While both can leave you feeling stressed out and on edge, sometimes it is hard to distinguish signs of an anxiety disorder from perfectionism. "Perfectionism is distinct from anxiety in that, for some perfectionists, having high or specific expectations for oneself, one's environment, or for others may generally work out OK and not cause tremendous stress or difficulty for that individual," clinical psychologist Lisa Stines Doane, PhD, tells Bustle.
In that way, perfectionism can be a good thing, as it can help you get things done, while meeting a high standard. But if your symptoms are due to anxiety, that sense of relief — the one you feel after ticking off everything on your to-do list, and getting sh*t done — never seems to come. Symptoms of an anxiety disorder aren't so easy to turn off, and they can even hold you back in life.
It is, however, possible for perfectionism to be a sign of anxiety. "The major factors that distinguish perfectionism from an anxiety disorder include the level of distress that is caused when things don't live up to those expectations, the amount of time spent thinking about or working towards the target of [your] perfectionism, and whether it's impairing to [your] work, family relationships, or social life," says Doane. If you believe your perfectionism may be contributing to anxiety, speaking with a therapist or a loved one can help alleviate some of your symptoms. But if you're having trouble distinguishing the two, here are a few ways experts say it's possible to tell the difference between perfectionism and anxiety.
1. You'd Rather Not Complete Tasks Unless They Can Be "Perfect"
If your stress is due to perfectionism as opposed to anxiety, you may catch yourself bailing on tasks before they're complete — or failing to start them at all — because you believe it's better to give up than to turn in less-than-perfect work.
"[You] might have a specific vision for how well [your] work needs to be completed, but because [you] can become so afraid it might not meet standards or perhaps [you] won't be able to finish it in a certain way, [you] avoid the task entirely — which can of course have negative consequences," Doane says.
This tendency is a token sign of perfectionism, but the side effects can be quite anxiety-inducing, and may contribute to an anxiety disorder. But the good news is, you can do something about it. "Pay attention to and then challenge the inner monologue that’s keeping you stuck, such as 'I can’t do this' or 'It’s overwhelming,'" says Doane. "Instead be ready to change that to something like 'I feel overwhelmed but I know I'll get this done... just start with 15 minutes.'" This trick can "unstick" your brain, and help you move past your anxiety and get things done.
2. You Truly Believe You Can Control Your Environment
While anxiety can cause you to feel like your life is spinning out of control, perfectionism can give you the false belief that you have more control over your environment than you actually do. And that's all thanks to where "perfectionism" occurs in the brain.
"Perfectionism boils down to a reaction driven out by the brainstem (sub-cortical region of the brain) that says to us we can control everything in our environment," psychologist Dr. Julia Harper tells Bustle. "The belief that we can actually control everything makes us attempt to make everything perfect, so that we can attempt to have the life we believe we want."
Do you struggle with letting things go, or accepting that life is out of your control? If so, it may be due to perfectionism.
3. You May Get Angry When Things Don't Go As Planned
Stemming from that need for control, take note if you get seriously upset when things don't go as planned. As Harper says, perfectionists can achieve a certain sense of satisfaction when they have control, but can feel high levels of stress when things go awry. "They may begin to react in different ways and experience a wide variety of emotions, ranging from rage, to anger, to frustration, to sadness, to defeat, to many others," she says.
If that feeling tends to lessen once your goals are met, it's likely perfectionism. But if you feel frustrated all the time, it could be passing over into the realm of anxiety.
4. You Feel Super Relieved When Things Do Go Your Way
On the flip side, if you're a perfectionist, you'll likely breathe a sigh of relief when your life goes as planned. But this is in stark contrast to someone who's suffering from anxiety, since anxiety sufferers rarely get that sense of relief.
"A person with an anxiety disorder, even when they have control, they never get any satisfaction," Harper says. "As soon as one of the things they are anxious about clears up, they move on to the next set of anxiety-producing stressors and then the next. They never experience any relief." If you're having difficulty finding satisfaction or moving past stressors, it can help to speak with a therapist or loved one about your symptoms.
