The Connection Between Perfectionism And Anxiety
Who hasn’t wished their surroundings, efforts, or accomplishments to be a bit more beautiful, a bit more polished, even a bit more perfect? An appreciation for excellence helps shape our ideals, and thus what we aim to achieve. But striving for excellence can also carry an underbelly of anxiety that can turn healthy striving into something darker. This is one way that perfectionism and anxiety work together.
Perfectionism, according to the American Psychological Association (APA), is the tendency to demand of others or of oneself an extremely high or even flawless level of performance, in excess of what is required by the situation. The APA also notes the association between perfectionism and anxiety.
Cultural definitions of perfectionism and perfectionists vary. But when we think of perfectionism, we tend to think about people driven to excel at whatever they attempt – seemingly regardless of personal cost.
Perfectionism is not the same thing as striving to be your best. Perfection is not about healthy achievement and growth.
What’s common to these definitions is a persistent striving to excel. But what isn’t captured by these definitions is the experience of anxiety that so often accompanies this relentless determination to achieve.
The causes of perfectionism are not yet well understood. Recent studies suggest perfectionism develops due to external conditions. Curran and Hill found that cultural changes that began in the late 1970s have correlated with young people perceiving greater external demands, being more demanding of others, and more demanding of themselves. Meanwhile, Rasmussen and Troilo explain the development of perfectionism as learned behavior passed down in families.
Anxiety’s Entangled Role
Another likely driver of the development of perfectionism is anxiety run amok.
Anxiety can be initially motivating, propelling us to take care of things that are important to us. It motivates from a place of fear as well as a desire to prevent an unfavorable outcome. When we heed its call to address the concerns it highlights, and channel it into productive outlets, our anxiety decreases and stands down.
But when we feel anxious that we’re not doing every little thing, catching every little problem or solving every little issue, we can have a hard time channeling that anxiety productively. An unreasonable fear of mistakes – or failure – can keep us striving for flawlessness, and leave us anxious when we inevitably encounter our shortcomings. In this way, anxiety can drive perfectionism to avoid imperfections, and in setting such unreachable standards, risks inevitable disappointment and more anxiety.
The relationship between perfectionism and anxiety is so entangled that perfectionism is sometimes be mistaken for high-functioning anxiety. And at its best, it can motivate striving for excellence.
A Delicate Balance
Keeping a healthy balance between perfectionism and anxiety is easier said than done. Relying on anxiety as a primary motivation to accomplish goals, and thus reduce fears of failure, is more likely to lead to more perfectionism, and thus more anxiety. In this way, perfectionism can drive anxiety when we don’t feel or believe we are ever quite good enough, and thus need to keep pushing ourselves harder and harder.
Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people.
As the brilliant writer Anne Lamott observed, perfectionism is an oppressor – as can be anxiety when its messages and nudges are not heeded, and its “volume” gets too loud. Christine Carter, happiness expert and author of The Sweet Spot, agrees. Perfectionism and anxiety – especially in this type of dynamic – tends to be maladaptive and unsustainable. To stay motivated, she notes, we need more than fear alone. We need purpose, and joy.
Like anxiety, perfectionism can drive a striving for excellence that helps us stretching for our best selves especially when it recognizes our need for growth and stretching. But too much of either can quickly transform these potentially adaptive tools into liabilities. The irrational fear of failure, so often driving perfectionism, tends to be the sticky challenge that ultimately limits us. Unlike rational anxiety that drives rational problem-solving and risk-taking, irrational anxiety drives inhibiting, rigid behavior that holds us back from evolving into our best selves, leaving us feeling inadequate and more anxious.
Achieving more of what we want, and need, evolves as we do, through learning and growing. Being willing to take risks — even tempt failure — is how we grow, and cultivate the confidence we need to strive for the excellence we want. Knowing we can handle and learn from failure is one way we can use our anxiety and ambition to fuel our best.
Looking for more help managing perfectionism and better channeling anxiety? Check out my new book, Hack Your Anxiety, full of strategies to keep anxiety working for you, rather than against you.