Perfectionism and Anxiety: It Will Eventually Break You

I struggle with perfectionism. It seems like a way to always perform at my best and complete work satisfactorily. On the days I feel tired and stressed, and could care less about checking my business email for spelling mistakes, I push myself through the spelling AND grammar check because I am capable of it, regardless of my energy level. I don’t give myself a break even if my mind and body are tired.

Perfectionism also coalesces with anxiety, until the two are a self-defeating combination. Example: You’re anxious about next month’s recital, so you practice your music furiously, hour after hour, until every last note, phrase, time change, and intonation is PERFECT.

Now that you’ve invested so much time and energy into performing perfectly, naturally your anxiety will build: if your performance doesn’t go well you’ll feel embarrassed, but perhaps more devastating, you’ll feel like you let yourself down. As a result, you hold yourself to a perfect standard just to feel adequate about your performance, opposed to a “this is the best I can do today” mindset that is more realistic and forgiving.

I know what you hardcore perfectionists are thinking: “At my level, I can NOT afford to be anything less than perfect 100% of the time or else I lose my job, my prestige, or my confidence”.

That’s an understandable feeling. If you’re the point guard for a pro basketball team, you can’t start missing shots on a routine basis without being benched. Should the trend continue, you get dismissed to the minor leagues. When performing at a high level, perfectionism is helpful, but it ultimately guts you from the inside out.

Some athletes and musicians perform well precisely because they are relaxed and focused. Yes, they put the time in practicing and honing their skills, but they don’t necessarily attach anxiety to their efforts as a form of negative self-motivation. After a bad outing, they reflect, regroup, and get ready for the next event.

This is particularly true for NFL football quarterbacks. They make the big bucks for a reason: 1) They call the shots and engineer plays on the field and 2) [More importantly] They can “forget” a mistake almost immediately, refocus, and persevere. A football announcer once said, “If a quarterback has just been intercepted, he needs to forget about it quick and get back on the field to win the game”. If that failure produces anxiety, collecting oneself before the next football play or movement of a complex piano Sonata is an absolute necessity.

I regarded my own music performances as “good until I missed a note”. After that, I lost concentration and the rest of it suffered. The best performers don’t make many mistakes, but when they do, they are able to move on and complete the rest of the music as if that out-of-tune f sharp never happened.

Perfectionism and Anxiety will needlessly wear you down. If you’ve fallen into this rut, you need to find ways to motivate yourself positively, and realize that you can’t be perfect ALL the time, EVERY time.

If you think I’m lying, go to and type in the name of your favorite athlete or musician. Search for “greatest performances”. Search for “live performances”, when they can’t rewind the tape and start over. Spend an hour or two observing the greats, and eventually you’ll spot a mistake. A superstar baseball pitcher will walk 2 or 3 batters in a row and need to be relieved. A virtuoso trumpeter will squeak out a high note that should have been much cleaner. A gifted public speaker will stumble over simple words that anyone could say, or temporarily be distracted by something off camera. Yes, the greatest among us make mistakes.

Your drive to be excellent should be propelled by love of whatever you do and a sincere desire to improve. You’ll also have to accept that it takes time to reach peak performance levels, and that you’ll need to rest along the way when you’ve practiced so much that your body and mind turn to jello. It’s okay to be anxious about a performance, but it’s not productive to be anxious that the slightest mistake you make will ruin everything. Instead of an A, you might have to settle for a B+, but that’s much better than falling apart and getting a C or D.

High performance capabilities and consistency matter. Would you rather have a baseball player that either strikes out or hits a home run, or someone that consistently hits base-hits and doubles when it counts? Most coaches would prefer the solid performing less powerful batter to the occasionally impressive big hitter. Sure, the big hitter will get a lot of attention when he whacks a ball over the fence, but he’ll also look a bit incompetent when he goes 6 or 7 bats without a hit.

Anxiety and perfectionism, left unchecked, can take over your life and will eventually push you away from something you once loved. You might be able to eke out a couple great moments in the short run that feel good, but months and years of persistent anxiety will drain you. When that psychological energy deficit occurs, you have little chance of competing with the best.

For most people anxiety and perfectionism aren’t a problem; but for others they become self destructive. Luckily these mindsets can be treated by a good therapist who can help you re-frame your self motivation to something less performance-value oriented to something more performance-satisfying. The difference between the two might seem nuanced, but your mind and body will thank you later.

Doing what you love should not terrify you at the same time.