How perfectionism fuels anxiety
15-years ago perfectionism spun my anxiety into warp drive at work. A year of chronic stress and anxiety from that perfectionism tipped me over the edge into exhaustion. I like to think that I have a strong work ethic and a drive to do things well. Like most things, a little bit is good, but a lot is unhealthy. What I didn’t know then, is that perfectionism is a defence against not feeling ‘good enough’. (Yes, that old chestnut again). Perfectionism is a way of feeling in control when things around you are spiralling out of control.
So how does perfectionism ‘protect’ you?
Perfectionism is a way of protecting yourself from negative feelings. It protects you from feeling vulnerable and feeling shame. “If I can do this perfectly then it means….xyz ”.
Or “If I do this perfectly then I don’t have to feel xyz….” “No one can get angry with me and reject me. I don’t have to feel those underlying feelings of inadequacy”.
How does perfectionism harm you?
The drive for perfectionism can lead to:
- chronic stress;
- anxiety and internal anguish as your mind continually whirrs away, worrying and ‘solving’ problems.
- feeling ‘stuck’ – perhaps you suffer from ‘analysis-paralysis’ where you are unable to make a decision for fear of it not being the ‘perfect’ solution;
- exhaustion and illness;
- negatively comparing yourself with others;
- withdrawing socially;
- lack of sleep (due to the continual mental chatter) and ensuing irritability and perhaps health issues;
- an increase in suicidal ideation (thinking about it).
How do you become a perfectionist?
Perfectionism usually stems from attachment issues with a caregiver or trauma in early life. Perhaps the little you found yourself in an out of control situation and made the decision “I’ll never let this happen to me again. I’ll never let myself feel this helpless or of control again. I’ll control the situation so that it never happens again… “
It may also stem from trying to please your caregiver and meet what you thought were their expectations: “I need to be perfect in order to be loved/seen/heard”.
How do you heal from perfectionism?
First, it’s important to note that this was a defence strategy, a way of keeping you safe. So we don’t blast through this defence. Instead, we melt it with compassion and care.
We can look at how your perfectionism actually hurts you more than it protects you. It may have made sense long ago when you were little, but now that you are an adult, it is no longer in your best interests.
We can understand where this stems from in your history and work with having some compassion for that young part of you.
We can work towards having mental flexibility and feeling those vulnerable parts of yourself.
We can work towards accepting mediocrity in some parts of your life and that being OK.
Perfectionism definitely used to fuel my anxiety. I don’t mind sharing that my own therapist once told me to shoot for mediocrity and enjoy the grey area (between the black and the white).
So now I attend dance classes that I’m pretty blummin mediocre at and get pleasure simply from the laughter with my friends. I create slightly burnt offerings when cooking for friends and I accept the fact that the deli up the road creates far superior salads than I ever will (hurray for Botanica!)
So let’s strive for mediocrity my friends and enjoy the misshapen cakes, the half-assed reports written on a Friday afternoon and get out there and enjoy life. Done is better than perfect.