When perfectionism turns into anxiety: what are the signs?

Mental Health

When perfectionism turns into anxiety: what are the signs?

Karen Burge
July 2019

Helen* used to describe herself as being ‘goal-oriented and ambitious’ at work, but she now knows her drive to succeed was bordering on obsessive.

She often worked long hours, re-checked her work constantly and became chronically stressed about failing.

She looks back on this time and recalls the constant worry. Worry about making a mistake, missing a crucial detail, getting tongue-tied during a presentation or even being sick and losing time on projects. When Helen did get a workplace win, such as praise for a job well done, she found it hard to enjoy the moment and thrive in the workplace.

“I’d hear positive comments but they didn’t sink in. All I could think about was how hard I’d have to work to meet this standard in future.”

It was stress and anxiety that led her to seek out a psychologist. Those sessions gave Helen her lightbulb moment: she was a perfectionist and it was making her unhappy.

What is perfectionism?

As the name suggests, perfectionism is the need to do everything perfectly. In healthy amounts it can motivate you to aim high. We want to do well in our pursuits, so that extra push to cross the Ts and dot the Is can be a good thing.

But too much attention to perfection (known as maladaptive perfectionism) can have negative health effects, explains Jean Hailes for Women’s Health. Perfectionists may become extremely self-critical and develop a paralysing fear of failure.

Clinical psychologist Jennifer Kemp says perfectionism is unhelpful when it becomes rule-bound and rigid. For example, when trying to do well becomes “I must do well at all times” and working hard becomes “I must never make a mistake”.

“It’s also unhelpful when we start beating ourselves up with self-criticism if we make a mistake, and when we continually raise our standards so they are just out of reach,” explains Kemp, who has personally experienced perfectionism.

Social pressures

Social media may contribute to people’s quest for perfectionism.

“It seems that we’re living in a world where we’re surrounded by implied pressure to be perfect,” says Kemp. “Our own friends on [Instagram and] Facebook share an ideal, not the reality.”

Journalist, author and mental health ambassador Jessica Rowe became tired of seeing photos of perfectly packed school lunches, posts about gourmet family dinners and tales of neat, tidy and obedient children. So she created her own movement and now has a strong social media following for her Crap Housewife blog and social media channels reflecting real family life – burnt dinners, family chaos and the lighter side of imperfection.

Her recent book, Diary of a Crap Housewife, is all about making expectations realistic. “We put way too much pressure on ourselves to be perfect in all parts of our lives. That’s impossible – and no fun.”

Kemp agrees. “Often perfectionism is getting in the way of being a fun parent, a loving partner, or able to look after your health in the way you need,” she says. “It can also get in the way of achieving your work or study goals.”

Perfectionism trends

Every generation of young adults since 1989 has been more prone to perfectionism than the generation before, according to UK research published in Psychological Bulletin. The study looks at decades of research and notes an upward trend in perfectionism and suggests it’s linked to rising levels of mental health issues.

Jean Hailes psychologist Gillian Needleman says finding tools to help combat perfectionism is important, “if left untreated, it can lead to stress, depression and anxiety”.

Kemp adds perfectionism is also highly related to eating disorders, obsessive compulsive disorder, hoarding, marriage problems, chronic fatigue and body image problems. So, what can you do about developing a high level of perfectionism?

Turning things around

First, go easy on yourself. No one is perfect and we all need to expect imperfection. Recent research led by Australian Catholic University suggests self-compassion is an important tool in helping combat unhealthy perfectionism and may reduce the risk of it leading to depression.

"Teaching self-compassion is an effective method of stopping maladaptive perfectionism because it helps people to change their relationship with difficult thoughts,” says Needleman.

Self-compassion is about accepting – without judgment – that mistakes are part of life, as well as expressing a caring and kind attitude towards yourself. 

Kemp explains that we can say encouraging things to ourselves in times of need in the same way we would speak to a friend or a child; with warmth and encouragement. 

“With practice this can make a big difference to how we feel if we make a mistake,” she says.

“A psychologist who uses an approach called Acceptance & Commitment Therapy and/or Compassion-Focused Therapy has particular skills in helping people with this.”

When to seek professional help

If you’re struggling with perfectionism and anxiety, constant self-criticism, avoiding tasks due to negative self-talk or you’re feeling really down about yourself, then it might be a good time to see a psychologist, recommends Kemp.

“Look for a psychologist who specialises in Acceptance & Commitment Therapy and/or Compassion-Focused Therapy. They won’t try to challenge or replace your unhelpful thoughts; we’ve found time and time again that these thoughts will just keep popping up anyway. Instead the psychologist will work with your current thoughts and emotions so they’re not controlling your life.

“They will help you work out what you want to be doing with your life (your values) and teach you skills to help you live a life that is satisfying, rich and meaningful to you.”

To find a psychologist visit the Australian Psychological Society or speak to your GP for a referral.  

If you need to speak to someone now, call Lifeline on 13 11 14.

* Not her real name.

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