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July 15, 2022

Understanding Perfectionism Anxiety in Adults – Symptoms, Causes, and Coping

As a financial therapist, I see perfectionism and anxiety as an overlapping duo. Anxiety is a set of physiological symptoms (racing heart, sweating, shallow breathing, nausea) and emotional symptoms (feeling worried, on edge, or scattered) that happen when we experience stress.

Perfectionism is often defined by a set of criteria such as wanting to do things "the right way," having unreasonable expectation, being self-critical of their value or work, and trying to control situations.

As a recovering perfectionist, I see parts of myself in the previous list. However, it wasn't until I read a book on perfectionism that it helped me see that perfectionism isn't about rigidity and standards: it's about an attempt to control discomfort. And trying to avoid discomfort? That's a classic symptom of anxiety. In this post, I'll cover some hypotheses on perfectionism anxiety, how it shows up in adults, and steps to take to deal with perfectionism. 

what causes perfectionism anxiety

What Causes Perfectionism Anxiety 

There are many different hypotheses about what causes perfectionism anxiety. We live in a society that creates a perfect storm ripe for creating and rewarding perfectionism. In our highly individualistic society, we equate doing poorly with "failure." And we equate making a mistake or failing with who we are as people. So instead of "I made a mistake, I did something wrong," it becomes, "I am a mistake; I am a failure." 

Feeling like a failure is awful. So many perfectionists strive to never feel like failures by setting the bar extremely high for themselves to not "fail." But by setting that bar high, so high that sometimes it's impossible to achieve those expectations, you fall short. Then, when you fall short, you feel like a failure. And this creates the spiral of anxiety, chasing perfectionism, not achieving perfectionism, and feeling like a failure. 

Anxiety & Perfectionism in Adults

Perfectionism is rewarded throughout our lives. In school, kids who go above and beyond get good grades. Athletes who come to practice early get accolades. At work, raises and promotions are awarded to those who take on additional work. In adults, perfectionism seems to be an acceptable side effect of anxiety. 

This means the perfectionist is rewarded externally for their extra work, making it difficult to believe they are already doing enough. 

For many perfectionists, they start realizing that their symptoms are more harmful than they are helpful. They become more critical of those around them, experience burnout at work, or struggle to unwind. 

deal with perfectionism

Six Perfectionism Anxiety Symptoms

Here are six common ways to see if you're experiencing symptoms of anxiety that are showing up as perfectionism.

  1. Focusing on Outcomes. Laser-focusing on the goal at all costs is a common symptom of perfectionism. Focusing only on the finish line can make it difficult to acknowledge their growth and learning.
  2. Fear of Failure. For perfectionists, not being the best is equal to failing. Sometimes this looks like not trying (because you can't fail if you don't try, right?), and sometimes this looks like an inability to acknowledge when you have succeeded at something. For an anxious perfectionist, internalize failures as a personal shortcoming or feel a reflection of their self-worth. As a financial therapist, I see this all the time with clients. They have crumpled up their budget because they couldn't stick to it. 
  3. Loud Inner Critic. Do you know that inner voice who is kind of an a-hole? Yeah, that's your inner critic. And when you have perfectionism, that inner critic often says things like "you aren't doing enough," "this could be done a better way," or "you aren't smart enough." That inner voice takes up a lot of internal energy and brain space.
  4. Having High Standards. Mistakes? You don't know her. Because anxious perfectionism fears failure (see number 2 on this list), they often check, double-check, or focus on minutiae as they complete their tasks. They see mistakes as proof that they are "unworthy" or "aren't smart."
  5. Wanting Things Done "The Right Way." Sometimes this leads them to add more work to their plate because they fear people won't have the same standards and focus on outcomes that they do. 
  6. Intense Drive to Be Good at New Things. Their inner critical voice often tells them they should be innately good at new things or aren't "perfect." This can lead to a cycle of negative self-talk, or assuming others have it easier, are more talented, or know more than they do. This often comes with a side of irritability or judgment (both internal and external judgment). 
anxiety and perfectionism in adults

Five Ways to Deal with Perfectionism

While there are many ways to cope with perfectionism, I've compiled my five favorite ways to help people deal with perfectionism.

  1. Thought reframes. Reframing thoughts is simply changing negative thoughts to neutral or positive ones. Common thought patterns are black-and-white thinking putting a lot of stock into what they "should" be doing. Black-and-white thinking is when you think something is good or bad, wrong or right, etc., and there is no room in the middle. With a thought reframe, you embrace the both/and. For example, instead of "I forgot to email my supervisor, I'm such an idiot," the thought becomes, "My boss is a human; I can email them first thing on Monday." With "shoulds," a perfectionist focuses on all that's missing: e.g., they "should" have known more, done more, or achieved more. Instead, a thought reframe could be "I've done what I can with the knowledge and skills I have." 
  2. Practice tolerating "doing enough." Since perfectionists add more to their plates for sport, "enoughness" can be a challenge. But enoughness is an antidote to anxious perfectionism. As a recovering perfectionist, the "enoughness" number I strive for is 80%. "I'm about 80% good at this task, and that's good enough for me."
  3. Focus on the journey. Mindfulness is the idea of being fully present in a moment. Perfectionists often race through the process to get to the outcome. By practicing slowing down, an anxious perfectionist can take note of everything that happens en route to a goal, including strengths and challenges. As a financial therapist, a process I encourage clients to embrace is the slow and steady movement toward financial goals. For example, a client was saving up money for back taxes, and while they didn't save everything in a month, over four months, they could slowly top off their savings account so they could pay their taxes off. Each time they contributed to the savings account specifically for their taxes, and we celebrated in session. 
  4. Separate outcomes from who you are. Guilt is when you did something bad; shame is when you feel bad about yourself. With perfectionism, perfectionists often skip right over guilt and move into shame. Instead of the perfectionist thought of, "I made a mistake, I am a bad person," try a gentler approach that separates the mistake from who you are. You could try a statement like, "I made a mistake, that was a bummer, but isn't reflective of my worth." Practice creating space between your achievements and who you are. 
  5. Therapy. Psychotherapy is a great choice for people who experience anxiety and perfectionism. Through interventions like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, and with a therapist who has similar values, an anxious perfectionist can learn coping skills to dial down the intensity and duration of their perfectionist symptoms. 

Experiencing moments of anxiety and perfection happens to the best of us. To cope, first acknowledge which symptoms you experience. Then practice reframing your thoughts, embracing enoughness, focusing on the journey, and separating outcomes from who you are. If you need help, finding a therapist with aligned values can be a great choice for your mental and emotional health.

Meet the author

Lindsay Bryan-Podvin

Lindsay Bryan-Podvin (she/her) is a biracial financial therapist, podcast host, speaker, and author of the book "The Financial Anxiety Solution." In her therapy practice, Mind Money Balance, she uses shame-free financial therapy to help people get their minds and money in balance. She lives with her partner and their dog on the occupied land of the Fox, Peoria, Potawatomi, and Anishinabewaki peoples also known as Michigan.

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