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Perfectionism & Anxiety

Perfectionism & Anxiety

by Sharryn Muir, Psychologist

A reasonably high number of clients I see in private practice who suffer anxiety are perfectionists, or strive to obtain perfect outcomes in their work, home, study or relaxation!! tasks. Expectations on oneself are typically unrealistically high, producing standards to be met that can far exceed the time, energy or capabilities of that person. Distorted ways of thinking typically underlie perfectionistic behaviour. These include thoughts such as 'I will be judged negatively if it is not perfect', 'I will lose control (of my life) if I don't keep things in perfect order (such as domestic organisation and cleaning), and I couldn't cope with any level of disorder', and 'If I don't maintain high levels of order I might slip down, down, down into disorder and not care at all anymore'.

As you can see from these examples of the way perfectionists think, they can highly value order and control. Optimum outcomes are what perfectionists typically strive for, at any cost. The cost I'm particularly interested in involves psychological well being, particularly anxiety, however there are potentially many costs including the impact this behaviour has on interpersonal relationships, poor work performance (the exact opposite to what the perfectionist desires!) and feelings of hopelessness and failure when unrealistically high standards are not met.

The relationship between perfectionism and anxiety is often not clear to the person who attends my consulting rooms. They typically attend because they are anxious, but often do not call it anxiety or even know they are anxious. I don't ever recall someone presenting saying they are a perfectionist and want to change that! I believe there are two main reasons for this. Firstly, high achievement is praised in our culture, and it seems logical to infer that if you aim really high (perfectionism) you will get a perfect or close to perfect outcome and will be praised. Secondly, perfectionists rarely recognise themselves the potentially debilitating effects of this trait. It is usually during the course of therapy that perfectionism is identified and addressed.

So why can perfectionism be a problem? Well, there is definitely nothing wrong with striving for a good or even excellent outcome. This can be highly desirable for multiple reasons. It is the associated anxiety that is the real problem. The 'what if' it is not good enough, 'what if' I'm judged negatively and so on that I mentioned earlier. The anxiety produced by these ways of thinking can lead to anxiety's best friend, avoidance. They are very frequently seen together, causing upset for the owner!

Avoidance is so frequently seen with anxiety because it offers temporary relief from the yucky feeling anxiety produces. The relief is only temporary though, and the anxiety always returns, often stronger because it is now mixed with guilt. An example of this would be a student 'putting off' a piece of work for fear that it is going to be too difficult, and time consuming because their expectations of the quality they would like it to be are exceptionally and unrealistically high. Avoidance, or 'putting off' a task can manifest in many different ways. Some people might tidy the house, read the newspaper, go shopping, answer emails, surf the net, or sort files on the computer, and that's just a few examples!

Secondary problems can then develop in the person's life, such as poor work performance because tasks are not completed (or even started) or are late. A preferable alternative involves setting more realistic standards of performance. When standards are realistic, meaning more moderate rather than unrealistically high, anxiety levels will tend to be lower. In addition to this, perfectionists really do need to assess the likelihood of being judged for 'less than perfect' performance. For example, a useful question to ask oneself is "how likely is it that my co-workers will judge me as dumb, lazy, slack, unintelligent, stupid, etc if I produce a 'good enough piece of work' that is not perfect." If someone suspects they might be judged, it is wise to ask oneself "does it really matter if someone does not think it is an outstanding performance?" Or "Is it worth the effort to produce a brilliant piece of work to try to ensure I won't be judged?"

A further consideration involves the actual relationship between striving for perfection and achieving it. Occasionally, and I repeat occasionally, a perfectionist might attain what is viewed to be a brilliant or perfect product, after they have experienced excessive amounts of anxiety, engaged in lengthy avoidance and had multiple sleepless nights. Regardless of the process they went through, the feelings that are produced by attaining perfection are so good, they strive to attain them again. It's like a reward. However, perfectionists frequently report that they sometimes produce a brilliant outcome 'when they didn't even try'. Or that they produced a 'good enough' piece of work with no adverse repercussions. So producing 'perfection' is only one approach to life, and definitely not one that I advocate. One of my favourite terms as a therapist would have to be 'good enough'. Producing 'good enough' outcomes can involve moderate levels of anxiety, but this is adaptive as moderate levels can help us focus, think clearly, motivate us to start, do, and complete a task without fear.

Sharryn Muir is a Clinical Psychologist currently in private practice in the northern suburbs of Melbourne. She is the co-director of her practice called 'Centre for Psychological & Relationship Counselling', with Jane Gierlicz. Both Jane and Sharryn have provided public talks on anxiety for ADAVIC, and both have extensive experience and skills working with people with anxiety disorders.

They can be contacted on 9416 9888 or visit their website at www.psychcentre.org

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