Suma Chand, MPhil, PhD., is a Professor and Director of the Cognitive Behavior Therapy Program in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neuroscience at the St Louis University School of Medicine. She is a board member of the National Social Anxiety Center (NSAC) and a member of the ADAA Public Education Committee.
The biggest fear of individuals with Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD) is that of being found to be deficient and judged for the deficiency.
What can one do to escape judgment? The best solution would be to avoid people. Another solution that is often used is that of being as correct and perfect as possible so that no deficiency is evident. While this sounds like a fool proof plan, it is not easy to be so perfect that no judgment comes one’s way. Despite it not being the best solution, fear of negative judgment typically drives individuals with social anxiety towards this fear fueled option of perfectionism.
When does Perfectionism become Maladaptive?
Adaptive perfectionism has been defined as striving for reasonable and realistic standards. Socially this would mean that one follows the rules of conduct and adapts to different social situations in a flexible manner without being too concerned about minor slip ups.
In maladaptive perfectionism there is a tendency to strive for excessively high standards which is motivated by fear of failure. Socially this would mean that rules of conduct are applied in a very rigid manner which is driven by fear of being judged. As a result social interactions become very stressful. Higher the distress the greater the indication that maladaptive perfectionism is playing a role.
The Costs of Maladaptive Perfectionism
Imagine facing the stress of going on a first date and then also having to ensure that you meet very high standards to ensure that nothing about you could be judged whether it is your weight, appearance, grooming, quality of your conversation, etc. Trying to be perfect in this manner is exhausting and also makes one feel tense and anxious.
When one is trying to be perfect, the tendency to be hyper vigilant of one’s errors increases. The focus on one’s imperfections can cause them to seem much worse than they really are. It will not allow one to get absorbed or enjoy conversations.
The process of self-monitoring to ensure high standards results in conversations that lack spontaneity. People who experience social anxiety are usually trapped in a situation where they want to have closer connections but all that they do to make sure it happens tends to actually prevent it from happening. Their maladaptive perfectionism inhibits them from being themselves which hinders authentic connections that lead to belonging and acceptance.
What people with Social Anxiety are often not too cognizant of is the fact that everyone has deficiencies. They do not really see others as flawed and human as they are. They make unfair comparisons and their thinking is often distorted.
Journey from Maladaptive to Adaptive
It is clear that maladaptive perfectionism has several costs. Reducing high standards of perfectionism can be scary but if done in gradual stages the costs of the unhealthy perfectionism will diminish and you will gain the freedom to be yourself.
Seeking the help of a professional would be good since you will have an ally and an expert in your corner who will guide and cheer you on.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) has been extensively researched and established as an effective treatment for social anxiety. Seeking treatment for social anxiety with CBT will help with the perfectionism as well. Research indicates that targeting the maladaptive perfectionism with CBT in addition to the social anxiety becomes important when individuals have high levels of maladaptive perfectionism.
Make imperfect your new perfect and break free from your social anxiety!