Sports Performance Anxiety Articles

Why Perfectionism And Anxiety Go Hand-In-Hand

Eli Straw
Why Perfectionism And Anxiety Go Hand-In-Hand

Struggling with either perfectionism or anxiety is terrible. On their own, each of these leads to drops in self-confidence, negative self-talk, reduced performance, and increases your risk of depression.

There is nothing easy about dealing with perfectionism or anxiety by themselves. What’s even worse is they are seldom alone in your mind.

Chances are, one will accompany the other. Causing you to not only face the negative effects of either perfectionism or anxiety but deal with both simultaneously.

Looking deeper into the causes and effects of both perfectionism and anxiety reveals how truly connected the two are. It’s almost as if there cannot be one without the other. What this means is, perfectionism and anxiety are both a cause and effect of each other.

Just how these two impact one another is what we will uncover through this article. But don’t worry, I won’t leave you with just that. At the end, you’ll discover a way you can reduce the impact of both perfectionism and anxiety on your life.

How Perfectionism Fuels Anxiety

Let’s begin by examining just how perfectionism drives anxious thoughts and feelings.

Anxiety is a terrible state to find yourself in. The reason I call it a state is because that’s truly what it is. You experience worrisome thoughts, which lead to nervous and anxious feelings, all culminating in a state we describe as anxiety.

One key factor regarding anxiety is the concern we develop over the future. There is no anxiety in the current moment. In fact, pause for a moment and ask yourself this question, “Do I have anything to be anxious about right now?”

I guarantee the answer is no! Why? Because anxiety lives in the future by definition. To feel anxious means you are concerned with what may happen or how a situation will turn out. There is no anxiety in the present moment.

Okay, but what does that have to do with perfectionism?

Well, the reason perfectionism is such a huge driving factor for anxiety is due to the concerns we develop over not being perfect. Not only that but when we fail to be perfect (which is all the time as a perfectionist) intensely negative thoughts and feelings are experienced.

As a result, anxiety grows within you. Let’s take a closer look at some of the main reasons perfectionism fuels anxiety.

Outcome Oriented Thinking

Focusing on the outcome, whether it be the outcome of a performance, a project, a test, a meeting, or anything else is a one-way ticket to anxiety.

I already said anxiety thrives off concerns about the future. Well, where does the outcome live? It belongs to the future. By spending your time worrying about what the result will be, you are welcoming anxiety into your life.

Outcome-oriented thinking is a key attribute of perfectionism. Our desire is to be perfect, requiring us to hold onto an ideal outcome that will mean we attained such perfection.

Funny enough, rarely do we spend our time focusing on the outcome in a positive way either. The majority of this type of thinking centers around hoping not to fail.

The more we spend our time focused on the outcome, especially out of fear of the outcome not being what we desire, the greater anxiety will grow within our minds.

Never Feeling Good Enough

Another key attribute of perfectionism is the evil little fact that you will never feel good enough.

When I find myself beginning to adopt perfectionist thinking (which happens more often than I would like to admit) never feeling good enough is a constant.

The reason this type of thinking develops has to do with the unattainability of perfectionism. You see, as a perfectionist, we have this sick desire to be perfect, yet an accompanying belief that there is more we can do.

If there is always something else to be accomplished, or a better stat to be achieved, do you think you will ever feel perfect? No, and that is the sad truth of being a perfectionist.

Never feeling good enough contributes to anxiety in two ways. One, it leads to anxious thoughts about wanting to finally attain perfection. You still hold onto the belief that somehow, someway, you should be perfect.

The longer this belief lives on in your mind, the more anxiety will grow around the feelings of never reaching such a level. And two, never feeling good enough eats away at our self-confidence.

Feeling confident is a crucial piece to the puzzle of success. No matter what sport you play or profession you are in, believing in yourself is vital. Yet, the more you see yourself as not good enough, the less confidence you bring to each day.

Confidence and anxiety are inversely related. As your confidence drops, anxiety grows out of worry regarding your ability to be successful that day.

"Feeling confident is a crucial piece to the puzzle of success. No matter what sport you play or profession you are in, believing in yourself is vital. Yet, the more you see yourself as not good enough, the less confidence you bring to each day."

Perfectionism Leads To Fearful Thoughts

Now, there are a couple of ways that perfectionism contributes to the development of fear, specifically the fear of failure. One has to do with the effects not being perfect has on your mind, while the other deals with the fear of not reaching your goals.

Both equally lead to the development and prolonged experience of anxiety.

The more you fall short of perfection, the more your self-confidence drops. Not only that, but a voice also starts to form within your mind.

This pesky voice whispers into your ear, telling you things like, how terrible you are and how, of course, you didn’t reach perfection, how dare you even think such success was possible for you!

The longer this voice sticks around, the worse you feel about yourself. Now you begin to grow fearful of finding yourself in a situation that gets this voice talking. Out of fear comes anxiety, since you then grow worried and anxious about what you fear happening.

On the other hand, fear surrounds the possibility of you not reaching your goals. Of course, we all wish to achieve our goals, but as a perfectionist, the consequences of not doing so are severe.

So, you become worried and fearful of how terrible you will feel if you fail to hit that mark you’ve set for yourself. Just as fearing the consequences leads to anxiety, fearing the possibility of failure equally fuels a state of anxiety.

How Anxiety Leads To Perfectionism

We now know perfectionism fuels anxiety due to our focus drifting into the future. Whether that be onto the outcome or centered around the fear of what will happen if we are to fail, anxiety begins to form.

