As people with unrealistically high standards, a need to please others, and all-or-nothing thinking, we have a particular set of fears that keep us stuck. Fear of failure, fear of criticism, and fear of rejection are commonly the driving forces beneath our perfectionism. Our perfectionism becomes a way for us to cope with and try to minimize anxiety-provoking thoughts and experiences. In this post, you’ll identify which perfectionist fears are standing in your way and learn ways to determine whether your fears are accurate, and if they aren’t, you’ll learn ways to change your thinking so you can take advantage of all of life’s opportunities and challenges and ultimately find the courage to embrace being imperfect.
How Your Brain Assesses Danger
Emotions are the body’s way of telling us what it needs. Fear is a normal biological response meant to protect us from danger. Everyone has fears that guide decisions about what is safe and what isn’t. However, for perfectionists, our warning systems are working overtime, alerting us to danger when it doesn’t really exist. This is how we get trapped in our fears.
Fear is housed in the amygdala, the ancient, reptilian part of the brain that’s responsible for the stress response you experience when faced with danger—the urge to fight, escape from, or freeze in the face of whatever it is that stresses you out. If you’ve ever encountered a small lizard or snake in your yard, it probably froze or ran off as soon as it sensed your presence. It instinctively knows that it can’t win a fight with you, a much larger creature, so its best defense is to hold still and hope you don’t notice or to scurry under a bush to safety. In much the same way, when your brain perceives danger, it immediately must decide if the best response is to run away, freeze (or play dead), or fight. And in making this decision, the amygdala acts on instinct rather than rational thought.
The brain has a negativity bias, which means we’re more likely to think about what might go wrong than what might go right, and we’re more likely to remember negative experiences than positive ones. For example, if you watched a news story about a plane crash that killed three hundred people and a heart-warming story about a seventy-five-year-old great-grandmother finally graduating from high school, you’re more likely to remember the plane crash. The negativity bias was an evolutionary advantage that developed to help us stay alert and aware of potential dangers.
Fears, however, don’t always give us an accurate assessment of danger. Sometimes the amygdala overreacts, and we feel afraid when there is actually little or no danger. This is particularly true when you’ve experienced a trauma or an upsetting event that you perceived as overwhelming and out of your control. After such an experience, we develop a heightened sensitivity and increased fear to protect ourselves from being hurt again. The amygdala becomes like a super-sensitive smoke detector that goes off every time you burn your toast. We’re counting on it to alert us of actual danger, not something as minor as blackened toast. An overly sensitive smoke alarm, like an overly sensitive amygdala, makes it challenging to distinguish between real and perceived danger.
As perfectionists, our fears aren’t so much of physical harm, but of emotional harm. From a biological standpoint, situations where we might be criticized, rejected, or embarrassed feel just as dangerous as a bull charging right at us. So the fear you feel when presenting a disastrous sales report to your boss is alerting you to the danger of being criticized and embarrassed, but your brain is likely exaggerating the danger in this situation.
When we let fear drive us, we miss out on opportunities and underestimate our ability to cope with setbacks. And because fear increases if we try to ignore it, the only way to get beyond our fears is to confront them. In the next sections, we’ll work on recognizing our fears, challenging them to see if they’re warranted, and learning to cope with uncomfortable situations and feelings. We’ll do this in small chunks, so you can gradually increase your tolerance for anxiety-provoking situations.
Acknowledging Your Fears
Perfectionism can act as a shield that we use to keep people from seeing our imperfections and mistakes, which we’re terrified to have revealed. Perfectionist fears tend to revolve around being inadequate and having other people find out, judge, and reject us because of our imperfections or deficits. We also have unrealistic expectations of ourselves—that we can and should be without fault, and that others will hold us to the same impossibly high standards that we have (and fail to meet). So we often hold people at a distance and only show them our praiseworthy parts, because we’re afraid of what people will think if they find out that we failed to get the job we applied for or that we’re having marital problems.
Fears also keep us from trying new things, making necessary changes, and embracing new opportunities. We’re reluctant to try new things, because they involve the risk of making mistakes. Yet mistakes are inevitable; there is no way around them. It isn’t possible to know how to do something perfectly the first time. But as perfectionists, we want to be perfect every time, so we spend a lot of time observing, studying, reading, rehearsing things in our heads, or sitting on the sidelines. We can choose to live life on the sidelines and avoid anything that may result in a mistake or failure, or we can work toward embracing mistakes and seeing them as normal. I like to think of mistakes as proof that you’re fully living, trying new things, and being bold. The first step in moving past your perfectionist fears is to acknowledge them.
