“High Standards” vs. Toxic Perfectionism
Doing your best is commendable—unless your idea of “best” translates to obsessive anxiety over “getting it perfect.” When “excellent” crosses the line into “perfectionism at all costs,” the motivator becomes a torturer. You’ve crossed your personal line if:
- Your self-image hangs on a search for complete flawlessness
- You take every criticism, however minor or unreasonable, as a devaluation of your personhood
- You’re constantly on edge with others—or the world in general—for spoiling your best efforts to make everything run smoothly
- You spend more time planning than doing—you’re afraid to learn by trial and error
- Your concentration is impaired by worries about “getting it right”
- You use alcohol or drugs to numb the pain of feeling worthless
Symptoms of Severe Anxiety
Close kin to perfectionism issues are anxiety problems. See a doctor and get evaluated for anxiety disorder (and any underlying physical conditions) if:
- You feel tense and restless allthe time, without obvious cause
- You habitually blow minor concerns out of proportion (“If I fumble a word in my presentation, my boss will blast me for incompetence, and I’ll be fired, and word will get around so no one else will ever hire me”)
- You can’t concentrate on your work due to worries about deadline or results
- You’re terrified of crowds or new experiences
- You’re developing a habit of drinking alcohol, or using other drugs, to “steady your nerves”
Some anxious people experience all-out panic attacks: shaking all over, perspiring, gasping for breath, terror that this is cardiac arrest or some other fatal emergency. In fact, panic-attack symptoms are sometimes associated with serious physical conditions, so see a doctor promptly if this happens to you.
Perfectionism and Anxiety Together
Anxiety and perfectionism not only share many symptoms: they feed on each other. If you’re prone to perfectionism, you get anxious about doing things “wrong” and being rejected and judged. If you have anxiety issues, it’s tempting to seek relief by trying to eliminate all reasons for anxiety, i.e., making everything perfect. Since perfection is humanly impossible, treating it as the one acceptable solution can only make things worse.
Perfectionism, Anxiety, and Addiction
We’ve mentioned “self-medicating” (numbing the pain with drug use) as a common symptom of both perfectionism and anxiety. At least 20 percent of people with anxiety disorders also have substance use disorder, and there’s a well-known correlation between perfectionistic thinking and addiction. Worse, once addiction develops, perfectionism and anxiety create impairments to getting help. Anxious people resist visiting doctors for fear of what might be discovered. Perfectionists feel compelled to deal with their own problems singlehandedly. Even after physical detox is completed, pride, shame, and fear assert themselves against the human support essential to lasting sobriety.
Where perfectionism and anxiety are factors in addiction, they need to be treated alongside the chemical dependence. Professional help is a vital first step. Your therapist will help you work out plans (with healthy allowances for imperfection!) to implement the following techniques into everyday life:
Accept that even if “getting everything right” were possible, it wouldn’t make your life “perfect.” Those who get the most things right are often also those most judged and criticized—unfair, but an inevitable part of life in a world where many people find it easier to tear down others than work for success themselves. Don’t let petty negativity discourage your progress.
Make a “mistake” deliberately on occasion. Seriously. In some cultures, it’s traditional to leave deliberate imperfections in finished work as a reminder that we are only human. It’s surprisingly freeing to resign from responsibility for keeping the world in order.
Nurture your individual gifts and passions. A major secret of happiness is to keep learning and growing in the purpose you were created for.
Set goals, but keep them well-defined, realistic—and limited. Well-defined goals help you avoid the trap of striving for perfection at some nebulous “everything.” Realistic goals—and goals limited to two or three at a time—help you avoid expecting the impossible of yourself.
Surround yourself with supportive friends. In addiction recovery and keeping life in perspective, an organized peer group is a major support element. So is involving your family and close friends.
Take care of your physical health. Staying fit, well-rested, and well-nourished calms anxiety and builds mental strength for sound decisions.
Be persistent, not perfectionistic. Remember that the journey is as important as the destination!
Treating the Whole Person
At Lakeside-Milam, we understand that many people battling addiction disorder have other mental health conditions. Treating anxiety disorders, perfectionistic thinking, and similar issues is essential to the stability that nurtures sobriety. So, in addition to medical detox, our support services include mental health evaluations and licensed therapy. Contact us today to learn more about how we can help you or a loved one recover!