But I said anxiety is not only an effect of perfectionism, but also a contributing factor. So how is it that anxiety, which stems out of perfectionist concerns over the future, is actually a cause of perfectionism in the first place?

Well, it’s a tricky question of which came first, the chicken or the egg. But, one thing is for certain, anxiety leads to perfectionism due to a twisted coping mechanism adopted by our minds.

Will Being Perfect Save Me From Anxiety?

By reading over the first part of this article, it becomes quite evident that perfectionism is a direct cause of anxiety. So why is it that our minds believe being perfect could actually save us from experiencing further anxiety?

One of the reasons is that we often grow anxious due to fear. Fear of failure, specifically, is a leading cause of anxiety among athletes and performers. Even if you don’t fall into one of these categories, fear of failure can still take hold of you.

What happens is, you begin to grow fearful over what may happen if you are to fail. This can result from a few different worries, such as concerns over how others will respond to your failure, and the negative impact it could have on your future plans.

As fear of failure sets in, it’s only natural that anxiety is not far behind. You see, our mind’s response, when we become fearful, is to seek control. Such control seems to be gained through continuous anxious thoughts surrounding the situation.

Now, as we grow anxious, and control over the outcome is desired more and more, perfectionism begins to find its way into our heads.

We tend to think the more we strive for perfection, the less chance we have of failing. While this may seem logical, we now know thinking in such a way only leads to further feelings of anxiety, and a greater likelihood of failing.

Through fear, and out of a desperate desire to control, anxiety fuels perfectionism. Since being perfect seems to be the only way to save ourselves from failing, and reduce the anxiety we currently have.

"We tend to think the more we strive for perfection, the less chance we have of failing. While this may seem logical, we now know thinking in such a way only leads to further feelings of anxiety, and a greater likelihood of failing."

The Secret To Reducing Anxiety & Perfectionism

I told you I wouldn’t leave you with only an explanation of how these two are both causes and effects of one another. Understanding why you have perfectionism, or why anxiety is ruling your life is one thing, but actually making a change is a whole different story.

We now know that perfectionism leads to anxiety due to constant worries and concerns over not being perfect, never feeling good enough, and fear of the negative thoughts and feelings perfectionism causes.

It has also become known that anxiety worsens perfectionism since we start to believe the more we strive for perfection, the less anxiety and fear will be present. However, working towards an unattainable ideal of perfection only worsens the anxiety we feel.

Out of all this information, what can we do to actually reduce the severity of perfectionism and anxiety we feel?

Well, it’s not as easy as a simple explanation, as both of these are patterns of thought which have become embedded within our minds. For myself, the work done to overcome anxiety and perfectionism is a continuous process.

As it should be for you as well. Situations continue to arise that drive this type of thinking, leading to a constant effort on our parts to defend against their intrusive nature.

While the process is ongoing as we progressively work to build a strong mindset, one that is impenetrable to the effects of anxiety and perfectionism, there’s a trick you can use in the moment to immediately reduce their impact.

The trick is to center your attention onto the present moment.

How Becoming Present Is The Key To Reducing Anxiety & Perfectionism In The Moment

Anxiety lives in the future, and perfectionism thrives off outcome-oriented thinking. So, it seems to be a natural defense mechanism to center our attention onto the present moment.

What this does is eliminate many of the distracting thoughts fueling feelings of anxiety and the need to be perfect. If our mind is focused on the here and now, how can it drift into the future?

If you can get really good at bringing your awareness into the present, you will be amazed at how little anxiety and perfectionism you feel!

But, this can be incredibly difficult, especially when it seems as though the thoughts you have are increasingly powerful, unyielding to your efforts. In that case, there are two ways you can build the strength needed to wrangle in these intrusive thoughts.

One is going to be a continual practice of mindfulness. Mindfulness trains your mind in the skill of being present. The more you practice, the greater your ability to focus your attention in the here and now will be.

The second is an in-the-moment trick you can use. This holds especially true if you are an athlete or performer. Pick out something within the process of your performance to focus on. But be careful, you must be sure what you choose is within your control.

For example, choose to focus on your breath or even your routine instead of the outcome of a play or the game. By bringing your awareness onto the process, you will be reducing the impact of the thoughts driving anxiety and perfectionism.

"Anxiety lives in the future, and perfectionism thrives off outcome-oriented thinking. So, it seems to be a natural defense mechanism to center our attention onto the present moment."

Final Thoughts

Perfectionism and anxiety both prey heavily on the mind. Allow them to stick around long enough, and they will wreak havoc on your life and performances.

What’s worse is, neither one seems to come independently of the other.

If you are experiencing perfectionism, it’s only a matter of time before anxiety creeps into your life, and vice versa. Each one is a cause and effect of the other. This is why, when you notice either one, you must begin taking action to build your mind in defense.

By focusing on the present moment, the effects of both perfectionism and anxiety are reduced. This is not easy, but through the application of a mindfulness practice and focusing on the process, such a state can be accomplished.

If you are struggling with either perfectionism or anxiety and want a faster, more direct approach to improving, one-on-one mental performance coaching can help. Click here to learn all the benefits you will gain by utilizing a mental performance coach!

I hope you enjoyed this article, and if you did, please feel free to share it with your friends.

If you have any questions, do not hesitate to contact me.

Thank you for reading and I wish you the best of success in all that you do.

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Eli Straw

Eli is a sport psychology consultant and mental game coach who works 1-1 with athletes to help them improve their mental skills and overcome any mental barriers keeping them from performing their best. He has an M.S. in psychology and his mission is to help athletes and performers reach their goals through the use of sport psychology & mental training.

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