Perfectionism: another facet of anxiety

Sarah* is a 30-year-old “micro-influencer,” a former office administrator with a very millennial job description – her “6 a.m. to midnight,” as she describes it, is entertaining her burgeoning Instagram following made up of mostly young women who turn to her feed for recommendations on clothes, beauty products and easy recipes.


“When I started seriously posting on Instagram two years ago, it was just for myself to remember what outfits I put together,” says Sarah with a laugh. “I started getting all these likes and all these followers, and then brands started approaching me for sponsorships and products to try out and review.


“It started growing really quickly. It wasn’t very long before I realized that if I just put in a bit more time and effort into it as a business, I could quit my full-time job and do this for a living.”


While her Instagram following grew, however, so did Sarah’s anxiety. She spent hours designing the “perfect post,” scouting locations for photo shoots (which often resulted in only a single image getting posted), reaching out to PR firms to try to get on brand lists, and obsessing over how many likes her posts were getting.


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“I was pretty obsessed with my phone before all this started, but after I decided, ‘I’m going to be an influencer,’ I was all about that phone life,” she admits. “I would look at other girls’ pages and be like, ‘Okay, what are they doing that they have 300,000 followers?’ I stopped waiting for brands to decide on me and I would buy all the things and post them in the hopes that I’d make that money back. Sometimes I would, but if I’m being honest, I would say I started buying things to elevate my mood and to feel like a Kardashian, as opposed to like, having a legit business strategy that was going to make me money.” And on top of her anxiety over having the perfect post, Sarah started stressing over her mounting credit card bills. It was the bank that was funding her new lifestyle, not her audience, who believed that her success bought her a new (leased) Audi, a pink and white home office with strategically-placed Nordstrom shopping bags and Diptyque candles, and even personalized vitamins.  


In June 2018, Instagram reported 1 billion users worldwide, with those aged 18 to 24 most likely to use the platform than those 34 years old and over. Half of Instagram’s users use it to post, share and view photos on a daily basis. It’s a social media phenomenon that’s not only impressive – it can also be downright terrifying.


The journal Psychology of Popular Media Culture published a study recently that compared Instagram to other social media platforms, including Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. They revealed that Instagram is actually most taxing on its users, as it has the potential to force ourselves to compare our lives with the lives of those we see on the site. The study also reported that the more time people spend on the platform, the higher their anxiety and depression levels get.


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When asked about this study, Sarah says she’s never heard of it, but completely believes it. “It hasn’t stopped, that pressure to make a brand out of myself,” she explains. “That’s the thing with social media. It feels like a constant fight. I’ve only been at this a couple of years, but I’ve met a lot of other girls who’ve been doing this longer, and it doesn’t matter if you’re at 5,000 followers or 100,000 followers. Those numbers go up and down every day, and even losing one follower makes me crazy, because I think, ‘What did I do? Did I offend someone? Is someone writing something about me on those anti-influencer message boards?’


“This job is crazy. On one hand, you find yourself mindlessly scrolling through feeds, telling yourself you’re making connections or looking for inspiration or whatever. On the other hand, you know you’re just driving yourself insane. You’re comparing yourself to other people and you don’t even realize it.”


Experts agree; they say that Instagram causes us to compare ourselves to others. We’re constantly gauging our lives and considering if we’re smarter, more accomplished, more attractive, or more successful than others. But because photos on Instagram are often the best, most idealized versions of a person’s carefully crafted online image, our sense of what’s average – or even real – becomes skewed.


“It’s about wanting to be perfect,” observes Sarah. “My mom says that back in the day, there were models on magazine covers and that was dangerous enough, but there was still that healthy distance, like ‘Well, obviously that person is perfect because they’re one in a thousand and they’re a model and they live in New York City, blah blah blah.’


“But with Instagram, you get really confused because everyone tries to paint themselves as relatable, everyday people. ‘Look! I’m just like you! Buy this product and you’ll look just like me!’


“It’s all just smoke. But even knowing all this… it doesn’t make it easier. It doesn’t actually change anything. Because there’s going to be some next perfect girl who says, ‘Look at me, I’m not perfect,’ and you’re going to be right back where you started.”


The need to be perfect


Perfectionism, characterized by a person’s need to be perfect using unattainably high standards and a desire to succeed at any cost, is considered a personality trait and not necessarily a disorder on its own. While there are positive consequences to perfectionism (people who strive for perfection are more likely to be motivated at work, try hard to succeed in every facet of life and are likely to participate in self-improvement practices), there are also negative consequences. Perfectionists can set themselves up for disappointment or failure, especially if their standards are much too high and impossible to reach. They’re also typically self-critical, evaluating their self-worth by how others see them, and projecting their insecurities on others.


Those with anxiety disorders, panic disorders, OCD or social anxiety disorder may be most prone to perfectionism. With unrealistic expectations, a person who already has anxiety is bound to become more dissatisfied with who they are, and will have great difficulty coping with and handling their symptoms.


Perfectionism is also associated with negative thinking and is often motivated by fear. It could be that you worry about what others think about you (and often, you think they perceive you negatively). Jumping to those kinds of conclusions could could increase your level of self-doubt, pushing you to isolate yourself from others and becoming dangerously lonely.


How do I deal?


If you have an anxiety disorder and fear you may also be struggling with perfectionism, know that this is something you can manage with some regular therapy, as well as tools and techniques you can master at home or anywhere.


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Reduce your stress levels. Take a look at the world around you. What’s causing you high levels of stress? If it’s social media, take a breather – schedule when you’re going to be online engaging with your friends or followers, when you’re going to respond to DMs, and exactly how long you’re going to permit yourself to scroll through others’ feeds. If your stress is coming from other places – a relationship, your finances, or your current workplace, for example – figure out what it will take to improve those areas and tackle that improvement one step at a time.


Practice mindfulness. Mindfulness exercises can be practiced anywhere, anytime. When you’re mindful, it’s easier to come to terms with what’s meaningful, as opposed to what you’ve come to consider as perfect. Mindfulness will remind you of what truly matters and will help you let go of those perfect ideals.


Write it out. Positive affirmations are proven to be helpful in diminishing negative thoughts. In the morning, write three positive things in present tense, like ‘I am wonderful just the way I am,’ ‘I am strong,’ or ‘I am joyful.’ Positive affirmations, or any kind of positive writing exercise, clears those negative thought processes and makes way for healthier thoughts and behaviors.


Find a knowledgeable, trusted therapist. While the above techniques are helpful, sometimes there’s nothing more effective than seeing a mental health professional regularly, one who is skilled at helping guide you toward seeing yourself in a more uplifted, positive light.


If you struggle with feelings of perfectionism and anxiety, visit us to make an appointment. 

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