Breaking Free from the Perfectionism and Anxiety Cycle
It is one thing to strive for excellence in our lives. But when the exertion turns into the quest for perfectionism, it becomes a beast that can drive our motivations and cause difficulties in our work-life relationships. Anxiety can rise and cause a vicious cycle. But you can break free from the perfectionism and anxiety cycle with a Christian counselor’s help.
What is perfectionism?
Perfectionism is a person’s concern with flawlessness accompanied by critical self-evaluation and hyper-concern over others’ evaluation. It can lead us to be overly critical and judgmental of ourselves and others. Alternately, perfectionism can push us to do our best as we strive for maximum performance.
The trick is to be aware of when we tilt too far and begin to demand expectations from ourselves and others that are impossible to meet. No one is perfect and no one can be perfect. Mistakes help us learn and grow. Failure opens doors to new opportunities.
Some of the behaviors associated with perfectionism are an excessive concern for mistakes and errors, critical self-evaluations, and unrealistic expectations. Perfectionism concerns itself with the discrepancy between one’s expectations and performance. If we struggle with this, sometimes we project an image of flawlessness, which compounds the problem because we know deep down we are not flawless. This internal battle can create anxiety.
What is anxiety?
Anxiety is an emotion characterized by an unpleasant state of inner turmoil, a sense of uneasiness, dread, or distress. Normal levels of anxiety help us notice danger to keep us safe.
We will ask someone to hold a ladder while we climb it. We recognize that it’s good to teach our kids basic safety skills in the kitchen. These are good expressions of a healthy level of anxiety. Disorders occur when distress impedes our ability to function at work or in our relationships.
Anxiety will often reveal itself in through physical symptoms such as gasps for air, a rapid heartbeat, or insomnia. Sometimes what we refuse to think about in the daytime keeps us up at night through worry loops. In these loops, we repeat the same what-if questions like a broken record playing the same part of a song. Too much anxiety raises our cortisol levels and blood pressure, which affects our physical health.
We can become anxious when we dwell on the uncertainties of the future. We don’t know what the future will hold and anxieties about it can overwhelm us. Real events can trigger an anxious response too. Some doctor’s visits don’t carry good news. Inflation is a real problem. Family conflicts can break our hearts and contribute to anxiety. Our desire for a conflict-free life can drive our levels of anxiety up.
The perfectionism and anxiety cycle.
Perfectionism and anxiety work together to create unhealthy patterns in our lives. They have a cause-and-effect relationship. Perfectionism drives us to chase unreachable goals which lead to anxiety. An uptick in anxiety can drive us to extreme self-criticism, a sign of perfectionism, which leads us to more anxiety. Self-criticism with perceived failure heightens anxiety.
Fears of criticism from others increase anxiety in work performance or hold us back in social situations. We might stifle our opinions because we’re afraid of potential criticism. This builds anxiety within us and drives us further to perfectionism. This perfectionism and anxiety cycle plays on our fear of failure.
Anxiety and perfectionism can lead to low self-esteem where our desire for flawlessness can cause us to believe that we don’t have good to offer others. These thoughts can cripple us and set up unrealistic expectations for ourselves, which can lead to an overly defensive reaction when someone offers us feedback on our work performance or in our personal relationships.
What does the Bible say about perfectionism and anxiety?
When we consider what the Bible says about perfection and anxiety, we can be left confused and riddled with guilt. We know we’re not to be anxious, yet we struggle with it. Then we wonder how to not be riddled with anxiety. Later, we read that we are to be made perfect in Jesus, but we know we’re not because each day leaves evidence of our imperfection. How do we make sense of these words?
Therefore, you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect. – Matthew 5:38, ESV
This statement from Jesus came at the end of a section from The Sermon on the Mount. He opened that sermon series with a list of Beatitudes, followed by how the law was fulfilled, and how to deal with anger, divorce, oaths, and retaliation.
Jesus’ sermon turned their beliefs about these issues upside down. He did not command them or us to be perfectionists. Instead, He tells us that one day we will be complete, but in the meantime to grow and mature in His ways.
For by a single offering He has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified. – Hebrews 10:14, ESV
Because of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, believers are considered perfect in God’s eyes. At the same time, we experience sanctification—cleaned up, made new, set apart as holy—while we walk with Him through our days.
Perfectionism isn’t the goal, obedience to God and focus on the day when He makes us wholly perfect in our eternal home is. In the meantime, the work of Jesus in each of us has the full power to bring about life transformation.
Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. – Philippians 4:6-7, ESV
Peace sounds far off when we’re in anxiety’s grip. But the command to not be anxious about anything can feel impossible when our heart races and stomach flip-flops. It’s in these moments when the rest of the passage lays out a plan for us to consider.
Supplication means to humbly petition. It’s difficult for a perfectionist who struggles with anxiety to admit flaws, but there is great peace and power when we recognize that we are not and cannot be perfect. We can bring our requests before the Lord in prayer and receive the peace He gives.
How to cope with perfectionism and anxiety.
When you explore your personality, you will begin to understand your God-given nature. When we understand it and how to use it in an appropriate manner, we grow. We can identify our tendencies and then take a moment to reset our expectations for ourselves. This helps release the anxiousness that arises when we don’t meet them.
We can learn to be flexible and less perfectionistic when we realize that God made us different from each other because He has an individual purpose for us in the body of Christ. When we lay down our unrealistic expectations of what that looks like and seek Him with our whole heart instead of perfect outcomes, we experience release from the persistent cycle of perfectionism and anxiety.
When we have a heart that is right before God, the perfectionism and anxiety cycle begins to break. It’s possible to portray perfection in what we do or how we look, but that distracts us from what God wants to accomplish in our hearts.
Perfect in heart means that we grow ever closer to the Lord as we put into practice the Biblical knowledge we already have. He covers our mistakes with His forgiveness and is interested more in our obedience than our contribution to perfect outcomes.
The desire to want to do everything well honors the Lord, but when we find our worth in what we do rather than in who we are in Christ, we experience perfectionism and anxiety. God calls us to find our worth in Him and allow Him to mold and shape us to reflect His glory in our lives. He provides a way for us to let go of the anxiousness that comes because of our misplaced understanding of perfectionism. We can rely on Him to help us overcome.
If you need additional support for perfectionism and anxiety beyond the contents of this article, please contact our reception to set up an appointment. It would be an honor to meet with you.
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