How Perfectionism and Anxiety fuel each other- And How to Break the Cycle

Do you feel like you can never relax because there's always something that is not good enough? You're not alone. Perfectionism and anxiety often go hand in hand. The perfectionism trap is a vicious one. It’s hard to see when you start down that path, which can lead you into the perfectionism cycle: perfectionism makes you anxious, and anxiety then leads back to more perfectionism.

How Perfectionism relates to Anxiety

Mental Health Research has linked perfectionism to various mental health problems, including anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and several eating disorders. Perfectionism really appears to take a big toll on body-mind wellness.

The turmoil of the Perfectionist

When you're a perfectionist, you want everything you do to be flawless, and no matter how much you accomplish in life, there will always be some sense of failure because nothing is ever good enough. Perfectionists (especially sensitive perfectionists) hold themselves to impossible high standards. People may mistake perfectionism as a good motivator, but most of the time that isn't the case. Perfectionism can lead to depression, anxiety, loneliness, and interfere with your quality of life. Sensitive people often have perfectionist tendencies. If you're a sensitive perfectionist, you might experience the following:

  1. No matter how much you accomplish in life, nothing is ever good enough

There's always a sense of failure because you're constantly striving for perfection. You struggle to relax and always feel the urge to become obsessed with rules, organization, work, etc. Your self-worth is dependent on your achievements, so you're always driven to achieve more. 

  1. Making a mistake triggers a sense of humiliation, with negative consequences on your sense of self-worth

Making mistakes is an essential part of being human. However, for perfectionists, making a mistake can be a very humiliating experience. You might feel that you are not good enough or that they have let themselves down. This may also cause procrastination, with the fear of failing before you even begin to try. You find it hard to start a task if you believe that you can not complete it perfectly. As a result, you can end up feeling very negative about yourself, with a knock-on effect on your sense of self-worth and cause anxiety of future mistakes.

  1. You expect others to feel and do things the way you do and suffer deeply when you're disappointed

This is such a terrible burden to carry through life, and sets you up for anxiety, overwhelm, and burnout. You might often feel let down by others because they don't meet your high expectations. You also expect perfection from yourself and those around you, which can lead to feeling disappointed a lot.

  1. You often seek approval from others before making decisions

This can stem from past experiences such as a child seeking approval from dissatisfied parents. As an adult, this may manifest as people-pleasing behavior or approval addiction.

  1. You struggle with delegating because you feel that if you want something to be done right, you must do it yourself

You become very controlling, and this affects your personal and professional relationships. This can definitely lead to burnout as you are unable to accept help as you take on all the burden.

  1. You often feel like you're fighting an impossible battle with yourself to be worthy of respect and approval

You set exceedingly high standards for yourself and expect that other people are doing the same. Many sensitive people are caught in this all-consuming desire to establish themselves, fighting an impossible battle where every scenario is judged and threatens their self-worth. If you can relate to any of these signs, it's time to start making some changes.

Perfectionism leads to a life of anxiety and stress

For perfectionists, the quest for perfection can be all-consuming. They obsess over details and constantly strive to meet impossibly high standards. This perfectionism often leads to anxiety as they ruminate on their failures and mistakes. Perfectionists often feel guilty for not doing enough, and they find it impossible to turn off their mind and relax. As a result, they may never feel good about having free time.

Perfectionism can be a real problem for people with a highly sensitive nervous system. They are preoccupied with making the right choice and tend to dwell on their failures and mistakes. This can lead to anxiety, making it impossible for them to turn off their minds and feel good about having free time.

How to deal with Perfectionism & Anxiety?

How can you overcome your perfectionist tendencies so that they don't prevent you from attaining success and happiness in your life? There are a lot of self-help books out there with lists of convincing bullet points on how to quit being a perfectionist and resources and procedures to utilize. But it's tough to modify a behavior that has been hard-wired in the nervous system through “cheats” that employ an analytical, language-based technique.

Why?

Because perfectionism is intricately linked with our attachment style, how we learned to relate to our caregivers in our early years, and – as a result- how we regulate and relate with ourselves via the autonomic nervous system.

The surprising relationship between Perfectionism, Anxiety and Attachment

A core component of secure attachment is feeling like we are a source of delight for our parents; before we learn how to speak, one of the five elements that must exist to encourage safe bonding is the expression of delight on their part. This happens when the parent expresses a sense of delight in the child, and the child feels they are the deepest, most meaningful thing in the parent's life.

Sensitive children feel and process things very deeply from an early age, so they may require even more of that display of delight from the parent. There's often a mismatch between the child's needs of being “delighted in” and what the parent can provide. The parent may be emotionally absent or simply doing the best they can. They often struggle with their own attachment issues in what we may see as an emotional wound that passes on from one generation to another.

The origin of perfectionism and anxiety

And so the child comes up with a clever solution to regulate themselves and to fulfill their need, going to great lengths to conform to what they think the parent wants. They monitor themselves very carefully and create impossibly high standards they hold themselves to. This push towards earning love and respect by being good enough lasts into adulthood and leads to a perfectionist, overachieving nature, but also to a fear of failure, which often leads people to not even try because they could make mistakes.

This deeply embedded idea that if you're good enough you'll finally earn the respect and love you desire is developed before we learn language, in a pre-verbal developmental stage, so you don't have words to express it, it resides in your subconscious mind, and it's tough to become fully aware of. Our subconscious is connected to bodily sensations and emotions via the autonomic nervous system, rather than language and cognition.

How to address the root cause of perfectionism and anxiety

We now understand how the bullet lists and mindset strategies can't eradicate deeply rooted emotions and bodily sensations. We need to go to the root of our wound and address that deeply human need to feel that we're a delight to the people we rely on for attachment. That we are loved just for being ourselves, not for the things we do or achieve. That is the fundamental shift that needs to happen for us to solve our perfectionist tendencies, our overachieving nature at a core, foundational level.

How do we make it happen? One of the most effective ways to heal that wound is within a long-term relationship with a secure partner. Working our way through this healing process may require focusing on the body and emotions to build new neural pathways, with the goal of letting go of the impossible standards we hold ourselves and others to, and feeling delighted in ourselves.

The Ideal Parent Protocol

Within coaching or therapy, one of the most effective healing modalities is called the Ideal Parent Protocol and it involves building an imaginative parent figure that can be accessed through visualizations. You will need to focus on emotions and bodily feelings to build new neural pathways to replace existing attachment models that don't serve you well with a new, secure, attachment model. It's important to realize that you are loved because of who you are, not because of what you do or achieve.

Where to find help for perfectionism and anxiety

If you are struggling as a sensitive and perfectionist overachiever, you can find peace by working at the nervous system level by leveraging its neuroplasticity. Perfectionism, like any habit, is a set of associated neurological pathways that have become engrained through repetition. At Heal Your Nervous System we teach people how to regulate their nervous systems, including addressing attachment wounds that lead to perfectionism and anxiety.

Conclusion

Perfectionism and anxiety are deeply connected traits that can be difficult to overcome. If you're someone who struggles with perfectionism, you likely also struggle with anxiety. However, by understanding the root cause of perfectionism and anxiety, it is possible to begin working towards changing them by working to regulate the nervous system. If you are struggling with perfectionism or anxiety, there is help available to you here at Heal Your Nervous System.

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Dr. Linnea Passaler

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About the Author

Dr. Linnea Passaler

Dr. Linnea Passaler

Dr. Linnea has dedicated 20+ years serving patients, first to a small number of individuals and then to thousands of people all over the world through digital technology. As a highly sensitive person, she understands the challenges faced by those with a sensitive nervous system and created HYNS with them in mind.