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Perfectionism and Anxiety – being ok with being good enough

Perfectionism and anxiety are often closely linked. Perfectionism is the drive to appear, feel, and be perfect.

A perfectionist has “excessively high personal standards and overly critical self-evaluations.” They insist on perfection and accept nothing shy of flawlessness. This can manifest as criticism of self and others and in attempts to control situations and people.

Being a perfectionist can often be applauded in society, whether it be getting 100% in a test, creating an artistic master piece, never having a day off work sick, not making mistakes at work, always knowing the right things to say, having the “perfect” body, looking a certain way and maintaining a certain lifestyle. Perfectionism can mean different things to different people as our own personal standards are unique.

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People who tend to be perfectionists can exhibit lots of qualities that are common to many of us. Including:

  • Being highly critical, mainly of themselves, but they can be critical of others and quick to spot mistakes.
  • Often they have all or nothing thinking, if something isn’t a hundred percent a certain way it isn’t good enough. It can be hard to flexible and adaptable to things not being perfect.
  • People who are perfectionists often have incredibly high standards, mainly of themselves but often of others. These high standards also tend to be unrealistic.
  • People who are perfectionists tend to fear not meeting their goals and can feel depressed when they don’t achieve what they set out to do.
  • There tends to be a focus on the outcome rather than the journey or the experience of doing something. This often leads to people procrastinating, if the fear of failing is too big it can be hard to even begin.
  • Often people who struggle with perfectionism can have low self-esteem and suffer with a great deal of anxiety due to the perception of failure and constant negative self-talk.

As someone who can struggle with perfectionism, the list above is difficult to experience. There is a feeling of heaviness, struggle and fight that is relentless, coupled with sadness and immense anxiety, and a wish for things to feel safe complete and good enough. The reason why some people are perfectionists and some are not can be connected to childhood experiences where people, parents or teachers perhaps, have had unrealistically high expectations of us, or it could be due to developing a fear of judgement and disapproval from others. For many of us who struggle with perfectionism the feelings of being judged and found not good enough can be unbearable and very difficult to tolerate. Conversely the feelings experienced from being praised, admired and told how good we are can be seductive. Our pursuit of these good feelings can lead us into a trap as we struggle to gain approval and positive strokes for unrealistic and often unattainable aspirations.

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So, what can you do if you are a perfectionist? How can you manage this complicated matrix of emotions and thoughts that are constantly competing but ultimately leading you into a dark maze. Below are 5 tips to think about.

  1. Self-Compassion – practicing self-compassion is key to managing perfectionism and its related anxiety. We have a blog here that explains how you can develop a Self-Compassion practice. Self Compassion – Fostering a Practice. Self-compassion is the antithesis of perfectionism. Self-compassion is about us having feelings of non-judgmental caring understanding and kindness towards ourselves. In this environment, perfectionism finds it hard to thrive.
  2. Stop Comparing yourself to others – comparison is the thief of joy, what anyone else is doing is none of your business. If you find yourself comparing yourself to others, consider what the purpose of this activity is and how it is making you feel. The likelihood is that it is making you feel badly about yourself. STOP. Maybe this means reducing your social media time. Be mindful about conversations you have and the way you feed comparisons when talking with friends. If you find yourself ruminating on comparisons, you may need to put in a strong boundary with yourself. This might mean telling yourself that you are not going to compare yourself with anyone else and you are going to do something else instead, that makes you feel good about yourself. For instance, watch tv, go for a walk, read a book, talk to a friend.
  3. Challenge your thinking – when you find yourself thinking about how you are failing or not good enough, challenge these thoughts. Is your belief really true? What will happen if you don’t meet the standard you set yourself? Is there any external evidence that you are failing or not good enough? What is this belief costing you? Is it worth it? How would your life be better if you held a different belief? Experiment with holding a different belief for half an hour, how does that feel?
  4. Practice doing things imperfectly – what is imperfect to someone is unique. Consider what would challenge you, if you did it imperfectly and then practice it. For instance, be 10 or 15 minutes late. Don’t correct your spelling in an email to someone. Allow an area of your house to be messy. Wear clothes that are not ironed. Get comfortable with being imperfect.
  5. Consider the benefits of not being perfect – You will find your own benefits that are more personal to you, but these are some of the benefits I see. Not striving for perfection gives me more energy and head space. I feel less anxious and a lot freer. Ditching perfectionism means that I am more likely to start projects or jobs. I fear failure less, this means I am more likely to try new things and take risks, this in turn makes my life richer. Allowing myself not to be perfect allows me to deal with problems more easily. I am more adaptable and resilient, because I am less concerned about the end result and rigid in my thinking. This makes life a lot easier.

If you are struggling with perfectionism, you may want to speak to a professional. Paul Carter is a counsellor and psychotherapist with many years of experience, you can learn more about Paul here on the About Paul Page. If you would like to make an appointment with him please use the Contact Page or call on 07843 813 537. Paul works in Birmingham and Kingswinford, although currently due to COVID is working exclusively online and on the telephone. For more information about how counselling works and current fees please take a look at the FAQs page

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