Workplace perfectionism and anxiety

Anxiety is one of the most common reasons for why people seek counselling.

One of the reasons why anxiety in the workplace is so challenging is because in addition to the inner experience of worry, there is also an externally oriented concern about performance. The reality is that in the workplace, we are often judged based on our performance. For many, while the anxiety is distressing, there is perhaps an even greater pressure to carry on despite it.

If you’ve ever experienced workplace anxiety, you’ll know how it leaves you unable to focus throughout the day and completely drained by the end of it. However, it would be hard, and perhaps even surprising for others to be able to tell that you were experiencing as much comfort as you felt.

We all have a story about ourselves in relation to others and how we want others to perceive us. These stories and beliefs about ourselves come up even more often in the  workplace as we navigate not only the relationships itself with all our co-workers, but also the various ways we are evaluated in our work. Naturally, we want to develop good interpersonal relationships and be thought of as effective and competent. In addition to working under pressure of time and the normal ups and downs of especially high stress periods, it would be hard not to feel anxious! The unique combination of factors within a workplace makes it especially easy to fall into stories we tell ourselves about perfectionism. It’s not a coincidence that feelings of anxiety and perfectionistic beliefs almost always occur together.

It’s important to separate perfectionism with having high standards or goals for oneself. Perfectionism is about having standards so high that it causes distress or anxiety and gets in the way of your performance. It’s important to differentiate between the types of perfectionism:

  • Self-oriented perfectionism are beliefs about the strict standards you hold yourself to and/or the overly critical self-evaluation

  • Socially prescribed perfectionism is the belief that others hold strict standards against you, that you will never be able to fulfill their expectations and/or that they will evaluate you critically.

  • Other-oriented perfectionism involves setting and/or evaluating others based on strict and unrealistic standards

Behind the different kinds of perfectionism, you’ll often find mistaken beliefs that we were not aware of. Some of the most common ones are:

  • I must be perfect.

  • Everything I do must come easily and without effort.

  • If it’s not done right, it’s not worth doing at all.

  • If I succeed, someone else might get hurt.

  • There is a right answer, I’ll wait until I find it.

  • I should have no limitations.

  • Following someone else’s rules means I’m giving in and not in control.

  • If I expose my real self, other’s might not like me.

  • It’s safer to do nothing, than to take a risk and fail.

In turn, these beliefs drive perfectionistic behaviours such as:

  • Procrastination (putting off tasks in order to avoid the possibility of mistakes, failure, or evaluation)

  • Constant checking or trying to improve things (so that they are never finished)

  • Being overly cautious or having trouble being decisive (all the details matter, even the insignificant ones)

  • Avoiding taking risks or new things in order to minimise mistakes.

While these beliefs and behaviours enable us to avoid our fear of being imperfect, they hold us hostage to the vicious cycle of perfectionism. Starting from setting standards which are often unattainable and which leaves us feeling stuck, disappointed and generally unhappy with ourselves. As a result, our performance is impaired or below our full potential and we confirm to ourselves our low sense of worth and abilities. In this way, this cycle becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy- we confirm our mistaken beliefs that we should or must try even harder to be more perfect. This is the paradox of perfectionism; the more we try to try to be perfect, the more we feel worthless or flawed.

We can loosen the grip that the fear of being anything but perfect has over us when we can call it out for what it is- inaccurate and definitely flawed beliefs. Start by gently observing whether you fall into some of these perfectionistic beliefs and see if you can trace them to some of your behaviours at work.