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  • Writer's picturePiper Harris

Unraveling the Ties of Anxious Perfectionism: A Journey Towards Self-Compassion



Many of us carry an inner voice – a strict auditor of every step we take or don't take. The idea that to be 'worthwhile' is to be 'faultless' casts a long shadow over our lives, pushing us into a corner brimming with anxiety and self-doubt. This voice, often a whisper saying that our value is hinged on our achievements, might seem like an integral part of who we are, a mere personality trait.


However, through my own journey and countless heartfelt conversations in the counseling room, I have come to understand that this anxious perfectionism is, more often than not, a painful echo of attachment traumas and early life disruptions rather than a trait to be accepted.


It's an erroneous belief that this measure of worth is tethered to performance. Many who tread the tightrope of perfection are driven by the fear that a slip or a stumble could decrease their intrinsic value and make them less worthy of love. This deeply ingrained belief can stem from a foundational yet fractured part of our development—forming secure bonds and attachments early in life.


Today, psychology provides a clearer picture. John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth pioneered attachment theory, which illuminates this link. Their work identified how early bonding with primary caregivers shapes our sense of security and self-worth[1]. When these bonds falter—through unpredictable care, emotional unavailability, or loss—we may unconsciously tether our sense of value to something more controllable: performance and perfection[2].


Contemporary studies further substantiate this correlation between disrupted attachment and perfectionism. A research piece in the Journal of Educational and Developmental Psychology finds a significant relationship between anxious attachment styles and higher levels of perfectionism[3]. Similar findings have been echoed across various studies and publications, tying perfectionism to a spectrum of difficulties including, but not limited to, anxiety disorders, depression, and even certain types of personality disorders[4].


Understanding the origins of our anxious perfectionism offers a path to untangling it. Perfectionism often manifests as an intense fear of failure and a relentless drive towards impossible standards, deeply influenced by underlying psychological and neuropsychological factors. Perfectionism can be linked to neuropsychological issues through its association with anxiety, stress, and maladaptive coping mechanisms.


Dr. Jordan Peterson's discussions around the psychological impact of belief systems and behaviors underscore that perfectionism is not merely a quirk but is rooted in deeper neuropsychological processes. These processes involve the brain's response to fear, stress, and perceived threats to one's value and competence, illustrating the complex interplay between neurobiology, psychology, and personal belief systems.[7]


 

Personal Story


As someone whose life was unexpectedly reshaped by dysautonomia, I've journeyed through the intertwining paths of neurobiology, psychology, and personal beliefs, finding that they all lead back to the foundational years of my life. In my experience, dysautonomia was not just a physical health condition isolated from my psychological experiences or early belief systems but deeply interlinked, a testament to how the mind, body, and belief form a triad of human existence.


Dysautonomia—the autonomic nervous system dysfunction that controls automatic bodily functions such as heart rate and blood pressure—came into my life like a jarring note on a familiar melody. It began with inexplicable bouts of dizziness, losing consciousness, and fatigue, which, over time, evolved into a disruptive labyrinth of symptoms that affected my daily functioning.


Navigating the maze of my diagnosis some 25 years later brought me face-to-face with the deep-rooted neurobiological intricacy of dysautonomia. I learned that my seemingly abstract symptoms were manifestations of disrupted neural pathways that mediate communication between the brain and the body. The same invisible threads of communication that were awry in my physical health also began to unravel in my psychological well-being. Anxiety and stress—almost constant companions of my dysautonomia—became an intertwined part of my journey, linking my physical health to my mental state[8].


As I delved deeper into my condition, I realized that there was a third character in this story: the belief system nurtured through my early years. As a child, I grew up in an environment where being 'strong' was a virtue, often synonymous with concealing vulnerabilities and discomfort. Early in my life, I was taught that pushing through pain and disregarding personal discomfort was essential to achieving goals, and this belief was grounded in my subconscious.


I discovered that belief systems are like invisible puppet masters, quietly pulling the strings of our behaviors, emotions, and reactions. My dysautonomia challenged my ingrained belief about the virtue of strength, almost highlighting the conflict between the reality of my health and these preexisting beliefs. It was an unsettling time but also one of profound learning.


Understanding the complex interplay between my dysautonomia, my belief system, and their psychological impact was a demanding but transformative journey. I realized that the implications of dysautonomia and the stress related to it could be alleviated by learning to gradually reshape these deep-rooted beliefs, replacing the notions of 'stoic strength' with those of 'compassionate resilience' and 'acknowledgement of vulnerability’.


 


Dr. Andrew Huberman has also extensively researched the body’s fear responses and stress mechanisms. Understanding how these hardwired survival instincts often translate into chronic stress or anxiety[2%6E] lends itself to exploring perfectionism. Constantly striving for flawless performance, driven by fear of failure or rejection, could be seen as a maladaptive stress response.


Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) offers strategies to combat these intrusive thoughts of never being 'enough.' From my personal encounters with this issue and witnessing transformations within my clients, I've seen the profound impact that nurturing self-compassion and slowly rewiring thought patterns can have.


In sessions, we often explore these faulty beliefs and their roots, acknowledging the vulnerabilities they create. Using evidence-based methods, we work together to forge new narratives where self-worth isn’t conditional but inherent. The crux of CBT lies in challenging and reframing the unreliable thoughts that reinforce the perfectionism trap[5].


Three Steps To Dismantle Perfectionism


Perfectionism can feel like an unwelcome houseguest who overstays its welcome. It's often sneaky and sly, dressed as a friend who pushes you to improve, but it can easily take over your peace of mind, self-esteem, and physical health. To reclaim these, it's crucial to understand the roots of perfectionism, stay mindful of its patterns, and learn to reframe beliefs.


Let me gently guide you through this three-step journey.


Step 1: Identifying the Origins of Perfectionism


Investigating the roots of perfectionism allows you to understand it as a conditioned response to the environment rather than a rigid trait.


Reflect on the following:


Early Life Experiences: Did your caregivers instill a belief that love or acceptance was conditional on achievement or flawlessness? Try to think back to instances that signal love is tied to performance.


Messages from Society/Culture: Have societal expectations, media influences, or cultural or academic norms indirectly pushed you towards perfectionism? Reflect on the norms and standards you might have internalized.


Journaling your thoughts can be a helpful way to delve deeper into these origins. How can you rewrite these stories? It's essential to undertake this journey self-compassion and acknowledge the pain without judgment or self-blame.


Step 2: Mindful Awareness of Perfectionist Tendencies


Increased awareness helps recognize when perfectionism manifests and allows you to attend to it mindfully. Pay attention to:


Thought Patterns: Are there recurring thoughts that drive you toward perfection? Is there a constant fear of failure or criticism? Notice these patterns and jot them down.


Emotional Triggers: What situations trigger your perfectionist tendencies? It could be as small as a typo in an email or as big as presenting to a crowd. Noticing these can help you anticipate and manage your responses better.


Physical Sensation: Stress, tension, and fatigue can be signals that your body is reacting to the pressure of perfectionism. Tune into these sensations.


Mindfulness meditation can be extremely beneficial—staying present and acknowledging feelings and thoughts without criticism.


Step 3: Reframing Beliefs


Learning to challenge and reframe perfectionist beliefs is a critical step.


Here's how you can do it:


Identify Cognitive Distortions: Perfectionism often involves cognitive distortions, like "all-or-nothing" thinking ("If I'm not perfect, I'm a failure"). Identify these distortions when they occur.


Challenge these Thoughts: Once identified, question these thoughts. Is there evidence to support them? Are they helping you or causing distress?


Develop Balanced Thoughts: Create balanced thoughts to counteract distorted ones. Instead of saying, "If I'm not perfect, I'm a failure," you can say, "Everyone makes mistakes, and that's okay. I'm still worthy."


As I share part of my story and fragments of many others with you, I hope you will consider rewriting your own. Perfectionism might sometimes feel like an impenetrable fortress, but a door is waiting to be opened within its walls.


References:

[1] Bowlby, J. (1988). A Secure Base: Parent-Child Attachment and Healthy Human Development. Basic Books.

[2] Ainsworth, M.D.S. (1979). Attachment as Related to Mother-Infant Interaction. Advances in the Study of Behavior, 9, 1-51.

[3] Smith, M.M., Sherry, S.B., Vidovic, V., Saklofske, D.H., Stoeber, J., & Benoit, A. (2019). Perfectionism and the Five-factor Model of Personality: A Meta-analytic Review. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 23(4), 367-390.

[4] Flett, G.L., Hewitt, P.L. (2002). Perfectionism and Maladjustment: An Overview of Theoretical, Definitional, and Treatment Issues. In: Flett, G.L., Hewitt, P.L. (eds), Perfectionism: Theory, Research, and Treatment. American Psychological Association, pp. 5–31.

[5] Leahy, R.L. (2003). Cognitive Therapy Techniques: A Practitioner's Guide. The Guilford Press.

[6] Huberman Lab. Stanford Medicine. anxiety https://hubermanlab.stanford.edu/publications/anxiety

[7] Peterson, Jordan B. (2021). How to confront your anxiety and perfectionism. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Se2MFa6Ocl8

[8] "The complex interplay between anxiety and dysautonomia." National Institutes of Health. National Library of Medicine, 2019. ↩

 




If any of what I've shared resonates with you, please know reaching out for support is a sign of strength. At Untangled Mind, you’ll find an empathetic space where you can embrace imperfection and nurture the belief that you are always worthy of love and belonging. Start learning the tools to embrace a balanced life.




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