Perfection anxiety – A modern curse
Written by Psychologist & Author Linda Blair
Outward appearance: All smiles. Made up, manicured and coiffed beautifully. Flawlessly dressed. Determined to win every time.
Inward feelings: Exhaustion and anxiety. Haunted by a fear of inadequacy and failure.
Sound familiar? If so, that wouldn’t be surprising. Perfection anxiety, a curse of modern Western living, appears to be on the rise, particularly among working women, and with it come higher rates of depression and eating disorders. The reason for this new malaise is, I believe, that we’ve begun to rely too heavily on the ‘two V’s’—the visual and the virtual.
Human beings have traditionally used all five senses–and even more importantly, emotional sensitivity–to understand our world and to know our place in it. Nowadays, however, we’ve come to rely almost exclusively on what we see.
Furthermore, most of what we look at is virtual rather than actual. Now, instead of comparing ourselves to friends and family, we’re more likely to look online, on TV and in the Press. Generally, the images we encounter there, and the stories told about them, have been enhanced and altered so that the individuals appear perfect. Compared with such (unnatural) lives, we feel flawed and inadequate, and the reaction of many is to start setting impossibly high standards.
How can you tell if you’re at risk, and what can you do to help yourself if you suffer from perfection anxiety?
The Warning Signs of Perfection Anxiety
1. You continually set higher and higher standards for yourself
2. You evaluate your performance simply: either you’re perfect or you’ve failed
3. You’re much more critical of yourself than you are of others
4. You ruminate on past (perceived) failures
5. You worry incessantly about things getting ‘out of control’
6. You have difficulty delegating, and even when you do, you often go back and ‘redo’ the task once someone else has completed it
7. You suffer from exhaustion most of the time
If five or more of these statements apply to you, it’s likely that you’re suffering from perfection anxiety. If so, what can you do to help yourself?
Here are five suggestions for how to manage perfection anxiety:
1. Be on the lookout for ‘shoulds’. Whenever you say that you ‘should’ do something, chances are high that you’re trying to please other people rather than yourself. Try to spend more time doing what you say that you ‘love’ or ‘really enjoy’ doing, rather than what you ‘should’ do.
2. Try the Best Friend Test. When you set yourself a goal, before you start trying to achieve it, ask yourself, ‘Would I ask this of my best friend? If not, what would be a more reasonable goal to set for him or her?’ Then realign your goal.
3. Try the Time Test. When you set yourself what feels like a daunting challenge, ask yourself, ‘In five years’ time, how important will it seem that I managed this?’ If it will be unimportant, think carefully about whether you need to set yourself this challenge.
4. Start praising your efforts, much more so than your outcomes.
5. Spend more time in actual contact with people you care about. For example, arrange to meet a friend for lunch or for a drink after work, at least once a week.