The role perfectionism can play in our anxiety

Perfectionism and anxiety are not a good combination. Having high standards for ourselves is not a bad thing. Having unattainably high standards, for every little thing we do, can make life harder than it needs to be.

Besides, perfectionism doesn’t necessarily mean everything we do is perfect. It can often mean the opposite. Our perfectionism can be such a tyrannical monster, that it can be easier to give up, or just not start. Why attempt to satisfy that which cannot be satisfied? Isn’t it easier to just not try?

When perfectionism stops you experiencing life

With perfectionism, there is no room for trial and error. No place for learning from our mistakes. No experiences other than safe, familiar ones, where we know we will exceed. Experience, however, is where all the learning lives.

If we deny ourselves experiences, we deny ourselves the chance to find out what we can and cannot do. Discovering a weakness shows us where we need to focus our attention. With perfectionism and anxiety, however, weakness is not tolerated. If we show weakness, we feel exposed. If we ignore a weakness, we never work on it. Perfectionism does not allow for slow, incremental improvement, where we can master something over time. We are good at something, or we are not. There is no in-between.

If we deny ourselves experiences, we deny ourselves the chance to push through our fear and realise it wasn’t such a big deal after all. When we test our beliefs, we can prove to ourselves that they are wrong. This is a proven way to tackle anxiety. To expose ourselves to a fear, and survive it, thus realising that we are stronger, or braver than we previously believed.

With perfectionism and anxiety, however, failure is so intolerable, that we will not put ourselves in danger’s way. When we avoid something that we fear, that thing becomes bigger. The longer we avoid, the bigger it becomes. The bigger it becomes, the lower the chance we will ever have the courage to tackle it.

How this affects our work

Perfectionism and our own unrelenting standards can be a curse in our professional lives. It can mean we generally put out quality work. However, it also usually means every job we have to do becomes ten times more intimidating, ten times longer, and ten times more anxiety inducing, as we grapple with the fear of not meeting our own standards.

The work we do has to be checked, and double-checked before we can show it to anyone. Even then the self-doubt can gnaw at us. It can also stop us from letting anyone else help, as we only trust our own work, in case others make a mistake.

We may believe that we have to work all the time, so as not to appear lazy, or that we must be faultless, so others will not realise what we are really like. This fear can come from the Impostor Syndrome, where we believe that we will be found out as frauds, and we have to keep the charade going with perfect work.

Why do we do this to ourselves? Well, one reason is we believe the world is judging us as harshly as we judge ourselves. Everyone else is as critical, impatient, and unforgiving as we are about ourselves. If we can see a mistake we have made, or something we could do better, well, you better believe everyone else has spotted it too. And guess what? They are disgusted, appalled, let down, and… well, whatever else you fear the most.

It is time to stop believing these 12 things:

1) I must do all things perfectly
2) Mistakes are not allowed, as they highlight my inadequacy
3) If I try, then I will fail
4) If I make a mistake then I will be rejected
5) If I put my work out there, then others will think badly of me
6) Doing well isn’t good enough, I have to do better
7) If I don’t strive to achieve higher standards, I am a lazy and useless person
8) My work is never good enough
9) I can’t let anyone else do a task in case it goes wrong
10) I have to go over any work I do, several times, before I can show it to anyone
11) There is a right way and a wrong way to do things, no in-between
12) People will judge me as harshly as I judge yourself

Good enough, more often than not, is good enough

We are regularly our own worst critics, and often the extra work we put in is unnecessary, and will go unnoticed. Other people are not always looking for an opportunity to criticise. In fact, the truth is, most of the work you do, and the emails you send, will not get the scrutiny you fear.

Save your perfectionism for the priority, high exposure work. Not every small task needs to be gold-plated. Not every email you send has to be read, and re-read ten times. When we allow ourselves to be less perfect, we can lower our anxiety and become more productive. It may sound counter-intuitive, but when it comes to the everyday tasks, you may need to lower your standards.

I bet it will still be good enough.

Stewart Geddes
Stewart Geddes
Stewart Geddes is a Counsellor and Psychotherapist based in South and West Dublin. He specialises in anxiety and how it affects our working lives. He worked for 17 years in multinational companies in the professional arena, and now helps young professionals recognise, understand, and overcome their anxiety. You can find him at themoodlab.ie, on facebook, or twitter.
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