INNER PERFECTIONIST

How to stop perfectionism anxiety in 3 steps

(And how I discovered this)

Michelle Soo, Bestselling Author | Fun & Productivity Coach

I’m grateful for what my anxiety showed me. It opened up my eyes. And helped me turn my life around.

This is my story. But you’ll also learn how to stop perfectionism anxiety – in 3 steps.

The moment of truth

One day, the younger me was emptying the dishwasher. 

Simple task, right? I’d done it a hundred times and over. But this time, something happened.

As I put the clean cutlery back in the drawer, I suddenly realised that I was feeling very anxious. 

I felt a wave of confusion as I struggled to understand what was happening.

That’s when the light bulb moment flickered on: I was trying to perform this simple task in the fastest and most effective way possible

This was my pattern. I approached even the smallest, most trivial tasks this way.

But there was more to it. I realised that – for whatever I did – It had to be the best. It had to be perfect.

It was this moment of anxiety that led to my life-changing discoveries.

The truth will set you free

Of course, I was also approaching the big, important tasks that way too.

I realised that perfectionism anxiety seeped into my life in many ways.

I was running from one task to another, like a headless chicken.

I felt like I was doing too much, and yet not enough. 

And I’d have critical thoughts that went round and round in my head – with nowhere to go.

My friends and I call this “busy head” syndrome.

It was a lot of pressure. And anxiety too.

Most of the time, I thrived on that pressure. It drove me to become an over-achiever. I came to believe that “this is how you get things done.”

I even used to tell myself: “I do my best work under pressure.”

Because it sure seemed like I did. 

But I have the anxiety to thank for breaking me out of that spell. 

A mindset strategy for anxiety

Anxiety is a feeling that you and I would prefer not to have.

And yet, it is a teacher and a friend.  

At first, it comes up as a mild anxiety. Such a mild sensation that you barely notice it.

And ever so gently, it nudges you to pay attention to something important.

When you ignore it, it escalates.

Until it is a big, waving red flag that screams: “Hold up! You need to deal with this!”

That’s why anxiety feels like this pressing sense that something’s not quite right. This is exactly the message it’s meant to deliver.

Most of us don’t notice it until it has escalated to a point where we can’t ignore it anymore.

That’s when your heart pounds away in your chest like it’s at a heavy metal concert.

And the knot of tension tightens in your belly. Your hands get sweaty. Or you find yourself going red.

These are signs that something within you is calling out to be resolved. And tended to.

They’re very inconvenient signs, don’t you think? 

But it’s not a matter of convenience. It’s a matter of priority.

And what you think is a priority in your conscious mind – as you get through your To Do List – isn’t always the same as what your subconscious thinks is a priority.

Having successfully coached clients through their anxiety for more than a decade, I’ve seen what makes the anxiety go away.

The fastest, simplest and most effective way is to deal with the underlying cause of the anxiety.

Either you freak out about the anxiety, or you shove it under a carpet and then try to stomp on it a few times. Or you do something about the source of it.

I believe that the latter is what your subconscious really wants.

This is what I have witnessed in all the years of coaching people one on one. And also in my private life.

This is the real reason for the anxiety. 

And when you tend to the source, the anxiety quietly slips away.

Learning from anxiety

As I put the forks in the drawer, I paid attention to my anxiety for the first time.

I didn’t brush it away. Or get distracted by the physical symptoms of the anxiety. 

I dived into it. And it was easy for me to do that because it was just cutlery. And not an important project or a crisis at work. 

At the time, I had recently started to practice meditation and mindfulness. I had learnt to observe the physical symptoms and the emotional experience – to see and feel beyond them.

So I went straight for the heart of the matter – of the anxiety. And came face to face with my perfectionism.

Thanks to the anxiety, I had these insights:

With perfectionism, I was wondering if I was getting it right, or good enough – pretty much all the time. Even with the small things.

No wonder I had a busy head, filled with thoughts like:

  • Am I doing this well enough? 
  • Should I have already finished this ages ago?
  • What if they hate it?
  • Did I say the right thing?
  • Am I letting people down?
  • Am I being a bad friend/boss/team player/etc?

I’d get stuck with these thoughts going round and around in my head. 

 

No wonder I was feeling anxious!

As the insights poured in, I also felt incredibly sad. I realised how hard I’d been pushing myself – in all those times, through all those years.

I had achieved so much.

I felt like I’d done everything right, and yet it wasn’t quite right. 

