Is perfectionism anxiety in disguise?

Blogging is not a natural inclination for me. That said, as I travel around and speak to schools and organizations about panic and anxiety, more and more people have requested that I use my existing blog to talk about anxiety and panic. While I have an anxiety resources page on this site, my recommendations are just ways to begin conversations rather than actually HAVING conversations. So, I am going to start blogging as regularly as I can (don’t have high expectations!) about all things related to panic and anxiety–FUN!

I’m going to start easy, and repost a blog post I wrote for my favorite mental health advocacy organization (with whom I work in an advisory capacity) called Bring Change to Mind started by Glenn (SHE WAS ROBBED OF AN OSCAR) Close and her sister, Jessie Close.

This post originally appeared HERE.

I’ve been speaking to audiences about my anxiety and taking questions about theirs while on tour for my memoir LITTLE PANIC. During the Q & A’s there are inevitably one or two people who will state that while their child has anxiety, that’s not their issue. Their issue, they’ll tell me is perfectionism, defensiveness, or some other maladaptive trait. I listen, respond to whatever their question is—most likely one about their child’s anxiety, and then afterward, I race to find these defensive perfectionists to talk to them. Because there are a few things I’ve learned having suffered from a panic disorder since I was a toddler, and it’s that anxiety, more often than not, begins with the parents, and something else—anxiety disguises itself in pretty innovative ways. Some of these ways include perfectionism, defensiveness, self-criticism, and hypochondriasis. This is what I tell them, in the kindest most diplomatic way I know. The only tears shed have been ones of relief–Thank God.

As a child, I suffered from a panic disorder that went undiagnosed until I was 25. Because no one knew what was wrong with me, everything was wrong with me. Every symptom I displayed was labeled and classified as something else: learning disability, perfectionism, insecurity, processing disorders, hypochondriasis and on we go. I struggled with a self-criticism so intense I became trapped and stuck inside its horrifying whispers. It told me I was too hideous to be seen, too dumb to learn, too short to be taken seriously, too shameful to be friends with. I didn’t try because I feared being wrong would expose every hidden truth about who I feared I really was. The only thing I knew I was capable of doing was to mock myself before anyone else did. My defense mechanism was to be the school jester and to make redundant anyone else’s mockery of me. If they could laugh at me by laughing with me, then I was protected. Self-criticism as a child was a defensive way for me to protect myself against outside criticism, but as I grew it changed, and so did my perfectionism, and my hypochondriasis. Eventually, all these traits outed themselves as being ciphers for one thing: anxiety.

Anxious people are terrified of uncertainty. Not knowing is an unbearable reality that tricks anxious people into thinking that reality is unbearable–a false equivalency. Uncertainty to anxious people feels dangerous. It’s not exciting, it’s not a river of open possibility, it’s a noxious death trap. Therefore, making a mistake, handing in a project that has even one flaw, guessing at something when you’re not absolutely certain opens you up to uncertainty, and this is not a gamble an anxious person wants to take. At the same time, perfectionism is a guard against being wrong, because to be openly “wrong” opens up your interior world for scrutiny, and a perfectionist does not want anyone to look there and see anything out of order. A perfectionist equates performance with acceptability. They fear that if what they make or say or do isn’t perfect, you may stop liking them. Striving for perfectionism is a way that anxious people try and cope with their anxiety.

As I grew older my defensiveness changed; I went from making jokes at my own expense before anyone else did, to being overly sensitive about people thinking I was wrong or didn’t know as much as they did that I would push back. It’s taken me a very long time to recognize that I’m not a complete idiot. But, as a child, I was constantly IQ tested and felt like I was a moron, and that sense stayed with me until I was in my thirties. I’ve worked hard to prove to myself that I’m halfway intelligent, but my maladaptive way of proving it to others is to treat anyone who seems to doubt me as though they were my past oppressors. I’ve spent my entire life criticizing myself and feeling criticized by others, and after working hard to overcome the damage, I am now overly sensitive to criticism of a very certain type—and it’s one that suggests that I don’t know as much as others. Still working on that. But people who defend against criticism are usually anxious people. Criticism makes people feel exposed, and when you are anxious, being exposed is terrifying. What will people see in you that you have been trying to hide? At the same time, defensiveness is a way of protecting yourself from feeling uncomfortable and negative feelings, feelings that push you into uncertain territory—the dangerous unknown, a place no anxious person wants to go.

Hypochondriasis is also a maladaptive way for anxious people to control their environment. I’m constantly scanning my body, trying to catch any ailment before it turns into something that might kill me. When I am actually sick or have a headache or I’m insanely tired and have to face the world, I am constantly announcing my ailments. This makes people think I’m hypochondriacal, or complaining, or even negative, but that’s not actually what’s happening. What’s happening is that I’m afraid of disappointing people, afraid that if I’m sick, I won’t meet their expectations, so I pre-empt their expectations by lowering them. I’m more comfortable living down to someone’s idea of me than of failing to live up to their idea of me. I’d rather not answer a question if I don’t know I’m right, help someone clean their kitchen when I don’t know where everything goes. I am so afraid of making a mistake that I announce in advance that I’m in a mistake-making state. That way, I can feel more comfortable getting something wrong without the fear of judgment. The truth is that no one except me expects me to be perfect. And this is confusing because I am more interested in truth and authenticity than I am in falseness and perfectionism is a type of façade. But I am anxious, and it went so long without being named that it grew and splintered and took on different shapes, making it even harder to recognize that all those shapes grew out of one core root—anxiety.


2 responses

  1. Wow…I never, ever EVER read a blog and felt so…moved to leave a comment until today. I seriously could’ve been the writer (except not really lol because I’m nowhere near as talented as you are!) BUT man does it hit the nail on the head for me. My biggest fear is the unknown and uncertain. It’s like you said, those things don’t feel exciting or freeing, they feel dangerous, like a noxious death trap. Also, I never thought about the REAL reason why I feel it necessary to announce or at least mention my current ailments, but to lower others expectations of my performance seems the most practical. I’m a self professed “people pleaser” and so when everyone expects me to do or act a certain way and I’m having an “off” day (whether I’m exhausted, sick, or in pain) it makes sense that I’m trying to let them know so I don’t disappoint. I’ve gotten to the point now where because I’ve been accused of being a complainer and hypochondriac, I don’t say anything anymore. It’s definitely not easy and not many people understand so it’s hard to talk about. You laid it out so perfectly in words that I had to thank you! Your article has definitely made me think and helped to being a little more clarity to my own anxiety and it’s causes so thanks again! Much appreciated!

    1. Amanda Stern Avatar
      Amanda Stern

      WOW! I’m honored that you felt compelled to leave a response. Thank you! I think so long as you identify why you announce your ailments and complaints, then you’re good to keep going. It’s only when you don’t know why and can’t seem to control it that you need to stop and question what’s going on. Sometimes announcing is our misguided way of taking care of ourselves, and until we learn other ways, I say let your complaint flag fly! Thanks for leaving a comment!

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