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How Perfectionism Increases Anxiety and Procrastination 

7 negative outcomes of perfectionism.

Key points

  • The essence of perfectionism is the illusion that nothing has value unless it’s perfect.
  • Social media can spike perfectionism by flooding you with deceitful representations of others' appearance, accomplishments, or lifestyle.
  • Steps to limit perfectionism include rewarding yourself, holding fast to deadlines, and unplugging from social media.
 Elisa Ventur/Unsplash
Source: Elisa Ventur/Unsplash

An artist who struggled with perfectionism contacted me for a consultation. He explained that he had been working in his studio for many years, creating sculptures and paintings. On rare occasions when he allowed others to see his work, they were amazed by the beauty of his creations. Still, he refused to share his art in public.

“It’s not perfect!” he explained, his bloodshot eyes wide with exasperation. "If something isn’t perfect, I simply cannot let the world see it.”

Why was he in my psychotherapy office? He had crippling anxiety, trouble sleeping, headaches, backaches, obsessive thoughts, and rages. He had recently taken a sledgehammer and destroyed a sculpture he had lovingly labored over for more than six months.

The artist's struggle illustrates the potentially devastating effects of perfectionism.

The Adverse Effects of Perfectionism

Perfection may seem noble, but it can do more damage than good when pursued obsessively. Let’s take a look at seven possible tragic outcomes of perfectionism.

  1. Stress: Striving for perfection creates enormous psychic pressure that can trigger psychosomatic symptoms such as chronic fatigue, anxiety, and restlessness.
  2. Procrastination: Deadlines come and go; nothing ever feels good enough. You fail to complete projects; you’re never content with your work. Eventually, if satisfaction remains elusive, you may abandon your efforts entirely.
  3. Disappointment: Your self-esteem takes a big hit with so many incomplete tasks and critical thoughts. You rarely experience the esteem-boosting burst of satisfaction and pride that comes with a well-done job.
  4. Self-critical thoughts: You fault yourself relentlessly. Chronic self-criticism fuels anxiety and hopelessness.
  5. Compare and despair: You negatively compare yourself to others. In your mind, you’re always the outlier or underdog who never gets acknowledged. You long for praise and attention yet remain in the shadows.
  6. Less creativity: It’s difficult, if not impossible, to be creative in a hostile environment— especially if the prime source of negativity comes from your internal critics. Over time, creativity is avoided because it feels unrewarding and too painful to pursue.
  7. Lower ambition: Completed tasks and accomplishments fuel ambition, passion, and inspiration. Unfortunately, perfectionism drains such aspirations.

Breaking Free of Perfectionism

The essence of perfectionism is the illusion that nothing has value unless it’s perfect. Try these simple steps to break free of the chains of perfectionism and the illusion that perfection is your only goal.

  • Unplug. Consuming media can fill your head with unrealistic expectations of how you should look, how wealthy you should be, where you should live, etc. A whole world of “shoulds” will negatively impact your body image, mood, and integrity.
  • Hold fast to deadlines. Skipping deadlines can have a devastating effect on your sense of self. Once you set a realistic deadline, do your best to meet it.
  • Reward yourself. Go ahead, celebrate your wins, and treat yourself to something special.
  • Embrace imperfection. Mistakes are frequently better than our original intent. Give yourself the flexibility and freedom to explore without the goal of perfection.
  • Read biographies. Many biographies tell the story of highly successful people who experienced rejection, criticism, and failure for many years. Bottom line: Mistakes and failures are part of the process of success.
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