Takeaway: Perfectionism and anxiety are two sides of the same coin. One often serves as both a cause and a symptom of the other. In this article, I explain the symptoms of high functioning anxiety and perfectionism and how to deal with your perfectionism.
It’s normal to strive to do a good job in life. Almost everyone wants to be seen as helpful, kind, and knowledgeable. But for the high-functioning anxious perfectionist, the desire to be perceived as the very best can start to take over all aspects of someone’s life. It’s no secret that high-functioning people tend to have anxiety. I see a lot of symptoms of high functioning anxiety in my clients.There’s also a common need among people with anxiety to be seen as flawless in life – at work, at home, and among friends and family.
As a therapist for teens and young adults, many of the clients I work with struggle with high-functioning anxiety and perfectionism. What they don’t often realize is that perfectionism and anxiety are deeply connected. They form a cycle that, when left untreated, can cause a lot of problems. So what is the connection between the two? And how can you start to break free from that cycle?
Perfectionism is the urge to be perceived as flawless by everyone around you. Perfectionists understand theoretically that perfection is impossible to attain. But they are driven toward perfectionism in order to try and “make up for” their perceived flaws. If you’ve ever spent hours “improving” an already decent essay for school or felt incredibly upset by constructive criticism, you can understand what perfectionism looks like in action.
Anxiety, on the other hand, is a physical response to stress. Some symptoms of anxiety include restlessness, increased heart rate, inability to concentrate, and feelings of impending doom. These feelings can be incredibly uncomfortable and cause distress.
Perfectionism and anxiety are two sides of the same coin. One often serves as both a cause and a symptom of the other. This is in part because perfectionism is one way people try to cope with their anxiety. It’s tempting for people who experience a lot of anxiety to want to control or minimize the discomfort of that anxiety – and one way to do that is by aiming for perfection at all times.
Being “on” all the time and not allowing for mistakes might seem like a good way to dispel anxiety, but the opposite is actually true. Perfectionists are likely to set super-high standards for themselves and work very hard to try and reach their goals. But the more impossible your standards are for yourself, the more likely you’ll fall short in reaching those goals. Anxious perfectionists might consider this failing. If you feel like you’ve failed, you may experience burnout, depression, increased anxiety, or other struggles.
Failure isn’t always a bad thing, of course. People with a growth mindset understand that failure is part of learning, and everyone undergoes failure in order to become better at a skill or behavior. But for anxious perfectionists, failure is the worst possible outcome. It confirms their fears that they’re not good enough. They take failure as a sure sign that they’re unworthy, unloveable, or unacceptable. And this further fuels both their anxiety and perfectionism.
Here are six ways to know whether you’re experiencing symptoms of high-functioning anxiety and perfectionism.
As you can see, perfectionism can be quite destructive and harmful to mental health. The anxious perfectionist often believes they’ll never be good enough, no matter how hard they try. And they have a core fear that their mistakes and imperfections will cause them to be rejected in life.
Aiming for perfection, not being able to reach perfection, feeling guilt and shame, and then striving once again for perfection is a self-reinforcing cycle. It continues to feed itself and grow stronger. At its core, anxious perfectionism is about fear. It could be the fear of uncomfortable emotions, or it could be the fear of being rejected.
Dealing with perfectionism is a long game. It requires patience and practice. But with time and compassion, you can do it. Here are three of my favorite ways to break the cycle.
If you want help figuring out how to break out of the cycle of perfectionism and anxiety in your life, consider my mini course for anxiety management called “The Path to Peace.” My course can help you understand the symptoms you’re experiencing, reframe difficult thoughts and beliefs, embrace your inherent self-worth, and learn healthy coping tools for your anxiety. You can learn more about this 7 day course here.
Justine is a licensed mental health counselor with a private practice in White Plains, NY. She helps teenagers, young adults and families struggling with anxiety, depression, family conflict and relationship issues. Justine is also the host of the podcast Thoughts From the Couch.