I’m a perfectionist.
It sounds like a line lifted straight out of a cover letter, but it could actually be a sign of anxiety. Perfectionism is often considered an admirable trait, which glosses over the fact that it can be self-destructive.
If you’re a perfectionist, nothing is ever good enough. It might be good—in fact, it might be very good, but if it’s not perfect, you won’t be satisfied. When you believe that nothing you produce, own or have is at an acceptable standard, it can cause problems in your personal and professional life.
Striving for perfection can fuel anxiety, which makes it harder to deal with a task at hand. This in turn can increase the anxiety: a seemingly endless cycle.
Here are 5 ways perfectionism anxiety might be holding you back, and what you can do about it.
Inability to start a task
There’s one sure-fire way to avoid the inevitable disappointment of not achieving perfection, and that’s by giving up before you begin. After all, if you don’t try, you can’t fail, right?
Of course, perfection isn’t the only marker of success. But if you’re a perfectionist, it is the ultimate marker. When you find yourself stuck and unable to start a task, you’re not able to reach your full potential.
It’s tough to change a mindset that you’ve had for years, so it helps to start small. Try asking yourself, ‘What’s the worst that could happen?’ Chances are, it’s not as bad as you think. The more you face your fears, the more capable you become.
Inability to finish a task
First off, congratulations! You’ve taken that first scary step and started a task. Now, make it your goal to finish. Not to make it perfect; just to finish.
If it sounds tough, that’s because it is. The thought of completing a task in a less-than-perfect manner can be anxiety-inducing for perfectionists. That’s why many perfectionists seem to start things but never finish them, earning them the unfair label of ‘flaky’.
If this sounds like you, you’re not flaky. You’ll just need to work towards recognising the feelings that are stopping you from finishing a task. From there, the next step is accepting that it’s okay to make mistakes: we all do it.
Taking a long time to complete a task
Picture this: you’re following a recipe that claims to take 45 minutes, from chopping the first vegetable to taking the dish out of the oven. You glance up at the clock: it’s been an hour, and the dish hasn’t even gone in the oven yet.
This could be perfectionism holding you back. Part of trying to meet impossibly high standards is double or even triple-checking your work, to be absolutely sure you’ve done it correctly. By the time you finish, it’s taken much more time than it would have otherwise.
That’s time and mental stress that could have been spent on other things, perhaps things you enjoy. Part of the challenge of overcoming perfectionism is learning to trust yourself, instead of second-guessing yourself.
Perfectionism is about achieving extremely high standards and avoiding criticism. Since this is nearly impossible to do, perfectionists may avoid certain situations where they feel compelled to be perfect. That means turning down invitations to parties, or even coffee dates with friends.
Perfection can be lonely. Not only are you missing out on good times with other people, but you may start to feel bad. It’s frustrating to be caught between the desire to do things perfectly and the desire to relax and enjoy yourself.
Overcritical in relationships
If you expect yourself to be perfect, it’s easy to transfer those standards onto other people in your life, whether they’re friends or romantic partners. And as any perfectionist knows, the weight of that level of expectation can be stifling.
If you find yourself criticising the people in your life or constantly finding fault, it could be a sign that perfectionism is holding you back in relationships. Both parties need to trust that the other won’t hold them to standards they can’t possibly meet.
Learning to relax your expectations is a learning process. While you should expect a certain standard of behaviour from the people in your life, the challenge is recognising when those standards are unfair.
Living With Perfectionism Anxiety
If you recognise yourself in any of the above examples, it can help to talk to a professional about ways you can learn to manage perfectionism so it doesn’t hold you back.
Perfectionism is often linked to mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression, and obsessive compulsive disorder. The desire to be perfect can be paralysing, making it difficult to make small decisions or complete tasks.
Talking to a professional can help give you the tools to deal with perfectionism, so you can live the life you want without the stress of feeling like it’s not good enough.