We all want to be accepted and feel loved. We want the reassurance 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.
Over time, I eventually learned to overcome perfectionism induced anxiety by cognitively restricting my thoughts, practicing exposure therapy, and learning how to recognize my panic triggers. It is somewhat counter-intuitive, but I have found that rather than pushing away intrusive thoughts, our anxiety melts away when we hold space for these overwhelming thoughts.
In my practice, I hear clients doting on their status as a ‘perfectionist’. Pulling all-nighters as if it were a badge of honour. 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 which makes overcoming perfectionism so difficult. Here, I will explore the darker side to perfectionism.
What is Perfectionism & Why is it Dangerous?
Perfectionism is the act of aiming to achieve totally irrational standards; doing everything better than everyone. A perfectionist is driven solely by the expectations of others. 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:
1. 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.
2. Fear of Failure
Also called atychiphobia is complete paralysis experienced when we let fear stop us from moving forward. Often times I see bright, capable young women shy away from attempting a task because comes at the cost of ‘a chance of failure.’ They can justify inaction, but not a failure.
3. Behaviour Rigidity
This is defined as complete and utter inflexibility when it comes to food, choices, outcomes, school, career, and friendships. In a person with behaviour 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 behaviour rigidity (Arlt et. al., 2018). 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.
4. Inability to Trust Others
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.
5. Working Last Minute
Because, if you fail, there’s an easy excuse. “I began my work late last night, so I did not expect my work to be perfect”. Placing the blame on something outside (but ultimately within your wheelhouse of control) is the absolute perfectionist tendency.
It is no secret that increased levels of ‘perfectionism’ lead to higher levels of depression, lower self- esteem, and disordered eating – this makes it more difficult to overcome perfectionism. 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 overcoming perfectionism and AWAY from pleasing others.
How do We Develop Intrinsic Motivation & 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? And 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. Doing this daily will help you overcome perfectionism induced anxiety.
2. Understand That No One Cares
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 as this can really help overcome perfectionism! By recognizing this truth you can be 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 & Actually Listen
Counter to what was 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. 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. In order to overcome perfectionism, you need to stop depending on the need to be recognized, loved, seen, and worthy – stop trying so hard to get there.