How Perfectionism Can Ruin Your Recovery

How Perfectionism Can Ruin Your RecoveryOnce, when I was in elementary school, I got a 97% on a test.

Pretty good, right?

I took it home to show my mom. This was fridge material.

“Wow,” she said, “not bad…”


“…but you probably could’ve gotten 100%.”

Ugh. As an adult, now, looking back, I know she was kidding. She had to be kidding. Right?

I wish I could go back in time and watch this interaction with adult eyes, detecting the subtle nuances in her brow movement, to prove to myself that it was a harmless joke from a mother who knew her kiddo was on the straight and narrow.

But that pint-sized brain of mine, tucked inside my skinny little body that wore a hefty neon pink and yellow backpack, heard only one thing: you could have done better.

A perfectionist was born.

Yeah, sure — it wasn’t the result of a single incident, I’ll be honest. In 1st grade, I remember getting a B+ on a “ditto” — that’s what we called those purpley-blue worksheets fresh off the Xerox machine.

We’d had a substitute that day — Mrs. Cheek was her name, I swear — she handed me the paper (with a big fat B+ in red marker and a few questions with checkmarks next to them), and I cried my little face off.

I won’t bother telling you how deflated I felt when I lost the 4th grade spelling bee. (And by “lost”, I mean “won second place”, I guess.)

Megalopolis. M-E-G-A-L-O-P-O-L-I-S.

Now, I’ll never ever forget how to spell that word — even though I’m fairly sure I’ve never ever used it in conversation, except when I tell the story about how I lost the 4th grade spelling bee. (See how I said “lost” again? It’s instinctive.)


I’m a grown-up person now, and the drive for perfection has made a comfortable home in my gut. It sits just below my sternum and presses against my lungs.

It never occurred to me how perfectionism might interfere with recovery from an anxiety disorder. (Arguably, it might be one of the causes of my anxiety disorder, but let’s save that can of worms for another day.)

For years now, I’ve been working through various permutations of cognitive behavioral therapy to try and conquer my anxiety, my panic attacks, and my agoraphobic flare-ups. I love the idea of CBT because it’s rooted in science. Evidence. Proof.

If that’s true, why did I still have a problem driving across the bridge last week? Why did I get lightheaded when I thought about going to Lowe’s to return deck cleaner? Why in the world did I have a panic attack in a downtown parking lot so severe that my mother-in-law had to come and pick me up?


I have no answers, but I think it’s clear that something isn’t working here.

CBT is fairly straightforward — you create a hierarchy of your fears, in ascending order of freakout potential, and tackle them one by one. You do interoceptive exercises — like spinning in a chair if dizziness makes you panic — to intentionally call forth the scary physiological symptoms that stop you in your tracks.

I’ve done all of this. All of it. For years. So what’s tripping me up?

Perfectionism, I think. Here’s why:

1. Perfectionism begs for mastery. Recovering from an anxiety disorder requires a lot of difficult legwork, but it doesn’t have to be perfect. I’ve been congratulated many times by many therapists for going one week with only one panic attack. Great job, they’d say. But to me? I wanted a panic-free week. I’d done something wrong.

In reality, CBT techniques don’t need to be mastered. They just need to be practiced. Again and again, even if your work is only “B” level. Just get out there and do the scary stuff without assessing how well you performed. (I need to re-read this sentence to myself over and over. I know it’s true, but internalizing it feels so foreign to me.)

2. Perfectionism puts artificially high stakes on recovery. It encourages black-and-white thinking. This isn’t a “you’re either cured or uncured” sort of situation (as, obviously, there’s no cure for panic disorder). There are levels to recovery. There’s a Likert scale to measure your progress. And if it takes awhile to start making progress, that doesn’t mean you’re failing.

Approaching therapy like a perfectionist is an easy way to feel, right off the bat, that you’re behind by nine runs in the last inning.

3. Perfectionism reminds us of how imperfect we are. This sounds sort of obvious, but hear me out: recovering from severe and life-freezing anxiety is a heavy task.

Each step of the (long) process reminds you of your faults — the fact that you can’t do this or that, that you can’t go here or there.

Time to work on driving one mile from your home in order to expand your safe radius? It’s a slap-in-the-face reminder that something within you is screwed up or you wouldn’t be embarking on this journey-that-shouldn’t-feel-like-a-journey in the first place.

If you’re a perfectionist, the concept of “recovery” in and of itself feels like a cruel semantic game designed to conceal the fact that you are an imperfect being.

You see recovery for what you think it is: M-E-G-O-L-O-P-O-L-I-S.

A second place win; a necessary evil that, while intended to create a more perfect union between yourself and the world around you, just holds up a mirror to the messiest parts.

This is a tough hurdle to overcome.

And now, it’s time to get all “meta” here: After all, how does a perfectionist try to battle perfectionism?

Perfectly, of course. With just the right thoughts and just the right steps.


Photo: cloud_nine (Flickr)

How Perfectionism Can Ruin Your Recovery

Summer Beretsky

Summer Beretsky enjoys writing about her experiences with anxiety, panic, and Paxil. She had her first panic attack as an undergrad at Lycoming College and plenty more while she worked toward her M.A. in Communication from the University of Delaware. She contributes to the World of Psychology blog here on PsychCentral and has written for the Los Angeles Times. You can follow her on Twitter @summerberetsky.

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APA Reference
Beretsky, S. (2013). How Perfectionism Can Ruin Your Recovery. Psych Central. Retrieved on May 31, 2020, from


Last updated: 24 Aug 2013
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