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  • Rachael Lindberg

“I am so anxious I am going to fail. How can therapy for perfectionism help?”

Rachael Lindberg, LPC, SXI, CCTP

Afterglow Counseling & Coaching, PLLC

I’ll go first- hi, I’m Rachael, and I am a recovering perfectionist. And then everyone goes, “Hi, Rachael!” I first identified my intense fear of failure during a Cognitive Behavioral Therapy class during grad school. It was as if a lightbulb turned on about why my stress to be perfect was creating so much shame and pressure. After crying about it, and then accepting it, I learned more about how perfectionism and the fear of failure were interfering with my academic performance and my relationship with myself and others. I use the phrase “recovering perfectionist” because it is an ongoing journey to reframe and challenge perfectionist thoughts and use healthy coping strategies whenever perfectionism interferes with our well-being and overall functioning.

I was inspired by this quote from Brene Brown’s The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are: “As a recovering perfectionist and an aspiring good-enoughist, I’ve found it extremely helpful to bust some of the myths about perfectionism so that we can develop a definition that accurately captures what it is and what it does to our lives. Perfectionism is not the same thing as striving to be your best. Perfectionism is not about healthy achievement and growth. Perfectionism is the belief that if we live perfect, look perfect, and act perfect, we can minimize or avoid the pain of blame, judgment, and shame. It’s a shield. Perfectionism is a twenty-ton shield that we lug around thinking it will protect us when, in fact, it’s the thing that’s really preventing us from taking flight.” If you are also on the road to recovery from self-criticism and fears of failure, then I hope this blog can help you start to challenge your expectations for yourself, foster self-compassion, and enhance your shame-resilience skills. 

A black and white photo of a woman with her head in her hands

Perfectionism is a firmly held belief that one should be perfect with flawless performance or exceedingly high expectations in one or more areas of life- relationships, academic/athletic/work performance, parenting, organization/cleanliness, finances, etc. At times, perfectionism can be motivating. Striving for success is an admirable quality and drives us to reach our goals. However, expecting perfection is unrealistic and can lead to depression or anxiety, fears of failure, procrastination, and interfere with our school or work performance and our relationships with others. Perfectionism is highly correlated with physical symptoms such as difficulties eating or sleeping, muscle tension, headaches, stomach aches, and even high blood pressure. It can also lead to negative self-talk, lowered self-esteem, and feelings of shame. 

Perfectionism can be extremely frustrating, especially when it leads to negative effects on our mental health, emotions, and performance at work, school, and in our relationships. There isn’t one factor that increases one's chances of developing perfectionist beliefs, however, it has been highly correlated with having a Type A personality, genetic factors, trauma history, or demanding, controlling, or harshly critical parents or authority figures. For example, a person who values order, being on time, academic achievement, and financial success, and grew up with parents and a soccer coach who had high expectations of them might develop perfectionist beliefs and behaviors. It is not a guarantee that a person might hold perfectionist tendencies, however, those factors can contribute to the development of internalized pressure to be perfect. Often, we hope that, by being perfect, we can please or earn the approval of others and prevent harsh criticism from parents or teachers, especially if not being perfect in the past has led to negative attention, such as criticism, punishment, or embarrassment.

If you would like to join me as a recovering perfectionist, a therapist who specializes in anxiety and perfectionism can help! A therapist who is skilled in working with perfectionism and the accompanying depression, anxiety, and shame will work with you to gently challenge and dismantle the negative beliefs that are holding you back. They will teach you skills to enhance self-compassion and self-acceptance. They will help you explore the origins of your perfectionism, including any childhood or adolescent experiences that have molded your beliefs. They will guide you through setting realistic, attainable goals and learn how to recognize unrealistically high standards to reduce the pressures to perform perfectly. They may also introduce strategies for mindfulness and stress management to reduce anxiety and manage negative, self-critical thoughts. A unique strategy that I incorporate into my practice as a perfectionism therapist is shame-resilience techniques, which works to reduce and address shame by increasing self-compassion, sharing our vulnerability with trusted friends and loved ones, and naming shame when it occurs, rather than hiding in the isolation of it.  

Perfectionism may not be an obvious topic to discuss in therapy because there are some positive functions to it. However, when it begins interfering with our functioning or contributing to negative mental health symptoms, it can be addressed by a therapist who has a unique understanding of the function and limitations of perfectionism. I invite you to reflect on the role of perfectionism in your life and whether seeking counseling to learn more about how to manage it and grow in your self-acceptance would be beneficial for you. 

Interested in individual counseling to learn more about perfectionism therapy? Submit a Contact Form to schedule a free 15-minute initial phone consultation!



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