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The Link Between Perfectionism and Anxiety

Brad Wayland

November 2020 - Everyone knows at least one perfectionist. They’re hyper-critical of their own work, almost to a fault. And according to a growing body of research, there’s a good chance they also suffer from an anxiety disorder. The very nature of a perfectionist makes them particularly susceptible to the illness. Here’s what can be done about it.

On the surface, perfectionism doesn’t seem like such a bad thing. It keeps you focused and motivated. It also helps you consistently produce work of the highest quality.

On the other hand, it also has the potential to wear significantly on one’s psyche. The impossibly-high standards perfectionists set for themselves can lead to a distorted sense of self-worth, in addition to high levels of stress. And that, in turn, can easily spiral into an anxiety disorder.

It’s not just anxiety, either. Perfectionism has been linked to numerous other mental illnesses in medical research, including bipolar disorder, severe depression, and even suicidal ideation. In other words, if you’re a perfectionist and let your tendencies control you, they can literally kill you.

Worse still, there’s evidence that being a perfectionist doesn’t even afford you a significant advantage over non-perfectionists in the workplace. Per the Harvard Business Review:

"Our results showed that performance and perfectionism were not related to each other - perfectionists are not better or worse performers than non-perfectionists. Even employees high in excellence-seeking perfectionism were not better performers...taken as a whole, our results indicate that perfectionism is likely, not constructive at work."

Scaling back on toxic perfectionism and setting healthy boundaries for yourself starts with understanding the source of your behavior. As noted in health publication medical news today - which itself cited a landmark psychological work published several decades ago - there are three primary sources of perfectionism. These are:

  • Self-oriented. You hold unrealistic expectations for yourself and are extremely critical of your own work. This could be caused by a negative experience at some point in your life, or simply a series of habits developed over time and linked to mental illness.
  • Socially-prescribed. You believe that your peers are extremely critical and that you must be perfect in order to gain their approval.
  • Other-oriented. You set impossibly high standards for the people around you. This form of perfectionism isn’t exactly relevant to our discussion here, though it can occasionally overlap with one of the other two.

Positive self-talk is the second step in overcoming toxic perfectionism. Understanding how your own tendencies manifest will help you structure it in the right way. Whenever a toxic belief or thought manifests in your mind, counter it with a positive one.

In other words, be compassionate towards yourself. Understand that your self-worth is not tied to your performance in the workplace or your ability to turn out flawless work. You have value as a person beyond your output.

And if self-talk alone isn’t enough to help you, know that there’s no shame in seeking help from a trained professional. Everyone could use therapy now and then.

About the Author

Brad Wayland is the Chief Strategy Officer at BlueCotton, a site with high-quality, easy-to-design custom t-shirts.

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