I was crushed. 

Do I think perfectionism is a bad thing? No. But I was resolved to do something about it.

Because I wanted something different for my life. 

Perfectionism anxiety gave me profound insights that I could not ignore.

Right after I made this resolution, something dawned on me.

I was no longer feeling anxious. 

In that day, the anxiety had served its purpose. So it disappeared. and I almost didn’t catch its departure. 

A practical approach for stopping anxiety

The anxiety didn’t disappear forever. 

 Whenever my perfectionism reared its pretty head, the anxiety would come with it too.

Anxiety became a friend.

It was a friendly nudge for me to pay attention to how I was carrying perfectionism into a task. 

And it was the sign for me to stop and re-calibrate.

When I came to this new relationship with the anxiety, it became less intense.

Often, the anxiety would come up. I would note it, delve deeper into it. And it would ease and disappear. 

This is where I envy my clients. They get the shortcuts I wish I could have had back then. 

Jenny’s story – a case study

Jenny (not her real name) was an HR manager in a high pressured work place. It was a struggle to stay on top of things. And she described how her anxiety skyrocketed since starting this role.

She was unable to sleep very well. And she was always taking work home with her – in her mind. 

In our first session, Jenny described how problems constantly had to be dealt with at work. Not in a complete way. Or a good or perfect way. There was simply too much going on for that.

She felt like she wasn’t ever able to “get it right.” Because there was so much ongoing trouble-shooting in her role. It was stressful for her.

I guided Jenny through a series of NLP and psychological process that removed the stress. And helped her transform the anxiety into something more constructive. 

When I saw her next, I asked her how that old anxiety was going.

She looked puzzled and replied: “What anxiety?”

I was faced with a quality problem. Jenny had forgotten all about the anxiety. Because the process had worked. In one session.

And it had worked so well that she didn’t even remember that the anxiety had been a problem. 

Honestly, I wish my own perfectionism anxiety could have been resolved as quickly as that!

The 3 step guide

Let’s get smart about anxiety.

These are the 3 steps I used to manage perfectionism anxiety. This is what you can use too.

1. Look out for the early signs.

2. Manage your physiology.

3. Mine for gold! (Go deeper and find the underlying cause.)

STEP 1. LOOK OUT FOR THE EARLY SIGNS

Are you aware of when the first sign of anxiety stirs within?

Can you simply note that it is happening? No judgement.

Or do you need to resist the urge to shove it under the carpet and stomp on it a few times? 😉

Easier said than done, isn’t it? 

This first step isn’t just about self-awareness and mindfulness. It is also about practising acceptance and a little kindness. This is a key part of your personal development.

You can find out more about how to do this in my blog post: The 3 essential skills for your personal development toolkit.

STEP 2. MANAGE YOUR PHYSIOLOGY

Your physiology is the state of your physical body. And it plays a key role in anxiety.

That’s when your heart races. The knot in your stomach starts giving you a hard time, for example.

What you can also notice is your breathing becomes more shallow, changing speed. And your posture shrinks into itself a little, with your chest collapsing slightly.

If you can change your physiology, then you can also change the way you feel. This is backed up by some impressive Harvard research.*

This is my one of my top tips on how to change your physiology when the anxiety happens:

  • Fill your chest with air as much as possible. (Yes, take a deep breath.)
  • Did you notice that your posture changes when you do this?
  • Can you repeat this a few times and notice what else happens?

By consciously changing the physical pattern, you can alleviate the anxiety. And give yourself the space and clarity that you need.

Can you give yourself the time and space to do that? Even if it’s just for a few moments?

STEP 3. MINE FOR GOLD (Go deeper to the underlying cause)

Anxiety doesn’t happen on it’s own. There is an underlying cause. The sooner you pay attention to that, the better it is.

Before it escalates and bites you on the butt. At an inconvenient time!

As you start to pay attention to the underlying cause, the anxiety will ease and dissolve. 

This is what happens with perfectionism anxiety. My clients and I have already experienced this.

To be honest, this isn’t always pretty. I did it the long and experimental way. Be like Jenny and get professional support if you need it.

When you dig deeper, what will your anxiety show you? And how will you gain from this?

Endnotes:

* Carney, D. R., A. J. C. Cuddy, and A. J. Yap. “Power Posing: Brief Nonverbal Displays Affect Neuroendocrine Levels And Risk Tolerance”. Psychological Science 21.10 (2010): 1363-1368.