Your Perfectionism Is Probably Fueled by Anxiety. Here’s Why – And How to Cope
Perfectionists are seen by society as successful, high-functioning, and admirable. Everyone wants to be a perfectionist. They’re the people who achieve great things. Right? While this is certainly true sometimes, there is a darker reality behind perfectionism’s shiny veneer. What many people don’t realize is that perfectionism is often fueled by anxiety and fear.
Perfectionists typically strive to be seen as flawless by the world. Think about the last time you made a mistake or did something “wrong.” What was your response in that moment? Did you acknowledge the mistake, recognize you’re only human, and shrug it off?
If you’re like many of our clients, this is probably not what happened. Instead, it’s likely that you felt stressed, embarrassed, and self-critical. And you may have noticed physiological signs of anxiety. Maybe your cheeks flushed, you started to sweat, and your heart began to race. And you might have even beat yourself up, starting an internal dialogue with yourself about how stupid you are.
If you’re a perfectionist, you probably don’t respond kindly to your own mistakes. Mistakes can open you up to criticism and uncomfortable emotions. And for a perfectionist, this can feel dangerous.
How Are Perfectionism and Anxiety Related?
Perfectionism is the drive to appear successful and put together at all times. It’s an attempt to cover up any flaws you feel you might have. This can show up in many different ways. For example, you might act nice and sweet all the time in order to make yourself seem more likable. Or maybe you spend hours perfecting a school project because it just doesn’t feel good enough yet.
Anxiety is a combination of emotional and physical responses to stress. Physical symptoms like restlessness, fear, sweating, increased heart rate, and a racing mind almost always accompany anxiety.
Nobody likes feeling anxious. It’s uncomfortable, and it can make your whole life feel chaotic and scary. Perfectionism is one way people try to minimize the discomfort of anxiety. By making sure everything is perfect, it can feel like you have some control over your anxiety.
Being flawless all the time might seem like a foolproof way to manage your anxiety, but the opposite is actually true. The more pressure you put on yourself to do everything right and be on top of everything all the time, the more your anxiety is likely to grow. And because your expectations of yourself are so high, you might not let yourself try new things because you might not be great at them right away. Or you might not reach your own lofty goals. And if you feel you’ve failed at something, you’re much more likely to experience increased mental health problems.
The close relationship between perfectionism and anxiety isn’t always obvious. But anxiety fuels perfectionist behaviors and feelings. And then, in turn, striving for perfection increases anxiety. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle.
Where Does Perfectionism Come From?
Many of our clients grew up in environments that encouraged perfectionist behaviors. In a household with critical parents or parents whose moods were unpredictable, striving to be perfect may have been the only way to feel safe.
Let’s say one of your parents experienced mental health problems such as depression. Maybe you learned that the only way you got any attention and praise was if you got good grades. In order to try to earn the love of your parents and make them happy, you started getting all As. Their joyous responses to your GPA reinforced that your value lay in your ability to succeed in school.
Or maybe you had an older sibling who was always getting in trouble. You could tell how much it stressed your parents out, so you became the “good kid” in order to avoid more household strain. Trying to keep the peace probably seemed to make everyone happier, at least for a while. But it may have put undue pressure on you to never step a toe out of line.
Or if you were criticized as a child, you might have developed perfectionist traits in order to gain approval and avoid rejection. The more perfectly you acted, the less likely you were to get picked on by the adults in your life.
However perfectionism formed for you, it’s likely that it helped you cope with a difficult situation in childhood.
Societal pressures also play a role in perfectionist tendencies. School and other environments reward people for things like getting perfect grades, having a perfect social life, and having a well-curated social media presence. These are culturally seen as markers of success and achievement, even though they mean nothing about your worth as a person.
5 Signs You’re a Perfectionist
Here are 5 signs you might be a perfectionist.
Things you do never quite feel good enough. Homework, essays, projects, a song you’re learning on the piano – no matter what you do, you feel frustrated and anxious until it’s *chef’s kiss* perfect.
You put a lot of pressure on yourself to “do it right.” There’s very little room in your brain for mistakes. You have a lot of anxiety about potentially messing up. Doing it right the first time – whatever it is – feels like the only option.
You’re self-critical. You’re very hard on yourself. If you do something embarrassing in public, don’t know an answer right away, or make a mistake, you punish yourself harshly. You talk to yourself in ways you would never talk to a friend, and you hold yourself to much higher standards than you hold others.
You compare yourself to others. If someone else seems outwardly happier or more successful than you, you feel like you’re doing something wrong. You feel like you’re somehow falling behind. Comparing yourself to other people is a recipe for stress, anxiety, and feelings of low self-worth.
Your self-worth changes based on your perception of success. It jumps when you feel you’ve succeeded, and plummets when you feel you’ve failed – or when you endure criticism from others. The truth is, your worth isn’t based on any outcome or a set of standards. You are always worthy, no matter what. But when you’re a perfectionist, everything you do (and everyone else’s opinions about what you do) has the power to pull your feelings of worth in one direction or another.
When you’re a perfectionist, your worth hinges on external circumstances – how well you perform at something, how successful your accomplishments are, how impressive you look. In general, you treat yourself with contempt more often than not. This can lead to anxiety, depression, and an ever-steepening ladder to climb in order to attain “success.”
How to Stop the Cycle of Perfectionism and Anxiety
Perfectionism is fueled by anxiety, and one way to stop the cycle is to start managing the underlying anxiety.
Yes, we know, we know – easier said than done. This doesn’t happen overnight, of course. It requires a process of becoming aware of your behavioral patterns, practicing self-compassion, and developing healthy coping mechanisms to deal with your anxiety.
The first thing to do is just notice when anxiety comes up for you. Start to “catch” your feelings when they begin spiraling out of control. It’s not uncommon for our clients to not even know that they’re anxious. Anxiety is such an integral part of their lives that it just feels like who they are. But it’s not who you are. And in order to manage your anxiety, you have to know what it feels like.
One way to become aware of your anxiety is to try a body scan. You can do this anytime, not just when you’re feeling anxious. Start by getting in a safe, comfortable position and closing your eyes. Then, begin “scanning” your body from head to toe. Take time to observe each part of your body and notice the sensations you’re having. Maybe your shoulders are tense or your jaw is clenched. These are physical signs of anxiety. You don’t have to “fix” anything about your experience. Just notice what’s going on in a non-judgmental way. With practice, this will get easier.
Once you’ve spent time noticing when your anxiety comes up, you can practice anxiety management strategies like breathwork and sensory techniques. Finally, you can unlearn old habits and develop new beliefs about your values and self-worth.
Want Support Breaking Free From Perfectionism and Anxiety? Consider Therapy
If you think extra support would be helpful in overcoming cycles of perfectionism and anxiety, we can help.
We offer therapy for teens in New York to help them learn how to manage their anxiety, cultivate self-worth, and respond to life’s challenges in a healthy way.
Feel free to get in touch with us for a free 15-minute phone consultation. We can answer any questions you have, see whether we’re a good fit, and start working toward a better future today.