5. You Often Get Hung Up On The Details
"If you have perfectionism, you probably get caught up in the small components of your work rather than the large picture," Kelsey Torgerson, LCSW, a therapist who specializes in stress and perfectionism, tells Bustle.
But take note if this focus seems to be getting out of hand. "Perfectionism exists on a continuum — and while a little is 'good,' too much perfectionism can be a symptom of a disorder," clinical psychologist Dr. Josh Klapow, host of The Web radio show, tells Bustle. "Obsessive compulsive disorder often has perfectionism as a symptom."
6. You Feel Motivated By Your Stress
The desire to do get ahead can motivate a perfectionist to do well, and get things done. "Thinking about getting a task done, feeling that you need to do your best and give it your best shot, is a sign of perfectionism," says Klapow. "The energy and motivation to do your best can cause feelings of stress and can actually cause some anxiety. But if the need to get the job done allows you to actually get the job done, and you can forget about it afterward, then it is perfectionism."
7. Your Self-Confidence Is Tied To Your Success
Another possible sign of perfectionism, according to experts? When your self-confidence is tied in directly to your success. "People with perfectionism often spend their days wrapped up in how others view them for their accomplishments," Dr. Bryan Bruno, Medical Director at Mid City TMS, tells Bustle. "Their self-confidence is often determined by trying to successfully do everything all at once for the sake of receiving praise from others."
While this can lead to anxiety, it's often a motivating factor for perfectionists, and not one that leads to great distress.
8. Your Self-Esteem Can Easily Take A Hit
Because many perfectionists get their confidence from their successes, it makes sense that their self-esteem would be tied up in it, too. And this can, in many ways, increase anxiety. "Perfectionism contributes negatively to people’s self worth and self-esteem and increases symptoms of anxiety," clinical therapist Cara Maksimow, LCSW tells Bustle. "Clinically, anxiety is a diagnosable and treatable psychiatric disorder. Perfectionism, from my experience, personally and professionally, presents in people similar to symptoms of an anxiety disorder."
Since they can go hand in hand, if you're experiencing distress, don't be afraid to speak to a therapist. Whether your perfectionistic ways can be tied to an anxiety disorder or not, seeking treatment can certainly help you to better cope.
9. You Have Black And White Thinking
Something that perfectionists and anxiety sufferers have in common is black and white thinking. And, it's also something that can lead perfectionists to anxiety. "This all or nothing perspective (that something is either completely good or completely bad) creates anxiety because it is untenable," psychotherapist Tanvi Patel, MA, LPC-S, NCC tells Bustle. "Reality often lives in the middle of extremes, which can feel like failure to a perfectionist, turning up the dial on anxiety."
10. You Have An Intense Fear Of Failure
Speaking of failure, perfectionists may have a difficult time coping with the idea. As certified counselor Jonathan Bennett tells Bustle, "Perfectionists typically blow any failures way out of proportion, even the small ones."
If you find failure to be motivating, that's great. If you don't, it could be creating a certain level of anxiety that can be considered chronic. Remember, it's all about your distress levels, and whether or not you're able to quickly recover.
11. You Don't Allow Yourself Room For Mistakes
If you can't move past even the most minor of mistakes, consider that a sign of perfectionism. "Perfectionism does not allow room for mistakes," Associate Professional Counselor Bianca Hughes, MA, APC tells Bustle. "Mistakes are opposite to perfection. Often this leads to a person being very critical towards themselves if they make a mistake. They believe mistakes equal rejection and so they be some consumed with the fear of rejection."
Which can, as you might guess, lead to anxiety. Perfectionism, when healthy and not a compulsion, can be motivating and lead you to success. But if it it's reaching levels that are hindering you, rather than helping you, that's when it could be a sign of anxiety.
Usually, anxiety disorders don't have perfectionism as a major symptom. But it's easy to see how the two can feed off each other. If you believe your perfectionism is causing more lasting anxiety, consult with a therapist or loved one to help find strategies to cope.