ANXIETY | July 26

How Perfectionism Can Lead to Anxiety (and What to do About it) 

Meg Waldron 

Psychologists define perfectionism as a personality trait characterized by a person's striving for flawlessness and setting high performance standards. This mindset is accompanied by critical self-evaluations, as well as concerns regarding others' judgement. Sadly, once these standards are met, they are deemed insufficient, and new benchmarks are set to be lighter, faster. On and on. Simply put, perfectionism is an insatiable task-master fueled by perpetual high-functioning anxiety about never being quite good enough. And it can be a lonely path.

As I write this dispatch, a song sparrow lands nearby, and I’m compelled to watch its conical beak dip into water. I was a nature kid. Hours were spent foraging in the garden and climbing the abundant trees nearby. The sparrow, garden and trees all seemed perfect by design — without even trying.

I soon discovered running, but not the kickball / tag / cops-and-robbers kind of play; the kind where you compete against others to see who breaks the tape. I was a natural. Before long, I constructed an arena on our property complete with an old mattress high jump pit, strawberry patch long jump, and backyard sprint.

No longer just the fastest kid on the block, I became one of the fastest in the state, and then the country. Others began to see me not for who I was, but for what I did. The message became: Get a paid ticket to college. The small print on an NCAA scholarship should read, “Hey kid: You better deliver, or else.” With hope in my heart and a signed contract, I left home unaware that, like Damocles, a sword hung over my head by only a horsehair.

And so I ran for the contract and the people who made me sign it as if I had no choice. Individuals struggling with perfectionism often live out their lives this way: as if they have to prove something to themselves and others; as if they’re self-worth depends on it. Anxiety hijacks the brain, convincing people that they have to perform a certain way (instead of performing that way because they want to).

When I got to college, my perfectionism went into full court press. Instead of embracing who we were, my teammates and I got caught up in the ceaseless pursuit of who we were not. I saw athletes felled by eating disorders, attempted suicides, and isolation. I felt myself burning out from feelings of being, as one coach said, “Not as good as I said I was.”

In the end, many of us were spit out believing we were a lot less perfect than we thought we were. Our experience was not unique. I understand this now because I have a Master’s degree in sport psychology (and a self-accredited one in wisdom). As a mental performance coach, I help athletes rescue themselves from the brain-hijacking anxiety of perfectionism.

An example of athlete perfectionism caught my eye in “The New York Times” recently. U.S. Olympic high jumper Chaunté Lowe was awarded the bronze medal for the 2008 Beijing Olympics after athletes who placed ahead of her failed retroactive drug tests. Upon hearing the news, she’s quoted in the article as having thought to herself, “Oh my gosh, oh my gosh, you are not a failure!” As a former elite track athlete whose childhood dreams were abused, I am incredibly disheartened that Chaunté got her podium invite 9 years after the crowds left the stadium. But a failure? My sister, only one in about 9,000 people make the U.S. Olympic track team. You were never a failure. Never will be — podium or not. I totally get why Chaunté would feel that way, and I hope she reads this like a love letter to her soul.

Madison Holleran, the young University of Pennsylvania track runner who committed suicide in the winter of 2014, left behind a note saying, "I thought how unpleasant it is to be locked out, and I thought how it is worse perhaps to be locked in." It’s possible that both Madison and Chaunté were trapped in this as if role of trying to be somebody for others, causing them to feel “not good enough.” This fixed way of being gives us little room to separate our identity from what happened.

Where do these fixed roles come from? Many take shape during childhood, where hidden social messages were interpreted in ways those providing them may not have ever intended. It's like a parent saying, "good boy" or "good girl" when you make your bed. It implies that if you don’t make your bed, then you're a bad person. But the bottom line is that you’re just a person — neither good nor bad — developing through experience. Unfortunately, the perfectionist experiences falling short as some judgement against their value. And sadly, the easiest person to take it out on is yourself.

So how do you shift your mindset to be a hardy learner instead of an anxious, overly self-critical performer? Consider taking on what Stanford researcher Carol Dweck calls having a “growth mindset.” Dweck’s studies show that when individuals are wisely acknowledged for their effort, strategies, process, and focus, they develop resilience and persistence. Outcomes (getting an A, winning a race) are not equated with self-worth. Challenge is embraced, and mistakes are okay.

This work reshapes your brain. Research also shows that people who take on a growth mindset form new and stronger neural connections that, over time, allow them to develop resilient mindsets primed for learning. 

Talking to yourself, staying curious, asking questions like "What went well?" "What can I learn from this?" "What feels difficult?" and "Who can help me?" invites new data and support. Tossing out statements like, “I always,” “I never,” and “I should,” creates space for new self-expression.

Take the growth mindset dare.

Be specific in your praise, acknowledging:

  • Effort
  • Strategy
  • Process
  • Focus

And not attaching results to self-worth. Here are a few ways to do that.

A parent to their youth athlete:

Instead of: “You’re a great soccer player,” you can say, “You had six great passes today.” (Acknowledging effort)

Coach to athlete:

Instead of, “You’re not as good as you said you were,” say, “There’s no doubt you have speed and strength. College is a big transition. Let’s ease up on your workouts so you have something left for racing.” (Focus on strategy)

To yourself:

Instead of, “That triathlon was a fail,” you can say, “I didn’t do what I’d hoped, but I nailed the transitions.” (Focus on process)

Remember our sparrow at the beginning? It has long taken off, but its song keeps coming out of the flowers. Again, I‘m taken by the notion that life is innately perfect by design, so perfectionism is merely a destructive social construct.

As my fingers pop away on the keys, this laptop sits on half of a titanium knee, and molasses now runs faster than this girl. The closest I ever got to an Olympic team was helping run the torch down the Pan American highway. But I know that how far or high or fast I go doesn’t define me. I’d like everyone to be able to feel that way.

Meg Waldron has her MS in Sport Psychology from Temple University and is a Mental Performance Coach. She has worked with various universities and post-collegiate teams including individuals at the 2016 US Olympic Track & Field Trials. Meg has coached athletes for over 20 years and is a USATF Certified Track Coach. To learn more about Meg, click here.