Why perfection increases anxiety, making it the number one enemy of a simple and satisfying life
Anxiety and perfection - Why the one exaggerates the other, and how perfection is the enemy of progress
The dictionary defines perfection as: “the action or process of improving something until it is faultless”. What the dictionary doesn’t add is that perfection, or the search for perfection, can lead to anxiety and even depression.
Why is perfection the enemy?
Perfection, or the search therefore, can be a stalling technique, a way of hiding behind your fears, an excuse to procrastinate, and even worse – a reason to spend resources that you cannot afford to spend. And all of these things can make you anxious, especially if you are already prone to anxiety or worrying. Let me explain. I want to write the perfect blog post. I sit down, and start thinking of a concept or a rough framework. I jot down a few keywords and start thinking about the structure and flow of the post. Now I need to actually write it, but I can’t because for the life of me I cannot think of the perfect sentence to start the post with. I jump to the second part, the body. Nothing that is good enough for the post. After countless minutes that feels like hours, I decide to Google a few ideas as inspiration. More countless minutes pass with me fruitlessly reading up on topics that do not interest me, without getting not even one light bulb moment. Now I start to worry. I need to write this post, it needs to go out. If I don’t write it, I will not have stuck to my posting schedule, and that to me is failure. I cannot feel like a failure, so I need to get something out. That feeling of doom and gloom is rising in my chest. I am starting to feel a bit overwhelmed. Thinking about the problem makes me feel even more overwhelmed. When I get overwhelmed, it feels like the world is spinning around me and I cannot find my feet. I am being pushed from one side to the other with no way of getting it to stop. Now there is no way that I can get anything out of any value, and all because that initial perfect sentence escaped me.
If you suffer from anxiety, even if you are by nature a high strung person, then you will know how exhausting it can be both physically and emotionally. To worry about something that most people won’t even consider a problem, or notice, is very difficult. How do you explain to them why is it bothering you? And how do you get over the fact that you cannot get over it? Again, searching for perfection while knowing that you will never find it.
I am an anxious person
I am by nature an anxious person. I come from a long line of worriers, and we tend to blow things out of proportion and then freak out because we cannot handle it. Yeah I know, and I am human-enough to admit it. I feel sorry for my husband, and try to hide it from my kids as I do not want to intentionally pass this on to them. I also have insignificant things that bother me, so badly that I cannot really function or pay attention to anything else until it has been fixed. For example, the volume of the radio or television need to be at specific intervals. You cannot have the volume on 11 or 9, it needs to be on 8 or 12 or 15. I don’t care if you cannot hear or if it is too loud, that is where it needs to be. Open cupboard doors. Just close them! Want me off the rails? Have a door bang, or a tap drip, or a window repeatedly creak. You will drive me nuts. I will not label myself as having an anxiety disorder, merely out of fear that the general public will associate people with a few quirks like mine with a severe mental disorder. Yes I do have mild anxiety, but there are people out there who desperately need your help and support, and they need the actual attention.
So what is anxiety?
Anxiety is actually a term that groups together a few mental health disorders. Each anxiety disorder has its own specific set of symptoms, although it is possible to experience more than one type of anxiety at the same time.
Anxiety.org defines anxiety as
“Anxiety disorders are characterized by a general feature of excessive fear (i.e. emotional response to perceived or real threat) and/or anxiety (i.e. worrying about a future threat) and can have negative behavioral and emotional consequences. Obsessive-compulsive and related disorders are characterized by obsessive, intrusive thoughts (e.g., constantly worrying about staying clean, or about one's body size) that trigger related, compulsive behaviors (e.g. repeated hand-washing, or excessive exercise). These behaviors are performed to alleviate the anxiety associated with the obsessive thoughts. Trauma- and stressor- related anxiety disorders are related to the experience of a trauma (e.g., unexpected death of a loved one, a car accident, or a violent incident) or stressor (e.g., divorce, beginning college, moving)”.
Experiencing angst, or trepidation, in certain situations is normal and natural, especially when the feeling triggers our “fight or flight” response. Our instincts and emotions have evolved in this way in order to keep us safe and alive. But, sometimes, these feelings of dread or fear can become exaggerated and out of proportion to the reality (and likelihood) of the threat. If this happens, and interferes with your day-to-day functioning, you might have an anxiety disorder.
Types of anxiety:
Common types of anxiety disorders include:
· generalised anxiety disorder (GAD)
· social phobia
· specific phobias
· obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)
· panic disorder
· separation anxiety disorder
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is sometimes classified as a type of anxiety disorder.
Other types of anxiety disorders include:
· substance/medication-induced anxiety disorder
· anxiety disorder due to a medical condition
· selective mutism
What causes anxiety?
Scientists are still discovering more about anxiety. They think a combination of factors contribute to the development of an anxiety disorder, and these factors can be biological (genetics, hormones, brain chemistry, etc.), personality driven, in your genes, situations or life events, long-term stress, or any combination of these and more. Anxiety can be a normal reaction to a situation, and each person will respond differently to biological, environmental, social or psychological triggers.
