very extreme, black-or-white rules, such as:

“I only deserve love or respect if I’m perfect”

“Deep down, I’m not good enough”

“It’s my responsibility to keep everyone around me happy”

“I either succeed totally or fail totally – there’s no middle ground”

“Anything less than complete success is a catastrophe, and I can’t bear it”

Digging even deeper still, many perfectionists may subscribe to a “personal myth” that the world is simply not a safe place, and that they can never really trust that things will be OK unless they work extremely hard to control and optimize everything themselves.

Not all perfectionists are the same, though.

The Different Types Of Perfectionists

  • Self-oriented perfectionists apply unrealistic expectations to themselves, for example setting stringent rules about what they can eat, and forcing themselves to adhere to punishing exercise routines, no matter what.
  • Other-oriented perfectionists, on the other hand, turn those standards and expectations onto other people, criticizing or judging those who they see as failing to support them. This form of perfectionism can understandably be felt as dominating and aggressive by others.
  • Finally, socially-prescribed perfectionists are those that feel that their social world places high demands on them, and meeting these standards is nonnegotiable if they want to win approval or security.

Perfectionism And Anxiety

Pushing yourself to meet real or imagined demands brings relentless pressure into life. We can feel anxious and worried as we try to be better, and then, when we (inevitably) fall short of being perfect, we can slip into self-doubt, shame, and depression. Even if we are sometimes perfect, the goalposts are simply moved further away. 

Millennials especially are found to be at higher risk of perfectionist anxiety.

With pressures to secure work in a volatile economy, and the ubiquity of social media, it’s no surprise that anxieties over money, appearance, and lifestyle can be extreme. Bombarded with images of ultra-perfection in the media and advertising, younger people can feel compelled to achieve unprecedented levels of flawless achievement – and corresponding unprecedented levels of self-hate when they fail to measure up.

Read more: Clinical psychologist Dr. Lillian Nejad explores the impact of social media on youth mental health.

Even worse, perfectionists may become distressed by their anxiety itself, preventing them from sharing honestly with others, or seeking help. Getting lost in self-blame, they assume that the fault lies not with their impossible standards, but with them. With rock-bottom self-worth, the temptation may be to “improve” by setting even higher standards. This vicious cycle only isolates them further, as they feel that they are the only ones struggling, while everyone else is effortlessly perfect. 

Unable to admit their “imperfection” and ask for help, some perfectionists can experience depression and, at the extreme end, commit suicide seemingly out of the blue. Worried about maintaining a perfect image, such a perfectionist may feel deeply lonely and unseen, unable to express their full and authentic selves.

How To Take The Courage To Be Imperfect

It’s human to want to grow, learn, and be the best we can possibly be. So how can we rescue this healthy impulse from the less-than-healthy perfectionism?

It starts with rethinking those unconscious core beliefs and personal narratives. A therapist can help a perfectionist to rewrite their inner scripts, but mindfulness practice and meditation can also support people in identifying and gently revising mindsets that are no longer working.

Read our full article with meditation tips for perfectionists.

  • Let go of comparisons. It’s an impossible game to win and besides, you are a unique individual on your own path. It’s not a competition. 
  • Focus on what is good just as it is, right now. In the perfectionist mindset, you are always hyperaware of what is wrong and lacking, so you overlook everything that is perfect in your life already. Practice daily gratitude by writing down 5 things you are thankful and appreciative of, just as they are.
  • Deliberately seek out imperfection. Is it really the end of the world if you achieve only a moderate result? See what happens when you challenge the thought that if something isn’t perfect then it’s worthless. Gently push yourself to lower your standards, while telling yourself that no single event or characteristic defines you as a human being.

Try these popular meditations for perfectionism and anxiety associated with it:

  1. The Prison Of Perfectionism Justin Michael Williams 12:50
  2. Soothing Your Need To Be Perfect Fleur Chambers 14:23
  3. Letting Go Of Perfectionism Wellness on the Farm 14:24
  4. Mindfulness Meditation To Overcome Limiting Beliefs Robert Aceves 27:41
  5. Releasing Shame & Societal Pressure Of Perfectionism Rose Elizabeth 18:28
  6. Meditation To Overcome Perfectionism Darius Bashar 16:24
  7. Letting Go Of Perfectionism Aubergreen 12:16

Perfectionism can be difficult to work through, especially if we approach the task with judgment, fear or shame. After all, setting impossibly high standards for ourselves when it comes to beating perfectionism is simply more of the same! Rather, the way forward is about relaxing into the unpredictability of life, releasing ourselves from judgment, and relinquishing control over what we don’t rightly have control over in the first place.

Read more: Therapist Dr. Candice Creasman explores how moms can let go of perfectionism and coming to terms with being a ‘good enough mother’.

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