Managing Anxiety with Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
The Japanese art of Kintsugi is a process of repairing broken pottery with gold, silver or platinum. This art uses the pottery’s flaws and brokenness and turns those imperfections into a repaired piece that is more valued than the original. As a metaphor, Kintsugi encourages us to embrace our imperfections and transform those flaws into valued pieces of who we are.
Many of us strive for perfection in various areas of our life, including our careers, our appearance, our role as parents, and even in our children. Social media platforms encourage and proliferate images of perfection through posts representing “the perfect moment” often made with the use of filters from specifically orchestrated photo opportunities. While perfectionism often is seen as a desirable trait that can lead to high achievement, it can also lead to anxiety, stress, fatigue, being overwhelmed and eventually, burnout. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a practical and evidence-based approach to help manage perfectionism-related anxiety and stress, allowing individuals to regain balance and control in their lives.
The Perils of Perfectionism and Anxiety
Perfectionism can manifest in various ways, such as setting unrealistic standards, constantly seeking approval from others, procrastination, or a relentless fear of making mistakes. Often perfectionists will focus their attention on what is wrong, off or what could be better rather than on what is good, right and what could be appreciated. Focusing attention and thinking in this way can result in excessive worry, fear of failure, procrastination, and ultimately can lead to avoidance of situations where one does not feel proficient. Perfectionism can diminish our opportunities to grow as individuals, as any experience of imperfection can feel catastrophic. Many perfectionists engage in destructive self-criticism when they perceive they have not met their expectations, leading to a sense of inadequacy or “imposter syndrome”.
CBT: A Powerful Tool to Manage Perfectionism-Related Anxiety
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is an effective approach to help people address their perfectionism and manage the anxiety and stress stemming from perfectionism. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy helps people learn skills to challenge their maladaptive perfectionistic thought patterns and beliefs, as well as promoting healthier behaviors and coping strategies. CBT can help to identify and address underlying beliefs that may be fueling perfectionism. Here are some helpful strategies to manage the stress and anxiety related to perfectionism:
Identify thoughts that accompany wanting to be or do something perfect:
Maladaptive thoughts such as “If I’m not perfect then I’m a failure/loser”, If I don’t appear perfect people will not like me”, “People will judge me if I don’t do this perfectly” often accompany perfectionism and anxiety. Typical categories of maladaptive thoughts that lead to perfectionism and anxiety are all or nothing thinking or catastrophizing. Becoming aware of these perfectionistic thought patterns is an important first step toward changing them.
Challenge and reframe perfectionistic thoughts:
Once you have identified underlying perfectionistic thoughts, learn how to evaluate their accuracy and adaptiveness and learn how to identify more adaptive and healthier ways of thinking. One method to assist with challenging your perfectionistic thoughts is through asking yourself questions to explore a different perspective, such as “is there another way of thinking about this”, “in the past when I have been less than perfect what was the outcome/”, “what else could happen if I am not perfect in this situation?” or “If a loved one was worrying about a similar situation, what would I tell them?”
Identify realistic goals or Experiment with Setting the Bar Lower:
Recognize the level of performance you might expect from someone else with similar qualifications and experiences and then utilize that as a guide for the expectations for yourself. Additionally, allowing yourself the flexibility to change your plan as you gather more information can help you to approach tasks more easily, and relieve you of the pressure of perfectly identifying the plan at the outset.
Self-compassion can be an antidote to self-criticism when you fall short of your own expectations. Ensure you treat yourself with kindness, acceptance and understanding, just as you would treat a friend or family member. This practice can foster emotional resilience.
Purposefully embracing imperfection in various ways on a daily basis can assist with decreasing the sense of threat related to imperfection. This is helpful because engaging in situations with an intention to “proceed imperfectly” allows you to have experiences that demonstrate imperfection is may not the catastrophe you anticipate. Various ways to engage in activities geared toward imperfection are sending a text to a friend with words spelled incorrectly or purposely mispronouncing a word at a social event. You can make these experiences fun and creative. It is important to not ruminate on the imperfect experience afterward, as ruminating can skew your perspective of the event.
Develop healthy coping strategies:
It can be helpful to learn different methods to manage stress and anxiety, including neutral or positive self-talk, diaphragmatic breathing, safe space visualization, mindfulness exercises, and progressive muscle relaxation to help decrease anxiety in the moment of difficulty. Additionally, using these skills daily proactively during calm moments can help manage stress levels overall to help you be better able to manage stress when it arises.
Some people are caught in a loop of perfectionism, procrastination and paralysis. Needing to be perfect (perfectionism) can lead to procrastination and (Why start on something that I know cannot be perfect). Not being able to break this cycle can lead to paralysis that makes it difficult or impossible to act (why bother?).
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy can help you to become more comfortable with embracing adaptive, less than perfect expectations for yourself, which can help you to act more freely, experience more happiness, to feel more fulfilled, and to encourage personal growth through approaching novel situations. By incorporating cognitive behavioral strategies you can pave the way for a healthier approach to success and self-worth.
One life lesson of Kintsugi is to learn to embrace our imperfections and understand how our imperfections can help define our strength, resilience and value.
The CBT therapists at the Anxiety and Depression Center of Newport Beach can help you on this journey.