Forget everything you thought you knew about anxiety and perfectionism. Here’s an inside look at what actually works.
We all feel the need to be accepted, to fit in, feel loved, and that we matter to someone or something.
As someone who struggles with anxiety myself, I understand how hard it is to combat the anxiety feedback loop. As a psychologist who has worked with this material for nearly a decade, I supposedly know all the tricks in the book. I have a tool kit 10 pages deep ready to go whenever I experience a bout of anxiety. Even still, I struggle to practice what I preach.
Moving beyond this feedback loop induced by perfectionism, fueled by people pleasing tendencies, and manifested with anxiety is challenging. Over time, I eventually learned to manage this perfectionism induced anxiety by cognitively restricting my thoughts, practicing exposure therapy and learning how to recognize my panic triggers. It is somewhat counterintuitive, but I have found that rather than pushing away intrusive thoughts, our anxiety melts away when we hold space for these overwhelming thoughts. It is the ultimate paradox of anxiety, and the theory that is at the roots of exposure therapy (often used for social anxiety, phobias and PTSD).
In my practice, I hear clients doting on their status as a “perfectionist.” Pulling all-nighters as if it were a badge of honor. Settling for nothing less than outstanding. Entering into a competition solely to win. While on the outside, shooting for the stars may seem like a good idea. After all, we live in a meritocracy that values outputs overall. But there is a darker side to perfectionism that I would like to explore.
So, what is perfectionism and why is it dangerous?
Perfectionism is the act of aiming to achieve totally irrational standards; doing everything better than everyone else. A perfectionist is driven solely by the expectations of others and derives their entire self-worth from external standards. They have fallen prey to overly harsh self-criticism and struggle to free themselves from the people pleasing paradigm.
As a psychologist, coach and anxiety healer I work with young, brilliant, high-achieving women who nearly all describe themselves as “perfectionists.” They inevitably share one or some of the following personality traits:
- All or nothing thinking. The perfectionist is the ultimate black or white thinker; a pattern that is very common in people with anxiety and depression. The all or nothing thinker will settle for nothing in-between and will often dwell on self-defeating thoughts. This is a dangerous cognitive distortion that puts the person into one of two camps: a success or a failure.
- Fear of failure. Also called atychiphobia, there is complete paralysis experienced when we let fear stop us from moving forward. Oftentimes I see bright, capable young women shy away from attempting a task because it comes at the cost of “a chance of failure.” They can justify inaction, but not a failure. Fear of failure is deeply rooted in one’s sense of worth and can stem from having critical parents.
- Behavior rigidity. This is defined as complete and utter inflexibility when it comes to food, choices, outcomes, school, career, and friendships. In a person with behavior rigidity, every relationship, every interaction, everything we eat propels us closer towards this ideal standard. Researchers have discovered one of the strongest predictors of developing an eating disorder is behavior rigidity (Arlt et. al., 2016). One reason for this is that disordered eating and perfectionism share some common features: fear of social evaluation and inability to adapt to new situations.
- Inability to trust others to handle a task. No one can do it as well as the perfectionist. This is why we so often see the perfectionist agreeing to take on 100% of the project or rejecting inputs from others, even if it costs them their sanity. The fear of relinquishing even the slightest bit of control is too powerful, so the perfectionist pushes other attempts at help away.
- Waiting until the last minute to get things done. Because, if you fail, there’s an easy excuse. “I did not get started until last night at mid-night, so I did not expect my work to be recognized.” Placing the blame on something outside (but ultimately within your wheelhouse of control) is the absolute perfectionist tendency. Failure can then be attributed to lack of effort rather than lack of skill.
It is no secret that increased levels of “perfectionism” lead to higher levels of depression, lower self- esteem, and disordered eating. Several studies have examined the relationship between perfectionism and anxiety (Alden, Ryder, & Mellings, 2002), revealing strong links between the two traits. So, is there hope? Are perfectionists doomed to repeat this cycle of anxiety, fueled by external validation and high levels of self-criticism? Not at all.
The good news is when we learn how to foster a sense of intrinsic motivation, we can shift our focus TOWARDS pleasing ourselves and AWAY from pleasing others. So, how do we develop intrinsic motivation? And why is it so challenging?
1. Spend some time alone.
Take a day, heck — maybe even a week, off from consuming any sort of media. When you experience a down moment, turn inward rather than outward. Sit with your thoughts. My guess is you have probably never done this. And if you have, these moments are few and far between.
The connection between what you desire and what the world desires from you will become illuminated when you take the time to quiet your mind. Listen to your thoughts. What comes up when you spend time alone? What do you like? What fills your soul? Let this energy seep in.
Spend a few hours each day reflecting on this newfound spark and let this energy fuel your identity and self-worth. You will be delighted to see how drowning out the external noise can do wonders for your ability to create your own light.
2. Recognize no one is watching.
No one is paying attention to the details of your life like you are. A harsh wake-up call, but incredibly liberating once you actually realize. I love it when my young clients actually embrace the profundity of this. Once you begin to recognize this truth you are liberated from the grip and expectations of others. Embracing this truth provides you with the space to dive into your talents, desires, and creativity — free from the expectations of others.
When I am working with women to overcome their anxiety, we focus on creating space between a thought and a reaction. (This is the premise of Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT)). Harnessing this truth that is hidden in plain sight is what gives so many of my clients the space to sit with discomfort and look inward rather than out.
3. Pay attention to others and actually listen.
Counter to what I just mentioned above, 99% of our time spent with others is consumed by conversations about ourselves or distracted by social media. When you are in the presence of another human ask questions, dive in deep, and don’t be afraid to show your vulnerability. You will be AMAZED at how opening up about your insecurities can actually alleviate the drive for perfectionism. As I mentioned above, this is the ultimate paradox of anxiety. When we give in to this feeling of fear, self-doubt, and self-consciousness by admitting its grip to ourselves and eventually to others a powerful flip is switched. If perfectionism needs to be recognized, loved, seen, and worthy — stop trying so hard to get there. Lean into vulnerability with others and you will be returned with recognition and worthiness.
Alden, L. E., Ryder, A. G., & Mellings, T. M. B. (2002). Perfectionism in the context of social fears: Toward a two-component model. In G. L. Flett & P. L. Hewitt (Eds.), Perfectionism: Theory, research, and treatment (p. 373–391). American Psychological Association
Arlt, J., Yiu, A., Eneva, K., Drymam, M., Heimberg, R., & Chen, E. (2016). Contributions of cognitive inflexibility to eating disorder and social anxiety symptoms. Contributions of Cognitive Inflexibility to Eating Disorder and Social Anxiety Symptoms, 21, 30-32.