If your perfectionism is leading to anxiety, you’re not alone — and there are many ways to break the cycle.
It can feel overwhelming not to meet your own expectations. Societal pressures, major life changes, and social media can make it even more challenging to convince yourself that you’re “enough.”
But here’s the thing: You are enough.
And if you’ve ever felt an intense and unrealistic pressure to be “perfect” or have anxiety about not living up to being “your best self,” then this could be a sign of perfectionism. But you don’t have to live with this anxiety forever.
It’s natural to feel stressed when in “fight-or-flight” mode. This is your body’s way of protecting itself by heightening your awareness.
Common symptoms of anxiety may include:
- racing thoughts
- difficulty concentrating
- changes in appetite
- problems with sleep
While many factors can contribute to anxiety, one possible factor is perfectionism.
“Perfectionism involves a continuous pressure to meet extremely high standards to achieve self-worth despite the negative consequences that such relentless striving brings,” says Rebecca Phillips, a licensed professional counselor in Texas.
One of the most common factors that leads to perfectionism is low self-esteem. ”There is often an underlying belief that if they are perfect, maybe then they will be enough, and many people try to compensate for feelings of inferiority by overfunctioning,” says Phillips.
Perfection can also be a manifestation of a desire for control.
People with perfectionist tendencies may think, “if I can perfectly control this outcome, then I can control how I feel and how others feel around and about me,” explains Emilea Richardson, a licensed marriage and family therapist.
Perfectionism may also stem from childhood. “Children whose parents are overly critical sometimes spend their entire lives trying to live up to their parent’s expectations of them while never feeling good enough,” explains Phillips.
Whichever factor relates to you, know that it’s possible to learn to cope with perfectionism. The first step is recognizing it.
Signs of perfectionism:
- rigid thinking
- sensitivity to feedback
- feelings of shame or guilt
- tendency to be highly critical of others
- anger when something goes wrong
Yes, perfectionism can lead to anxiety — among other mental health conditions.
A 2016 study involving 398 students explored six dimensions of perfectionism and anxiety sensitivity.
The study found that “concern over mistakes, personal standards, parental expectations, parental criticism, doubts about actions, and organization” were significantly correlated with anxiety sensitivity.
Anxiety can also exacerbate perfectionism — and the other way around. Given that perfectionists’ self-worth is often tied to performance, “they can experience extremely anxious thoughts when their performance doesn’t meet their high standards,” says Phillips.
Anxiety can further be exacerbated when you continuously don’t meet your expectations, according to Pauline Yeghnazar Peck, PhD, a psychologist in California. “The helplessness and doubling down in terms of efforts depletes our brain of its cognitive and emotional resources.”
Other mental health conditions linked to perfectionism include:
“Someone with perfectionism who finds it difficult to engage in meaningful, authentic relationships or who finds the emotional flood from not achieving perfection interrupts their normal life should speak with a mental health professional,” offers Richardson.
If your perfectionism heightens your anxiety so much that you feel a panic attack coming on or you have panic attacks often, this could be another sign to speak with a therapist.
If you need help finding a therapist, consider using PsychCentral’s “Find a Therapist” tool.
Pro tip: Try looking at therapists’ bios for any mention of perfectionism to match with someone who has expertise in what you’re experiencing.
There are various ways to manage and cope with perfectionistic thinking and anxiety. Each strategy will work differently for everyone, so give yourself grace in finding which one works for you.
- Practice self-compassion. “Self-compassion is a powerful antidote to perfectionism,” says Phillips. “Self-compassion entails being as kind and accepting of ourselves as we would be to a friend. For perfectionists, that means allowing yourself to be an imperfect human and knowing that you’re worthy regardless of how perfectly you show up in the world.”
- Get grounded. “When the big anxiety about lacking perfection comes up, I ask my clients to ground themselves in their body,” explains Richardson. “Take deep, meaningful breaths, and remember that this pang of shame and panic will fade. Remember that feelings are not facts, and you can still take brave, meaningful, imperfect action even when it’s hard.”
- Be imperfect. Peck suggests engaging in activities that aren’t goal-oriented. For instance, painting or playing a sport without aiming to be good. “Intentionally practicing being imperfect in low stakes ways can help your nervous system get used to doing something imperfectly, feeling somewhat destabilized, and then realizing that experiencing that it was okay.”
Other helpful coping techniques include seeking outside help, practicing mindfulness, and stepping away from the task that makes you anxious or feel less-than-perfect.
Moving forward, consider working to notice your perfectionist tendencies. When you do, explore the root cause, or consider using one of the coping methods above.
If you have trouble managing anxious thoughts or feelings, consider reaching out to a mental health professional.
Above all else, try not to add high expectations to your healing process. Take it slow, be patient with yourself, and know that you don’t have to do it all, be it all, or have it all to be fulfilled.
Or, as Richardson puts it, “there is a good life beyond perfect.”