How Perfectionism Leads to Anxiety

Perfectionism is one of the major factors leading to anxiety. It has been well researched and written about in academic literature. The goal of this article is to explain the relationship between anxiety and perfection in a way that can be easily digestible by anyone – regardless of your education or background.

Let’s first start by explaining what anxiety is. Anxiety is a state of worry and fear that can negatively impact behaviour, performance and ultimately one’s quality of life. Anxiety comes in many shapes and forms, and is the main symptom of the Anxiety Disorder umbrella – with disorders like Social Anxiety, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Panic Disorder, and the like, falling under it.

Anxiety as I will discuss in the following article will be focused less on the clinical disorders as mentioned, and will instead dive into the relationship between perfection and anxiety. 

Perfectionism can be loosely defined as having high standards and wanting to meet those standards. This can be both domain-specific, as in having high standards in your physical appearance but lower standards when it comes to your work or relationships, or it can be general as in having high standards in almost everything that you do.

Having high standards is a great quality to have and can be viewed as a positive attribute.

This is the number one attribute of high achievers, as they pursue excellence in all that they do.
Let’s look at an example, think about a baker starting his bakery. Let’s call him John. John loves baking and has incredibly high standards when it comes to the cakes he sells. This will help John’s business grow, as every customer that buys a cake from him gets the ‘perfect’ cake.
As you can see, in the above example striving for ‘perfection’ can pay off.

This highlights an important quality of perfectionism, that the setting of high standards does not cause or even maintain anxiety, but it is the setting of high standards while being overly critical of yourself that does.

Let’s look at the example of John’s bakery again. Imagine John who is very good at baking had just opened up his bakery and had set high standards for his cakes, but all of the cakes that he bakes falls short of the standards he had set. John thinks to himself, if his cakes are not perfect then people will think he is a bad baker.

So, John ends up throwing all cakes in the trash, even though the cakes were way better than the cakes from other bakeries in town.

John starts the baking process again, hoping that the next batch of cakes would meet his high standards, but he keeps falling short and ends up throwing it in the trash.

This is clearly not an adaptive pattern of behaviour, this behaviour pattern does not move John any closer to his goals and will take a toll on John’s mental and emotional health, as well as impact him negatively financially.

On the morning of the second day, as John prepares to get ready to go to the bakery, he finds himself struggling to breathe, his heart rate racing, John thinks he is having a heart attack, but it turns out it is simply an anxiety attack.

This is an example of how perfectionism – high standards matched with being overly critical – can lead to an anxiety attack. Many people the world over suffer from anxiety simply because of the belief that they need to be perfect, or not fail, so they end up putting a significant amount of pressure on themselves.

What do you think goes on inside the mind of the person striving for perfection who also is afraid of not meeting this high standard? His or her mind is likely preoccupied with meeting this high standard while being worried that they might not achieve this desired result. This can negatively impact the results as well as the enjoyment of an activity. In high-stakes environments, such as professional sport and negotiating, this type of thinking has been proven to inhibit performance execution.

Sometimes the pressure to perform at high standards can even come from the outside, as in your boss, parents, or peers setting such high expectations that you feel no matter how hard you try you just can’t seem to meet these standards.

This matched with the fear that if you fail to meet these standards you are not worthy, which could put an individual under significant stress and worry.

There are plenty of examples of people who achieve incredible feats then find it hard to live up to the expectations that their successes have set. Imagine winning a gold medal at the Olympic games at a young age, and four years later you take home silver. This can feel like a failure since you didn’t meet the standards and expectations that you had set at the previous Olympic games.

Remember, worry is one of the main features of anxiety, and under severe worry and stress, we can trigger our body’s fight-or-flight response, which then results in an anxiety attack or panic attack.

Let’s return to the john example, if he were to be less hard on himself, giving himself just a little more wiggle room, then the impact of his high standards would not impact him negatively. But in order to give himself some more ‘wiggle’ room – giving his customers his best attempt at meeting his highest standards – John must not base his self-worth and identity solely on the cakes that he bakes.

It would be best if John had multiple reference points which formed his identity and self-worth at work – such as his relentless drive to master baking, his desire to ensure every customer leaves with a smile, his belief in developing people and helping his employees become great bakers too, and so forth – this way if he doesn’t meet his primary objective of having the ‘perfect’ cakes, then at least John can find a level of satisfaction knowing that the customers left with a smile, that his staff are happy and growing, and that this is simply one step closer to mastering baking for him.

Ask yourself how you can use multiple reference points and secondary objectives in your own life so that you ensure that you allow yourself some wiggle room while pursuing excellence.

To conclude, perfectionism does not lead to anxiety, but perfectionism combined with beliefs that you can never achieve these high standards are.

Remember anxiety stems from worry and constant thoughts of am I or will I be good enough.

Be honest with yourself, evaluate your standards, give yourself enough room to fail, learn and improve. This is the only way to truly excel and hit the high standards that you have in life, without the cascade of negative mental, emotional, financial, and social implications.

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