The Link Between Perfectionism and Anxiety
Thursday, May 8 2014 Tanya J. Peterson, MS, NCC
Perfectionism. It’s a common term in our society. We accuse people of (or, depending on one’s opinion of perfectionism, applaud people for) being perfectionists. Is perfectionism a desire to succeed and excel in one’s field? I’d call that ambition, but not necessarily perfectionism.
Perfectionism includes this desire for success, yes, but it goes beyond a desire to succeed. Perfectionism is not just a desire to do well; it’s a need to do the perfect job or be the perfect person to the detriment of your wellbeing. And perfectionism contributes greatly to anxiety.
Anxiety and Perfectionism Enhance One Another
I can speak firsthand to this, for I have been known to be a perfectionism throughout my life. It started in kindergarten when I made a shamefully horrendous coloring mistake. From that point on, I fear mistakes to such a degree that I developed rather significant anxieties.
A perfectionist pushes him/herself to make no mistakes in anything, ever. To achieve this, a perfectionist will spend huge amounts of time on a project or task making sure every single aspect is flawless. For if the product is flawed, certainly the project’s creator is flawed, too. Right? Wrong.
For a very long time, my personal motto was, “Good enough never is.” Consequently, nothing I ever achieved was good enough. I was never content. I never experienced a sense of pride in a job well done. Instead, I was anxiously obsessing over what I should have done better.
Perfectionism Is Often a Part of Anxiety Disorders
Because of those feelings, perfectionism is associated with serious mental health problems, including various anxiety disorders. Two types of anxiety disorders commonly associated with the belief that nothing is ever good enough are generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) and social anxiety disorder.
In GAD, the fear of failure or of not being good enough creates crippling worry over many aspects of someone’s life. Am I doing this right? Am I good enough to get the scholarship/promotion/raise? Will I get fired? Will I get into a good enough school? Will I succeed in life, or will I fail?
In social anxiety disorder, perfectionism causes people to worry excessively about being judged by others. Further, perfectionists tend to experience high anxiety about embarrassing themselves in front of others. And because the fear that they’re not good enough is strong, perfectionists can suffer crippling social anxiety.
Perfectionism and All-or-Nothing Thinking Increases Anxiety
For a perfectionist, most things are seen as absolutes: something is either right or it is wrong. There aren’t varying degrees of “rightness” or of knowledge or ability. One either knows something perfectly, or he doesn’t know it at all. One can either do something perfectly, or she can’t do it at all. This all-or-nothing thinking is a very harsh way of judging oneself.
To constantly strive for perfection is demoralizing and damaging to our mental health, leading, for example, to significant anxiety. We perfectionists can take control over our anxieties by beginning to let go of the all-or-nothing thinking. There are wonderful hues between the black and the white extremes of right and wrong. Let them be in your life. Enjoy reduced anxiety as you let perfectionism go.