In early March, a neighbor hauled her car down her snow-packed driveway into a sizable pile of icy snow sculpted by city snowplows. The car remained stuck in that pile for 3 days.
A new job… college… a new relationship… the birth of a child… the death of a loved one… buying your first house… moving… illness… Life is full of changes. For perfectionists and those with generalized anxiety, any type of change can be overwhelming. When the world feels orderly, we feel in control of the situation — until a life change throws us off balance.
Perfectionists can be control freaks, because the subconscious mind, the Ego, second-guesses every step, motive, and action. The Ego fears *anything* unknown that can create mistakes. It always needs to be prepared. If the perfectionist doesn’t manage the Ego, those doubts and hesitations multiply like flies, whispering (sometimes screaming) “what if” scenarios that feed anxiety’s friends, Worry, Procrastination, and Catastrophizing.
This anxiousness, this need to control, becomes an emotional merry-go-round, where the mind is on heightened alert “in case” something goes wrong. If we allow ourselves to listen to those “fear whispers,” we either panic or shut down, getting as stuck in our heads as that car was in that snow pile. If those feelings escalate, they can feel as frightening as a skydiver missing the rip cord.
stuck adj. /stʌk/
3. to have to deal with someone or something unpleasant because you have no choice or because no one else wants to.
- You stay paralyzed by your fears and miss the opportunity.
- You can decide the change isn’t for you and back out of your decision.
- You find a way to move past your fears and self-doubts.
If you have uncertainties, the Ego can easily hijack your thoughts, where doubts question EVERY decision and action, irrationally predicting ABSOLUTE failure for a future somewhere “out there.” The “buts” pay a visit:
“But I still need…”
“But am I sure I can do this?”
…and the biggie:
“But what if I fail?”
The subconscious mind will choose any way it can to deal with stressful thoughts. You either take a deep breath and forge through that fear, or your Ego finds any number of ways to dodge discomforting thoughts. These tactics can be harmless but annoying, like knuckle cracking; unproductive, like total avoidance; or destructive, like substance abuse. These tactics only stall the inevitable, what needs to get done — as they ironically intensify fears and anxieties.
Fear keeps us focused on the past or worried about the future. If we can acknowledge our fear, we can realize that right now we are okay. Right now, today, we are still alive, and our bodies are working marvelously. Our eyes can still see the beautiful sky. Our ears can still hear the voices of our loved ones.
Although genetically influenced for some, fear and anxiety can be fostered by low self-esteem, how you were raised (conditioning), your personality, significant life changes, and traumatic events. If these types of thoughts and emotions hinder your daily life, it’s time to seek professional help from counselors who specialize in anxiety disorders. You can also try some of the following tactics:
Evaluate & Adjust Your Expectations
Do you believe your work has to be 100% perfect? Do you have an “all or nothing” mentality toward your work and home life? Do others tell you that you have very high expectations? Do you think you will FAIL if you lower your expectations? These are all signs that your perfectionism is out of balance. Re-evaluate the significance you have placed on the project/relationship/event, and see where you can accept some areas as “good enough” versus 110%.
Break Down the Goal/Project into Smaller Steps
If you feel overwhelmed by the scope of a project or goal, break it down into smaller steps. It might take you longer to finish, but you may not feel as intimidated. Keep in mind you may need to give yourself more time to accomplish your goals, so time them accordingly.
Remember to write your steps down. You make yourself accountable, plus you get to pat yourself on the back each time you finish a task.
Shut Down the Fears
Take control of what I call thought pollution. Time and diligence will help control those invasive thoughts, especially with professional counseling. You can also try the following:
Release the Heebie Jeebies
We all tense our bodies in some way when we are anxious or upset. When you are stressed, do you notice if your stomach twists into knots, if your breath gets shallow, or of your stomach clenches? Do you experience killer headaches or tension backaches? If the doctors can’t find a medical cause, you may suffer from unmanaged stress.
*Contraindication: If you have high blood pressure or breathing issues, do not hold your breath.
Take a deep breath in, hold and tense your whole body for 10 seconds. Release. Repeat two more times.
Create a Positive Affirmation or Intention
Write a positive general belief, in the present tense, about yourself daily. For example, “I am a strong and successful person” may help if you question your abilities. If you keep the intentions and affirmations generic, you provide yourself positive reinforcement minus any self-imposed pressure (your old way of thinking).
Place that intention on your fridge, computer, or cellphone, and read it periodically throughout the day. You can even incorporate that affirmation/intention into your breathing or meditation time.
But what about my goals? I can’t “accomplish” anything unless I have something more concrete.
To that, I would say it depends. If you are perfectionistic and inclined to not only meet, but surpass a goal, you may have the natural inclination to put excessive pressure on yourself. It’s that pressure that can lead to procrastination and intensified stress levels. Setting intentions relieves the perfectionist of any “need” to overcompensate.
If you have concrete goals or deadlines you are required to meet, that is a separate issue. Addressing the stress that comes with the goals is the focus. If your stress levels are high, you may want to seek guidance from a life coach or professional counselor.
Breathe Mindfully, Deeply, Slowly
Find a quiet place where you can relax without interruption. Close your eyes, and feel where and how you breathe. Focus the breath on your abdomen and rib cage, avoiding the upper chest. Deepen your breathing without straining, and start exhaling longer than the inhalations. Breathe mindfully for 5 minutes.
Come to Your Center
When you close your eyes and simply focus on your breath, body or heartbeat, you’re connecting with your innermost self. When we are stressed, we tend to focus outwards, on the judgments of others or ourselves, on the “what ifs.” Sometimes we simply need to slow down and feel the body and its functions to calm and quiet the mind.
Meditation is a great way to find that center. Simply close your eyes, feel your body, breathe. If your mind starts to focus on the “to do list,” bring your attention back to the movement of your breath up and down the spine. Keep the breath simple, smooth, focused. Repeat your intention, then fall back to the breath.
I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid…
but he who conquers that fear. — Nelson Mandela
Sources & Additional Reading
Anxiety BC. How to Overcome Perfectionism: http://www.anxietybc.com/sites/default/files/Perfectionism.pdf. Last Accessed 4/May/2015.
Boyes, Alice, Ph.D. 10 January 2013. What is Catastrophizing: Learn the definition of catastrophizing and how to overcome it. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/in-practice/201301/what-is-catastrophizing-cognitive-distortions Accessed 15 March 2015
Gregoire, Carolyn. 6/November/2013. 14 Signs Your Perfectionism Has Gotten Out Of Control. Huffington Post. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/11/06/why-perfectionism-is-ruin_n_4212069.html Accessed 4 May 2015
Williams, Ray. 5 May 2013. Do Self-Affirmations Work? A Revisit. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/wired-success/201305/do-self-affirmations-work-revisit Accessed 4 May 2015.
Mental Health Screening Tools. Mental Health Alliance. Mental Health America. http://www.mentalhealthamerica.net/mental-health-screening-tools Accessed 15 March 2015.
Information on Mental Health Month. Mental Health America. http://www.mentalhealthamerica.net/may Accessed 4 May 2015