Which of these common perfectionist fears do you identify with?
fear of failure
fear of success
fear of rejection
fear of judgment
fear of embarrassing yourself
fear of not being understood
fear of not being liked
fear of being alone
fear of criticism
fear of trying new things
fear of not being good enough
How do these fears impact you? Do you keep people at a distance or miss out on opportunities because you’re playing it safe?
Now that you’re more aware of your fears, we’ll investigate whether they’re accurate and helpful.
Are Your Fears Accurate?
Some fears are based on distorted thoughts. Cognitive-behavioral therapy, pioneered by Albert Ellis, PhD, Aaron Beck, MD, and David Burns, MD, is based on the idea that your thoughts affect your feelings and behaviors. Specifically, when you become aware of and change your overly negative and unrealistic thoughts (often called “cognitive distortions,” “negative automatic thoughts,” or “irrational beliefs”), you can learn to feel better (less anxious and more hopeful), think more positively (speak to yourself with encouragement rather than criticism), and act in ways that help you reach your goals.
Perfectionist fears are made up of various cognitive distortions. These are some of the most common ones:
- All-or-nothing thinking: You see things as absolutes; there are no in-betweens.
- Mind reading: You assume others are thinking the same thing you are.
- Double standard: You hold yourself to a higher standard than everyone else.
- Catastrophizing: You expect the worst.
- Labeling: You label yourself negatively.
- Magical thinking: You think everything will be better when (you’re thinner, smarter, richer; when you get a new job, and so on).
- Should statements: You judge yourself and criticize yourself for what you should be doing.
Cognitive distortions are also common; we all think in counter-productive, unrealistic ways sometimes. Noticing our cognitive distortions is the first step to challenging them and replacing them with more realistic and helpful thoughts.
Noticing Your Cognitive Distortions
Use the chart on the next page to practice identifying some of the cognitive distortions behind your perfectionist thinking. This list of cognitive distortions is also at the back of the book in appendix A, for easy reference in the future.
|Cognitive Distortion||Your Examples|
You see things as absolutes, no in-betweens. Example: I’m stupid.
You assume others are thinking the same thing you are. Example: I’m sure I didn’t get the job because I’m too old.
You hold yourself to a higher standard than everyone else. Example: I don’t mind if your desk is a mess, but I have to keep mine neat and tidy.
You expect the worst. Example: I was late on the rent. I’m going to be evicted.
You label yourself negatively. Example: I made a mistake. I’m a failure.
You think everything will be better when (you’re thinner, smarter, richer; when you get a new job). Example: I’ll meet Mr. Right once I lose twenty pounds.
You judge yourself and criticize yourself for what you should be doing. Example: I should run five miles every day before work.
For each of the fears you identified earlier in this post, try to recall a specific time you felt this way and record it below. I also want you to identify the distorted thoughts or beliefs that fuel the fear and the way you behaved in response to these thoughts and feelings. You may find it helpful to do this exercise at the end of each day for the next few weeks. This will help you gain awareness of how perfectionist fears impact your feelings and actions. Below is an example to help you get started.
Fear: Fear of failure and not being good enough.
Situation: My sister got a promotion and a big raise.
Underlying belief: I’m not as smart as my sister. She’s always more successful than me. I feel like I always take second place.
Behavior: I pretended to be happy for her and then felt ashamed of my jealousy. I yelled at my kids for making a mess, but mostly it was because I was in a bad mood about my sister’s success. I stayed up late drafting a new proposal, hoping to impress my boss.
Challenging Your Fears
As I said earlier, fears aren’t always an accurate assessment of danger, so we need to practice realistically assessing our fears to ensure that we’re acting based on a judgment made with the prefrontal cortex rather than on the negativity bias of an overzealous amygdala.
Cognitive reframing is a four-step process that you can use to notice, challenge, and replace your distorted thoughts.
Step 1: Record your negative thoughts.
Step 2: Check for distortions. Do you see that your thoughts include cognitive distortions? The important thing is to recognize the distorted thoughts, so try not to overthink which types they are.
Step 3: Challenge the distortion. Look for evidence to support or refute this thought.
Asking yourself these questions can help you challenge cognitive distortions. This list can also be found in appendix B at the end of the book.
• How do I know if this thought is accurate?
• What evidence do I have to support this thought or belief?
• Do I have a trusted friend whom I can check out these thoughts with?
• Is this thought helpful?
• Are there other ways that I can think of this situation or myself?
• Am I blaming myself unnecessarily?
• What or who else contributed to this situation?
• Is it really in my control?
• Am I overgeneralizing?
• Am I making assumptions?
• What would I say to a friend in this situation?
• Can I look for shades of gray?
• Am I assuming the worst?
• Am I holding myself to an unreasonable or double standard?
• Are there exceptions to these absolutes (always, never)?
