The mere thought of giving a presentation at work used to keep me tossing and turning several nights beforehand, with my stomach a knot of anxiety. Today, I’m comfortable leading a group of any size, but it took a lot of work to develop that confidence.
My transformation occurred when I began understanding the link between my social anxiety and my perfectionism. Here are the techniques I used to get a handle on my runaway thoughts and emotions, get out of my own way and seize opportunities that used to give me the screaming horrors.
What’s the Link Between Social Anxiety and Perfectionism?
Our society tends to nurture perfectionism. After all, magazines don’t feature covers depicting the average Joe or Jane. Those making headlines are the people accomplishing superhuman feats — regardless of the privileges that made such achievements possible.
In a culture steeped in competition, it’s natural to feel inferior if you don’t perform everything to standard. Unfortunately, while this drive can motivate you to achieve more, it can also result in significant anxiety. Setting goals that are impossible to achieve fosters procrastination and can make you hesitate to try things like going for that promotion or starting a small business.
However, even if you externally throw your hands up in despair, your feelings remain. On the inside, you’re a war zone of what-ifs, always wanting to try for something greater but retreating in terror when the circumstances present themselves to do so. This behavior only reinforces a negative view of yourself that worsens the internal conflict the next time you want to try something at which you may not succeed.
Research indicates that people with perfectionistic tendencies often have fixed mindsets, believing that their abilities are set in stone, not skills they can hone with time and patience. When they fail, they view the experience as an indictment of themselves instead of a mistake that they can learn from and grow.
Conversely, people with growth mindsets understand that Thomas Edison didn’t fail 99 times before inventing the light bulb — he merely learned that many ways his experiment would not work. These folks look at setbacks as opportunities to learn how to do things differently and better. Their motto might be, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” They don’t take their errors as indications they have some kind of fatal flaw.
Embracing a growth mindset was a critical factor in overcoming my social anxiety and perfectionism. Once I realized that few people would notice if I made a mistake while giving a presentation, for example, and even fewer would judge me for it, I could focus on the subject matter instead of obsessing over my performance.
5 Tips for Overcoming Social Anxiety and Perfectionism
My transformation didn’t happen overnight, however. The following five tips helped me along my journey.
1. Embrace Radical Acceptance
Put aside your judge’s robe, please. There’s no need to evaluate everything in life as “good” or “bad.” Some things simply are.
For example, some days, your bus hits a pothole, spilling coffee on your blouse. It happens. Are you going to let that detail ruin your interview, or will you explain it and move on, showing the hiring manager that you take minor matters in stride?
2. Be Honest
Pretending to be something you’re not is stressful. For years, I shied away from public speaking because of a traumatic brain injury that left me with occasional mild aphasia. Nowadays, I inform my audience that I might use the wrong word at times — and if it happens, we share a laugh and keep rolling.
3. Learn to Laugh at Yourself
The heel snaps right off your shoe on the way to the conference room when you’re scheduled to present. You could:
Hide in the bathroom and cry; or,
Get angry at the situation and scowl throughout your speech, making your colleagues think you’re grumpy; or,
Make a joke about how you’re now a bit shorter than they expected and go on with the show.
Which approach do you think would impress your boss the most? I prefer to work for someone who would choose the last option.
4. Use Mindfulness to Ground Yourself
You’re human, and you can’t turn off panicky feelings like flipping a switch. You need tools in your arsenal. Learn techniques such as two-to-one breathing that you can use to calm yourself. That way, your emotions won’t lead to maladaptive behaviors that only further your inhibitions.
5. Start Small
My first presentation after seeking therapy to address my social anxiety and perfectionism wasn’t a TED Talk before an audience of hundreds. I started by organizing and running a phone bank event for one of the organizations with which I volunteer. Then I moved on to speaking in front of small groups at work before moving to larger groups.
Overcoming Perfectionism and Social Anxiety
Perfectionism can lead to social anxiety as you worry everyone will judge your performance. The truth is, most people are too caught up in their own fears of failure to notice any minor mistakes. Embracing the tips above helped me overcome these traits in myself — what will you do with your newfound confidence?
Mia Barnes is a health and wellness journalist with a focus on mental health and chronic pain issues. She is the Editor in Chief at Body+Mind.
Image courtesy of Karolina Grabowska.