Wednesday, January 23, 2008

When Perfectionism Conspires With Anxiety

I was just thinking back to the night when I was about eight months pregnant and reading "Pregnancy, Childbirth, and the Newborn" by Penny Simkin and Ann Keppler. I came across the section on risk factors for post-partum mood disorders. They listed perfectionism as one of the factors that seems to contribute to ppmds. This memory got me thinking about mood problems in general--and anxiety, specifically--and how perfectionism conspires with anxiety to make one feel less than fine.

Perfectionism can be a terrific motivator. But it can also sabotage. What happens when "perfectionism's expectations" go unfulfilled? Can perfectionism ever be truly satisfied? If you knew perfectionism were satisfied, how would you know? If perfectionism went unsatisfied what would it do?

My guess is that when perfectionism goes unsatisfied (say, because a baby is demanding more from a parent than s/he feels able to give), anxiety finds fresh fuel. Thoughts of "I'm not good enough/I can't fix it/It's hopeless" creep in.

Unfortunately, our culture does little to quash perfectionism's claims. Every time I hear the Oprah slogan "Your best life now", I want to scream. What if one's "best life now" means rocking a crying baby to sleep at 3:00 a.m., or waiting for a new driver's license at the DMV, or just having a rather ho-hum day. Is this my best life now? Is there something else I could be doing to have a better life now? Is everyone else around me having their best lives now, while mine is deferred by doing laundry and sorting through junk mail? On the surface, this desire to live one's best life seems a fine goal, but further mining reveals some very dry kindling for perfectionism's--and thus anxiety's--fire.

I'm working on a new slogan for Oprah. "A great life some of the time, and a pretty okay life the rest of the time" isn't quite as catchy as hers. But it might just help keep anxiety and perfectionism quiet for a while. And maybe that truly is our best life now.


procrastimom said...

wow, I came across this when I googled perfectionism and anxiety. I have struggled with both seemingly my entire adult life but was unaware of what was "wrong" with me. It is so freeing to read something with such relevance to me and my daily struggle. I also suffered from ppd with all of three of my children and can totally see how this would be related to perfectionism and anxiety. I always felt like I should be doing something or that I was never doing anything right. What a horrible feeling! And as for Oprah, I think she should seriously consider your slogan! Thanks for the blog!

Shannon said...

I'm so glad my post was "freeing" for you. I hope you'll spread the message to others who struggle with anxiety and perfectionism. Thanks for reading!