If you’re that high-achieving professional who’s all too familiar with the gnawing anxiety of not being good enough, the constant worry about meeting project milestones, and unrelenting inner critical voices, take a deep breath. You’re not alone. As a recovering perfectionist myself, I can assure that you can travel through the maze of perfectionism with more ease and joy—and truly thrive.
No doubt that striving for excellence is a noble pursuit. But hidden beneath the surface of accomplishments lies a struggle that many face in silence—the cost of perfectionism. That’s because the negative effects slowly accrue over time and can lead to anxiety.
Here are five ways to manage the anxiety that may no longer be serving the perfectionist in you.
1. Setting Realistic Expectations
Striving for excellence is admirable, but instead of chasing an elusive ideal or unrealistic expectation, focus on setting achievable and realistic goals. This may be easier said than done, in part because the mind-body connection has adapted to high levels of stress. If you slow down, your autonomic nervous system may sense something is wrong and so you ramp up again.
It’s like an addiction. Try to break down larger milestones into smaller, manageable steps. This not only calms the overwhelm but also gives you a sense of accomplishment with consistent small wins along the way.
2. Cultivating Self-Compassion
That nagging inner critic can be loud, but it’s time to turn toward it with compassion. The inner critic is just another warning signal trying to draw your attention. Imagine the inner critic as a younger aspect of yourself or an algorithm established at an earlier time in your life to protect you. It tends to overestimate the perceived threat—a deadline or that frustrating client—and it totally underestimates your inner strengths and coping skills.
Treat that part with the same kindness and understanding that you would offer to a close friend. For example, when a project doesn’t go as planned, instead of berating yourself, acknowledge the effort you put in and the lessons learned. And if you are a skeptic, just know that the science on self-compassion proves that practicing self-kindness fosters resilience and mental well-being.
3. Shifting Focus from External Validation
Turn inward and find worthiness within yourself. It is hiding in plain sight! It’s natural to seek approval from peers and bosses, but your value isn’t solely determined by their opinions. Remind yourself of the hard work and credibility you’ve already put in, and acknowledge your skills and the unique perspective you bring to the table.
While you may easily acknowledge your external resume, is the internal wellspring of your soul that is your true self. Let it shine through. Trust it. When you can embrace your inner worth, the opinions of others hold much less sway over your self-esteem.
4. Embrace Failure
Just about every leadership guru embraces failure and growth mindsets. In the tech world, a common refrain is “fail fast and iterate.” At the same time, a key coping skill is to accept difficulties, name uncomfortable emotions, and view any disappointments, as a practice of distress tolerance.
This is key for healthy emotional regulation. Interestingly, business surveys show that perfectionists don’t progress any more than non-perfectionist, they just experience more stress. Instead of viewing missed targets as evidence of inadequacy or rushing head first to fix things, allow yourself the grace to accept and learn from the situation.
5. Get Grounded
As a mindfulness meditation teacher and therapist to many high achievers, I know from experience that working from the body level up is key. In moments of heightened anxiety, grounding techniques can bring you back to the present. Practicing mindfulness can be as simple as focusing on your breath or engaging your senses.
Mini “brain breaks” throughout the day give your mind a needed reset. This helps lessen racing thoughts and redirects your energy to the task at hand. The present moment is where you have control.
So, dear high achiever, take the first step today towards a life where your worth isn’t defined by numbers, milestones or opinions, but by the courage and authenticity you bring to the world. And remember, practice makes progress.
Tara Cousineau, PhD, is a Harvard-trained clinical psychologist, coach, and entrepreneur. She is trained in mind-body-energy medicine and is a certified meditation teacher. She is the founder of KindMinds.co, a consultancy that helps high achieving professionals struggling with perfectionism, stress and burnout and to live with more ease and joy. She is author of The Kindness Cure: How the Science of Compassion Can Heal Your Heart and Your World. For more information visit www.taracousineau.com, Linked In and Instagram.