Anxiety manifests itself in many forms. Phobias, social anxiety, panic disorder, and even obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) are commonly categorized under the umbrella of anxiety. There is, however, another emerging diagnostic disorder with which I have personally become familiar with in recent years: perfectionism.
Perfectionism plays a major role in a variety of psychological disorders. Despite an abundance of research, there is still no concrete definition of what it is. Perfectionism can be characterized by excessive concern over making mistakes, high personal standards, the perception of high parental/employer expectations, doubting quality of one’s actions, and a preference for order and organization. From afar, it may not seem so harmful, but it can interfere with routines, everyday interactions, and emotional regulation.
I didn’t recognize the severity of perfectionism that I experienced until my junior year of college. I sat in a lecture focused on the difference between being outcome-oriented and task-oriented. The professor explained that outcome-oriented people feel the need to seek approval from others. They are in constant need of validation and often set extreme goals that are not achievable. Task oriented people were those who live in the present, set realistic goals, and do not rely on the approval of others for their success. As I considered these opposing mindsets, it was apparent that I resembled the first; I panicked at the thought of future failure, set practically impossible goals for myself, and sought success from the approval of others.
What then, is the relationship between an outcome-oriented mindset and perfectionism? Outcome-oriented individuals spend little time living in the present. Instead, they are focused on future outcomes or past failures. Performance psychologist Craig Manning teaches that anxiety comes from living in the future. When our thoughts are constantly centered on future events where we are expected to perform, our anxiety spikes. It turns out that agonizing over the past doesn’t help much either. As we set our focus on past failures or mistakes, our confidence in our ability to perform in the future decreases, again leading to high anxiety levels pointed toward future performance.
Although perfectionism isn’t notably linked with the outcome-oriented mindset in psychological literature, the connection that I drew between the two was the spark that ignited my path towards empowerment. While my tendencies toward perfectionist symptoms are deeply rooted in past experiences, there is so much that I, and others who experience perfectionism, can do right now to lower the anxious feelings and constant stress.
First, we can work on setting realistic expectations. Growing up, I relied on the expectations of others to guide the expectations I held for myself. This is normal as we are learning and growing, but eventually, we should begin to set our own expectations and determinants for success. Setting realistic expectations requires that we consider our strengths and limitations. In recognizing what we can do, we also acknowledge room for error, improvement, and learning. People who experience high volumes of perfectionism often perceive that others have extreme goals and expectations for their behavior. Setting our own expectations draws attention away from others’ expectations for us and towards the expectations we set for ourselves. Although difficult, learning to set realistic expectations allows us to worry less about others and spend more time living in the present.
Another tool we can use to calm anxious perfectionism is proactive self talk. Proactive self talk is a popular practice in performance psychology. It includes using proactive language, recognizing skills, and being aware of our thought patterns. Many athletes and teams use proactive self talk to improve sports performance, but its effects extend past the arena or stadium. Proactive self talk has actually been proven to lower levels of anxiety when performing under pressure. For perfectionists, proactive self talk becomes a tool that instills confidence in concrete skills and actions that enhance their performance. The fear of inability shifts to a confidence in individual ability.
These practices are just a couple of methods that can lower the anxieties that accompany perfectionism. Personally, I have been empowered through a balance of professional therapy, diet and exercise, and research-informed practices. Don’t be afraid to reach out to a professional for assistance; they have resources and training that can link you with the help you need!
Although my struggle with perfectionism hasn’t been easy, I have learned more compassion– both for myself, and for others. I have learned that it is empowering to speak out about my experiences and encourage others to share theirs. Most importantly, I have learned that there is help and there is hope for everyone experiencing mental illness.
Lydia Judd is a senior at Brigham Young University studying psychology. She lives in Dallas, TX with her husband where she works as an RBT at Blue Sprig Pediatrics.
Frost, R.O., Marten, P., Lahart, C. et al. Cogn Ther Res (1990) 14: 449. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF01172967
Hatzigeorgiadis, A., Zourbanos, N., Mpoumpaki, S., & Theodorakis, Y. (2009). Mechanisms underlying the self-talk–performance relationship: The effects of motivational self-talk on self-confidence and anxiety. Psychology of Sport and exercise, 10(1), 186-192
Hewitt, P. L., & Flett, G. L. (1996). The multidimensional perfectionism scale. Toronto: Multi-Health Systems Inc.
Manning, C. (2017). The fearless mind: 5 essential steps to higher performance. Springville, UT: CFI.