• Am I making this personal when it isn’t?
• Who gets to decide what I have to or should do?
• Does this align with my values?
• Is this a realistic expectation?
• Am I expecting myself to be perfect?
Step 4: Replace distorted thoughts with more realistic thoughts.
Let’s look at an example so you can see how you can use cognitive reframing to challenge your distorted fears and perfectionist thinking.
Ryan and his wife, Melissa, have a three-month-old baby daughter. Adjustment to parenthood has been rough for both. Melissa has postpartum depression, and it takes all her energy just to provide for her daughter’s basic needs. Most days, she’s gone back to bed by the time Ryan gets home. Ryan is overwhelmed and worried about his wife and daughter. When he gets home from work, he too is exhausted, but he focuses on getting his wife to shower and eat something. He then gets to work cooking, cleaning, doing the laundry, and feeding and playing with his daughter. Ryan and Melissa have close friends and parents who would be happy to give them a hand, but Ryan refuses to let anyone help. He hasn’t told anyone that Melissa was diagnosed with postpartum depression or how much stress he’s under. Whenever someone asks if she can drop off a casserole or pick up a few things from the store, he declines. Ryan’s afraid he’ll be judged. He thinks it’s his job to take care of his family and asking for help proves that he’s a failure and can’t do it on his own. He’s afraid of what people will think of Melissa’s depression, and he imagines their friends would reject them if they knew. He’s embarrassed to have anyone over because the house is a mess.
Step 1: Record your negative thoughts.
Ryan’s negative thought: Our friends and family will judge us for a messy house, mental health problems, and being overwhelmed.
Step 2: Check for distortions.
Ryan’s cognitive distortion: This could be mind reading, a double standard, or catastrophizing.
Step 3: Challenge the distortion.
Ryan’s challenge: My parents are supportive of my cousin who has depression. I’ve never known my friends to be judgmental about housekeeping or mental health. We helped Mary and Joe when their baby was born, and I didn’t think any less of them because the lawn hadn’t been mowed and laundry was piled up on the couch.
Step 4: Replace distorted thoughts with more realistic thoughts.
Ryan’s realistic thoughts: Our friends and family will still love and accept us even if we’re having problems and need help. I don’t have to keep them at a distance and do it all myself.
This was a very helpful exercise for Ryan. He can now see that asking for help isn’t a sign of failure and that the risk of rejection or judgment is small. This sets the stage for Ryan to behave differently and courageously, say, by asking for help. It will still be challenging to behave differently after so many years, but bit by bit, you will find that you can let go of the fears and negative thoughts that have been holding you back. You can use the space below to practice replacing your fears and distorted thoughts with more accurate ones.
Courage in the Face of Perfectionism
When we get stuck in our perfectionist fears, we allow perfectionism to dictate what we can do and how we feel about ourselves. For most of us, these fears drastically limit us. Courage, however, is the antidote to our perfectionist fears. Being courageous in the face of perfectionism means we can take chances, tolerate mistakes, and live our lives fully.
Courage in the face of perfectionism takes many forms:
- asking for what you need
- sharing your mistakes rather than trying to hide them
- speaking your truth
- asking for help
- trying something new
- admitting when you’re wrong
- speaking up for what you believe in
- allowing others to see your imperfections
Courage is like a muscle. The more you exercise it, the stronger it becomes. Practicing courage means repeatedly doing things that are just beyond your comfort zone. Most of us deal with change best when we do it incrementally. For example, if you are anxious speaking in public, I wouldn’t suggest volunteering to speak in front of 1,500 colleagues at the next company-wide meeting. Instead, you might start with a smaller group, like your department or even your book club. Successfully speaking in front of your book club or presenting at a departmental staff meeting will build your confidence, and with practice, you’ll have the courage to present to the entire company. The point is to challenge yourself just enough to feel discomfort, but not so much that you are overwhelmed and paralyze yourself.
You can’t create the life you crave, whether it’s financial success, a satisfying relationship, or high self-esteem, without taking risks. Growth is the essence of life. We are all changing constantly. When we embrace change and learn to value our mistakes as the stepping stones of self-improvement, we are moving toward our goals.
What does courage to be imperfect mean to you?
Can you think of a time when you were courageous in the face of perfectionism and resisted being driven by fear and the need to achieve?
In this post, I asked you to identify your fears and consider how they are negatively impacting your life. We practiced noticing that fears are often based on distorted, or unrealistic, thoughts, and finding ways to challenge and replace them. This is a strategy based on cognitive behavioral therapy, which can be effective when practiced consistently. Over time, you’ll be able to do this exercise in your head, but at the beginning, most people find it’s most useful when it’s done in writing.