You’re a perfectionist. I get it. You want everything to be done just the right way. If it’s not, the whole thing went to hell. It’s like when you need to load the dishwasher and your partner doesn’t rinse the dishes enough to get the food off. They didn’t do it perfectly, and so you take it upon yourself to do it the “right” way.
To prevent you from burning out by doing everything yourself, think about the fact that you might be an anxious perfectionist. Do those dishes really need to be scrubbed clean before they go into the dishwasher? How does it make you feel to sit with the idea of not doing all of the dishes or leaving it for someone else? Does it leave you feeling terrible somehow? I guess I’m wondering – Is perfectionism a symptom of anxiety?
But scrubbing those dishes yourself, you send a message to your partner that they're not good enough. You also reinforce your behavior of trying to make everything perfect. By doing everything yourself, it doesn’t help your partner learn how to do things and you're not giving yourself the opportunity to see that it’s ok for them to do things differently.
Think about this for a second – how might perfectionism lead to anxiety? In the time you spent scrubbing those dishes you could have been relaxing or meditating or exercising. Or you could have been hanging out with your partner, rather than taking over so that the dishes were done perfectly.
First things first – let’s define perfectionism. Perfectionism is the desire to be perfect and flawless in every aspect of a person’s life. Perfectionists set incredibly high standards that are sometimes impossible to meet.
Growing up you were probably told that perfection doesn’t exist. When you hear that message over and over, you start to correct yourself. This makes it hard to recognize perfectionism. You tell yourself that you need to make things “good enough,” which is just another way to label perfectionism.
Perfectionism can be useful in high-performing jobs, getting tasks done well at work, and when it acts as a motivator to do your best. The problem with perfectionism is that it can set you up for failure. If you don’t meet the incredibly high standards you set for yourself, you’ll feel as if you failed and everything went to shit. Even if you meet your lofty goals, the goalposts get moved. There’s always another reason you feel that you have to do more. And that’s where the anxious perfectionist in you comes out.
Perfectionism is a personality trait. When you take on a perfectionistic role, you’re setting yourself up for a world of anxiety. You may not even realize that you’re an anxious perfectionist. But the question is – is perfectionism a symptom of anxiety?
I believe that it is.
Anxious perfectionists don’t know how to relax and take life at a “normal” pace. When a perfectionist doesn’t reach their goals, they get frustrated and upset. Often they might feel anger or even rage. These emotions are usually disproportionate to the task at hand, but to the anxious perfectionist, they’re everything.
People with anxiety disorders tend to be perfectionists. As I mentioned, perfectionism is a personality trait. It’s how you function in the world. Anxiety happens to be the underlying reason why you might be a perfectionist.
Generally speaking, perfectionists are anxious. That’s why I’ve been referring to the anxious perfectionist. Anxiety can creep up on you. You may not realize that you’re anxious, but you notice that you panic more often. Maybe your heart races or you can feel your pulse just sitting still. These are physical manifestations of anxiety.
The psychological manifestations of anxiety include feeling on edge or wound-up, tension, irritability, and difficulty controlling worrying thoughts.
Most perfectionists struggle with anxiety. Anxiety can take many forms including generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
You became a perfectionist because you never learned how to cope with the distress that anxiety causes. Perfectionism is your coping mechanism when anxiety is winning the battle, and you try to win the war by being the best damn employee/partner/parent/person the world has ever seen. That’s a lot of pressure and a lot of anxiety to manage.
Because perfectionism is a personality trait, it’s very possible that someone who is a perfectionist becomes anxious as a result. However, that anxiety was probably already hiding its sneaky little self in your brain and was activated by the anxious perfectionist that is you.
If you’re a perfectionist, you might tend to procrastinate or have a hard time focusing on just one thing because you feel the need to do everything. Underneath all of that procrastination and hyperactivity is anxiety. To borrow from the song Santa Claus is Coming to Town, “it sees you when you’re sleeping, it knows when you’re awake. It knows if you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake!” In this case, “it” is anxiety.
When you read those lyrics out loud, they scream anxious perfectionist to me. How might perfectionism lead to anxiety? Absorbing messages like that. We’re taught from a young age that if we work hard and get good grades we’ll be successful. You learn that you can’t strive for perfection, so you learn other ways to talk to yourself about it. This makes it harder to learn that you’re being a perfectionist. Anxiety is a sea monster just waiting to sink its claws into you and drag you into the depths of the ocean. But there are ways to stop that from happening.
Pay attention to your perfectionistic tendencies. Are you trying to control everything around you so that’s it done just the right way? Are you trying to control the people around you for the same reasons? Notice when you feel wound up and on edge. See if you can connect the dots between your perfectionistic qualities and the anxiety you feel.
Perfectionists “yeah, but” a lot. You might say “I know I can’t control everything, but…” Adding the word “but” makes it harder to figure out if you’re a perfectionist. You recognize what you can’t control, and you try anyway.
To work on your perfectionism and anxiety, you might want to try therapy. Seeing a therapist isn’t awful and it doesn’t mean you failed. When you feel you have to be perfect, seeing a therapist might feel like proof that you’re not perfect. But therapy is for everybody, and all of us need help.
Still not sure whether you’re an anxious perfectionist? Consider therapy – I can help you work through your symptoms and come up with coping strategies to manage perfectionistic tendencies and how they relate to anxiety.
During our work together, you’ll learn how to manage your anxiety and perfectionism. We’ll come up with coping skills to deal with your symptoms and help you step confidently into the world knowing what you’re dealing with and how you can manage it.
I also offer a coaching program for perfectionists that is designed to give you support and guidance around feeling good enough in your professional and personal life – no matter where you live. If you want help overcoming the belief that you have to constantly achieve in order to be worthwhile – and this belief is making you suffer – coaching is for you.
I’m ready if you are. Reach out today to get started.
Danielle is an anxiety therapist and perfectionism coach. She specializes in helping busy millennials dial down their anxiety and ADHD, so they can perform at their best. Danielle has been featured on Apartment Therapy, SparkPeople, Lifewire, and Now Art World. When Danielle isn't helping her clients, she's playing video games or spending time with her partner and step children.