Some of the factors:
Family history (genetics)
A history of mental health issues in your family may increase your likelihood of developing anxiety. There’s also a possibility that we can ‘learn’ anxious responses from family members. Family history does not necessarily mean you will develop anxiety but it can be a contributing factor.
Persistent worries associated with chronic health problems, work issues, finances and family conflicts can be associated with developing anxiety. This is why self care is so important
Biochemical factors (brain chemistry)
Neurotransmitters are chemicals that carry signals from one part of the brain to the next. In people who experience an anxiety disorder, the mood regulating neurotransmitters may not function normally.
Pregnancy and childbirth
We often hear about ‘baby blues’ or postnatal depression. Anxiety during and after pregnancy is very common too.
Medical problems or deficiencies
Some medical conditions can contribute to anxiety, such as heart disease, diabetes and thyroid problems. Magnesium and other nutrient deficiencies may also play a part.
Events that cause considerable distress, such as witnessing a death or accident, earthquakes, severe storms, fires, sexual abuse and violence, can contribute to anxiety.
Some personality types are thought to be more likely to develop anxiety. These include perfectionist, sensitive and shy personalities, or people with low self-esteem. Sometimes, high achievers or ‘alpha’ people can develop anxiety.
Use of drugs and medications such as cannabis, alcohol and sedatives can trigger anxiety. Withdrawal from such substances can contribute to anxiety too.
Anxiety can occur at the same time as other mental health problems
We can experience more than one anxiety disorder or other mental health issue at the same time. This is also called a ‘co-condition’ or ‘comorbidity’. For example, someone with generalised anxiety disorder can also have depression at the same time. This happens quite often. It’s always important to seek help from your medical practitioner so they can give you a thorough health check and the best advice.
What are the symptoms of anxiety?
When we're very anxious, we have intense feelings of worry or distress that are not easy to control. Anxiety can interfere with how we go about our everyday lives, and make it hard to cope with 'normal' challenges. The symptoms that anxiety sufferers experience can stop them from leading a normal life, as they can become all-consuming. The constant and repetitive thoughts and feelings of worry and dread can take over, making the sufferer feel overwhelmed, unable to fall asleep, exhausted, and prone to avoiding social situations.
How they might be feeling:
· very worried or afraid most of the time
· tense and on edge
· nervous or scared
· irritable, agitated
· worried you're going crazy
· detached from your body
· feeling like you may vomit
What they may be thinking:
· 'everything's going to go wrong'
· 'I might die'
· 'I can't handle the way I feel'
· 'I can't focus on anything but my worries'
· 'I don't want to go out today'
· 'I can't calm myself down'
What they may also be experiencing:
· sleep problems (can't get to sleep, wake often)
· pounding heart
· 'pins and needles'
· tummy aches, churning stomach
· lightheadedness, dizziness
· twitches, trembling
· problems concentrating
· excessive thirst
When you experience severe anxiety, the symptoms might make you think you are having another health problem or medical emergency. Severe anxiety can cause chest pain, dizziness, rashes, a very fast heartbeat – you can literally feel like you are having a heart attack. Being anxious can also sharpen our awareness of our usual aches and pains, making us hyper-aware, and can quickly snowball into feeling even more anxious, even if only because of a “made-up” or self-perceived problem that is not backed by medical facts.
Always seek help from a health professional. They can rule out any other medical concerns for you and help you treat your anxiety disorder.
How can I treat my anxiety?
Although a relatively new medical diagnosis, there is already many treatments for anxiety and the related disorders. One of the most effective treatments is cognitive behavioral therapy combined with relaxation techniques. Medication can also be prescribed. As with depression, there is no quick-fix like “just get over it” or “just stop worrying”, but there are things that you can teach yourself or start doing to help alleviate your symptoms. Often, sufferers find it is the combination of tools, treatments and techniques that make them feel better, such as:
· a well-informed health professional you feel comfortable talking to
· the right psychological and medical therapies
· support from family and friends
· exercising and healthy eating
· learning ways to manage challenges and stress, such as structured problem solving, meditation and yoga
But there is also good news!
Just as there are risk factors for anxiety, researchers tell us there are also some factors that may protect us from developing anxiety, such as our level of social support and your coping style.
Having a strong inner-circle of friends and family whom you can turn to for advice, support and understanding can “protect” you from developing anxiety.
This is the way we frame our behaviour and thoughts according to the challenging demands we encounter, and is a learned behaviour as much as it can be personality driven. We can teach ourselves to handle events and situations better. For some, it might help to break the situation down into more manageable and rational parts. For others, you might cope better by talking to someone. Exercise is another great way of handling and working through stress. If you struggle with even slight anxiety, my advice would be to go see someone who can assist you in developing healthier coping mechanisms.
Perfection. I believe it was Voltaire who said that “The best is the enemy of the good.” And Confucius said, “Better a diamond with a flaw than a pebble without.” These words of wisdom sums up perfectly what I myself struggle with – stop fretting over whether or not it is good enough, you are only making yourself anxious and miserable. Sometimes, actually most of the time, done is best.