Break Free from Perfectionism to Take on Fear and Anxiety

See fear through the eyes of a perfectionist and decode how to deal with this emotion directly with five simple steps to manage and conquer anxiety.

| August 2018

  • facing fear perfectionist
    Fear can be an unpleasant emotion for perfectionists to experience, often times being spun into disastrous scenarios that take away the joy of being in the present.
    Photo by Getty Images/sturti
  • Perfection Detox cover
    “The Perfection Detox” by Petra Kobler is a guide to help women break free from the negative impacts of perfectionism with twenty-one steps to live life freely without the worry of failing to meet unrealistic expectations.
    Cover courtesy Da Capo Lifelong Books

  • facing fear perfectionist
  • Perfection Detox cover

In The Perfection Detox: Tame Your Inner Critic, Live Bravely, and Unleash Your Joy, Petra Kolber helps readers alleviate the unhealthy and unrealistic demands we put on ourselves. Tackle perfectionist impulses and live a joyful life with strategies to channel our internal resources, willpower, and rituals. The following excerpt is from Chapter 4, "Decipher Fear."

For perfectionists, fear is a special, multifaceted adversary. Even though it's just one unpleasant emotion, we find so many ways to spin it in our very own kaleidoscope of catastrophe. There's the fear of being found out, the fear of not doing something perfectly, the fear of saying the wrong thing, the fear of making a mistake, the fear of a less than ideal outcome, the fear of [__________] (insert the one that just came to mind as you were reading this).

Because the scenarios we envision are usually idealized and out of scale, that is, disproportionate to reality, disappointment is as predictable as it is crushing. For the perfectionist, this tendency makes fulfillment or joy — which requires being in the present — especially elusive. The present slips through our fingers as we ponder the mistakes of the past and try to preempt missteps in the future. Over time, we resign ourselves to thinking that nothing will ever be just right and retreat into passivity, as the concrete fear of a future misstep will always override the abstract loss of an opportunity glaring at us in the present.

In this way, fear is a thief, stealing from us memories, connection, and any sort of eagerness or even willingness to try new experiences. And because it can generate generalized anxiety as a byproduct, fear can also be debilitating, humiliating, and demoralizing.



Many people propose that the best way to deal with fear is to get rid of it. But this is a biological impossibility — we were born with the ability to fear, and there are times when we need the reflexive internal response it triggers, times even when our lives depend upon it. We can't deny it, we can't get rid of it, but we can work to understand fear and identify when it's useful or warranted and when it's not. If mastered, this understanding will provide you with one of the most liberating experiences of the detox.

The Key to Making Peace: Your Presence

When a perfectionist feels fear she sees it as more proof that she is not handling her life perfectly. Viewed as another flaw, fear is pushed away into the background, which gives it more negative power. Avoidance of anything only adds more fuel to the situation. If we are to reach a truce with our fears or develop a useful degree of understanding and compassion, we have to show up to the peace talks.

When helping a patient overcome a fear or a phobia, many therapists recommend exposure therapy. For perfectionists, this means exposure to what we fear and fight against most: our particular, specific fears.

This might mean creating scenarios that mimic failure. Pavel Somov, a psychologist who specializes in perfectionism, has suggested fascinating exercises for combating fear of mistakes and anxiety associated with potential lack of approval. For example, he offers this fear-management opportunity: when you are at a red light which turns green, take a few moments before letting go of the brake. You'll hear a lot of honking, and if your windows are open, some cursing and maybe even name calling. But the world will not end; and once you press the gas pedal, the haters won't bother giving you another thought. Or, Somov suggests, deliberately mispronounce a word, make a self-deprecating joke, or be a nuisance to others. You'll see that initial discomfort doesn't produce any lasting outcomes so your fear of it is both exaggerated and beatable.

I think such steps are bold and creative, but in practice, I've found that few people will want to make a mistake deliberately as an exercise. Still: If you are feeling adventurous or curious, I encourage you to try these experiments.

Perfectionists often feel a wide disconnect between their fears of the future and the future that they desire. We don't understand why we just can't seem to get over it and get on with it. Lolly Daskal, author of The Leadership Gap, tells us "what you don't own owns you!" and this is especially true when it comes to our fears. Avoidance is like Miracle-Gro for your doubt demons. But when we examine our anxiety through the lens of compassion, fear will no longer be our foe.

Learning to manage anxiety about the future allows us eventually to release our inner judgment and shift our focus onto something more rewarding than trying to anticipate what can possibly go wrong.

Daily Detox

The physical symptoms of fear may be individualized, but they are very real. When you are afraid or anxious, your stomach constricts, your chest tightens, your heart beats faster, and your face flushes. Pay attention and acknowledge your individual symptoms of fear, but shift your focus to the present. If you are sitting, stand up. If you are standing, walk. Just move. Bring attention to your breathing, try to slow it down, and lengthen the exhale. Think of anxiety that arouses from fear as excitement without the oxygen — simply by adding the breath you can downgrade anxiety into excitement. Breathe in for four counts and out for eight. Repeat for a minute. As you breathe in, say to yourself "Be here now," and as you exhale say "This too shall pass."

Use the SOAR-Q (Stop, Observe, Adjust, Reflect, Question) exercise to uncover the trigger behind your fear feeling and reframe your thoughts in relation to the fear. I've used this exercise a great deal in my own life. If I feel fear before I go onto a large stage to speak, I use this process to prevent falling into my negativity bias. Here's how my SOAR-Q would look:

  1. I Stop and notice the feelings of anxiety that stem from me telling myself I need to deliver the perfect speech.
  2. I Observe how this makes me feel and decide if I need to make changes.
  3. I Adjust my self-talk to say: "It does not need to be perfect to make a difference; if I change or help one person in the audience of eight hundred, it has been a good day."
  4. I Reflect upon my focus on trying to give the perfect speech and reframe it. Instead of trying to get a five-star evaluation, I aim to provide the audience with a five-star experience. In other words, I think more about helping someone rather than having my effort be consciously validated by them.
  5. I then ask myself a Question: what action step can I take to help cement the reframed mindset? In this case, I find that concrete physical moves help quell the excess adrenaline and anxiety. Jumping in place works, heel lifts in place if you are tight on time and space, or my favorite, a quick power walk. You pick what feels right to you. It may be moving your body or it may be simply moving your breath.

Excerpted from The Perfection Detox: Tame Your Inner Critic, Live Bravely, and Unleash Your Joy, by Petra Kolber. Copyright © 2018. Available from Da Capo Lifelong Books, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.








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