The Link Between Perfectionism and Anxiety

Thursday, May 8 2014 Tanya J. Peterson, MS, NCC

Perfectionism are strongly linked anxiety disorders like generalized anxiety and social anxiety disorders. Learn more about perfectionism and mental health.

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.

Perfectionism contributes strongly to anxiety problems like generalized anxiety and social anxiety disorders. Learn more about perfectionism and mental health.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.

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Author: Tanya J. Peterson, MS, NCC

Tanya J. Peterson is the author of The Mindfulness Journal for Anxiety, The Mindfulness Workbook for Anxiety, Break Free: Acceptance and Commitment Therapy in 3 steps, and five critically-acclaimed, award-winning novels about mental health challenges. She speaks nationally about mental health, and she has a curriculum for middle and high schools. Find her on her website, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

View all posts by Tanya J. Peterson, MS, NCC.

The Link Between Perfectionism and Anxiety

Carla
says:
May, 8 2014 at 12:44 pm

Thank you for this post. You hit the nail on the head for circumstances I come across. (Ironic metaphor for a perfectionist commentary - no?)

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

May, 8 2014 at 11:04 pm

Hi Carla!
Ironic metaphor indeed -- and a pretty awesome one, too! Perfectionism is an anxiety-provoking trap that I grew tired of being in. I'm working my way out, but I'm not perfect at it, which is precisely the point. :)

Emma
says:
May, 13 2014 at 2:21 pm

This is me to a T. I suffer with GAD and panic disorder and always feel like a failure and not good enough. No matter what I achieve I never believe I am good enough and always strive for more. I am slowly learning not to do this that I can never be perfect.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

May, 14 2014 at 11:56 am

Hi Emma,
Thanks for sharing your comment! Perfectionism and any type of anxiety create such a vicious cycle. I can attest to this because this is me to a T, too! It's great that you are learning not to do this (and it's definitely a slow process, but it's also one that is definitely possible.) I've noticed that as people let go of the harsh judgments and need to be perfect, they like themselves more and more and actually come to see their strengths more than their weaknesses (we all have both). You'll enjoy it!

Sed
says:
March, 28 2015 at 11:57 am

Hi Tanya,

This articulate post was of great help. Thank you so much for posting it.
I relate to most of what you describe about perfectionism, in particular, the black and white thinking. I've pretty serious GA tendencies which I believe are probably linked to my bipolar. Would you happen to have any tips, techniques or what have you on how to think less in those terms and be more open to letting in the imperfect and 'good enough' hues?
Thanking you in advance.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

March, 29 2015 at 11:17 am

Hello Sed,
I'm happy to know that this article was helpful, but I'm sorry that you can relate. :D For me, overcoming the b&w thinking, the need for perfection, and the anxiety that comes with these things has been a process rather than a single event. Noticing specific thoughts and when/under what circumstances they occur is an important first step in increasing awareness. For a long time, I thought I was aware of these things--and I was on a general level--but I needed to develop deeper, more specific awareness. That heightened awareness gave me the opportunity to examine and question the validity of my thoughts/beliefs. Looking for evidence that the anxieties will come true and will not come true is helpful, as is making lists (in any format--actual lists, venn diagrams, bubble/spider formats, etc.). For every thought you have about mistakes, perceived failures and shortcomings, etc. make a list of your positive characteristics, strengths, and successes. This helps you see yourself more realistically and balanced. Also, bipolar disorder can definitely exacerbate things (I know this firsthand!). Be aware of your moods and how they affect perfectionistic, b&w thinking, and anxiety. The more you are aware, the more you can accept it as part of your brain's behavior and distance yourself from it. I remind myself that what I'm feeling in a given moment is distorted due to an up- or downswing. It's easier then to distance myself from it, to let it happen without judging or getting caught up in it.

These are just a few suggestions, of course. They can be tailored to your unique self. Further, these are by no means the only things that can be done. They could be a starting point on your journey to overcome this anxiety.

Matt
says:
February, 18 2018 at 1:45 pm

I’ve never seen an article describe my situation better. Is there a way I can reach you?

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

February, 19 2018 at 11:02 am

Hi Matt,
I'm glad this resonates with you. (Well, I'd rather that it didn't, because that would mean you didn't experience anxiety and perfectionism.) My website has a contact form: www.tanyajpeterson.com. Feel free to get in touch.

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