June 12, 2020

Perfectionism, Compassion, and Anxiety

Written by Rachel Eddins

perfectionism and anxiety Are you a perfectionist?

Do you demand a lot from yourself and others?

You might not even be aware of it, but this could be a maladaptive strategy to ward off your anxiety. Unfortunately, it ultimately creates a vicious cycle that just makes anxiety worse. Learn to be compassionate with yourself and others for being less-than-perfect can help reduce your anxiety.


The Relationship Between Anxiety and Perfectionism

Anxiety is excessive worry, usually about the future. One of the ways that people try to cope with their anxiety is by attempting to control anything that they can. This can manifest in many ways. For example, if you have a panic attack at a grocery store, then you might avoid grocery stores in an attempt to control your environment and avoid a future panic attack. Similarly, perfectionism is an attempt to control your world.

Anxiety tells many lies. Does this sound familiar: “if I can do exactly the right things every day, then I won’t have a problem! (right?!).

No matter how much you might think you’d like to be “perfect” there simply is no such thing. You have set a goal that you can’t achieve. This itself ends up giving you anxiety. You set such a high standard that even attempting to meet it makes you worried about the future.

Sometimes perfectionism gets tied up with the kind of cognitive distortions that exacerbate anxiety. For example, you might experience all-or-nothing thinking: “if I don’t get all As then I am a failure.”

As a perfectionist, even straight A’s might not be enough for you. That 99% instead of 100% on a test makes you feel like a failure. This way of thinking naturally makes test-taking a more anxiety-producing endeavor than ever before.


Exercise: Explore and Work on Perfectionism in Your Life

Journal, talk about, or think about the following statements:

  • It is my responsibility to make sure that work, school, social or family activities come out right. I take on this responsibility even when others could be reasonably expected to share the burden. List five examples of how this shows up in your life.
  • I use extreme words: always/never. I describe things catastrophically (“it is terrible” or “I am a complete failure.”) List five examples of extremity in your language and consider how this might be a reaction to perfectionism.
  • List five ways that you are very detail-oriented. While this can be a good trait, it can also become obsessive, perfectionistic, and anxiety-producing.
  • I don’t believe in “good enough.” List five examples of things you want to be perfect at or do perfectly and explore what “good enough” might look like.
  • Observe and evaluate how people respond to imperfection in others. How do you respond? Do you hold people to a higher standard than the average person does? Do you hold yourself to a higher standard than you hold others? What are five examples of how your standards might be “too high?”


Once you’ve gleaned some insight into how perfectionism shows up in your own life, it is time to try to loosen its grip. Commit to one or more of the following actions this week:


  • Let someone else do something you feel responsible for, even if you don’t believe they’ll do it “right.” For example, ask your spouse or child to take over a chore for you. Accept the way that they do it, even if it’s not the “perfect” way that you would like.
  • Do not do work that other people are responsible for. Let it be. Observe how this affects your anxiety level and your relationships with others.
  • Notice yourself using all-or-nothing language or speaking in catastrophic terms. Reframe all of those thoughts and sentences using positive affirmations and “good enough” language.
  • Plan for non-perfectionism. Planning a nonperfect performance will work better than noticing accidental imperfection. Just assume that you won’t be perfect and work on getting comfortable with that uncomfortable feeling.
  • Plan to not finish some work that you would otherwise have knocked yourself out to do. Lower your standards this week. See how that feels.
  • Track your accomplishments for an entire week. Write down even the small ones. You are never going to be perfect. If you focus on your flaws, all that you will ever see are those flaws. Start focusing on the achievements.


At the end of the week, do an evaluation:


  • What did imperfection look and feel like this week?
  • Did anyone care whether I was perfect?
  • If something went wrong how did I and others cope?
  • In what ways was I “good enough?”
  • In what ways were others around me “good enough.”

Learn more about overcoming perfectionism here.


Procrastination and Perfectionism

It might seem counterintuitive but perfectionism often breeds procrastination. That’s because of the link with anxiety. You want to do the thing perfectly. You’re anxious about it because you know that you can’t. You desperately want to avoid that anxious feeling, so you procrastinate doing the thing at all.

In some cases, this can even make you feel better if you don’t do the thing perfectly. After all, you “could have if only” you hadn’t procrastinated. By procrastinating, you not only avoid the anxiety trigger for as long as possible, you also give yourself mental justification for not doing a perfect job.

However, procrastination itself will make you more anxious. It’s much better to expect imperfection of yourself and approach projects in a way that gives you plenty of time and space to complete them without stress.

Here are some tips to stop procrastinating.


Self-Compassion as an Antidote to Perfectionism

You aren’t perfect. That’s okay. Now you just need to learn to accept that it’s okay and treat yourself with more compassion. When you notice that your self-talk has become negative, engage in this practice:

  • Notice the words and tone that you are using with yourself.
  • Ask yourself if you are demanding perfection. Ask yourself what would “good enough” would look like.
  • Imagine that you are speaking to a young child, a much-loved elderly person, or a best friend. Pretend that they are saying the thoughts in your head. How would you answer them as compassionately as possible? Use those same words with yourself.
  • Learn self-correction as opposed to self-criticism. You can admit mistakes and work on them while still treating yourself kindly.


Exercise: Compassionate Letter Writing

Practice this exercise not just once but on a regular basis, such as once a week. You can use a journal to write yourself a compassionate letter. Follow this guide:

  • As you begin, try to get in touch with that compassionate part of yourself that would treat a friend with great kindness.
  • Write a letter validating your feelings about a specific situation. For example, you might begin, “I can see that you feel upset about what happened. It is natural to feel upset.” You can go into detail about why those feelings are valid.
  • Begin the next paragraph with, “I want you to know that …” For example, “I want you to know that feeling numb is a common reaction to grief. Some things that might help are…”
  • Begin the next paragraph with, “Some reasons you might feel this way are …” For example, you have a history of trauma or you’ve been stretched too thin this week.
  • Begin the next paragraph with, “Some gentle and compassionate things that you might do for yourself at this time include …” Brainstorm a list of things that you could do in this moment, this day, this week to help yourself through this situation gently.
  • When your letter feels complete, read it aloud to yourself. Before you do, you might want to get comfortable, enjoy a sip of a favorite warm drink, or light a candle. Relax. Imagine your gentlest, most benevolent self offering these words to you.

If you struggle with perfectionism, working on self-compassion can go a long way towards reducing your anxiety. Take our self-compassion quiz and learn more about developing self-compassion here.


You Have the Tools to Understand, Reduce, and Manage Your Anxiety

Over the course of the past five posts, we have shared many tools with you:

  • Post 1 gave a definition of anxiety including the symptoms of it and helped you explore the way that your lifestyle habits might contribute to heightened anxiety.
  • Post 2 provided you with information and a series of exercises related to using calming, grounding, and mindfulness practices to reduce anxiety. This included breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, and other somatic techniques.
  • Post 3 was about learning how to self-soothe through a variety of methods. It also discussed different methods of managing worry including how to contain it.
  • Post 4 taught you all about how your thinking affects your anxiety, showing you how to challenge common cognitive distortions
  • In this final post, we’ve encouraged you to practice self-compassion as an antidote to the perfectionism that can worsen anxiety.

You have many tools at your disposal. Anxiety feels like it controls you but you have more control than you might think. In addition to all of the self-help resources, you can always reach out for therapy to help with anxiety.

Recommended Reading:

The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are

In The Gifts of Imperfection, Brené Brown, a leading expert on shame, authenticity, and belonging, shares ten guideposts on the power of Wholehearted living—a way of engaging with the world from a place of worthiness.

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