Executive Summary: The Pressure of Perfect

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In Psychology Today*, Dr. J D Rich wrote that “perfectionistic thinking is different from having high expectations and a drive to do a good job, in that the pressure to be perfect brings with it a host of negative thoughts: fears of failure (what if I mess up?), worries about appearances (what will my teammates/coach/teacher/parents think?), or threats to the self-esteem (what if I’m not good enough?).


WCL’s panelists explored perfectionism, its relationship to anxiety and what we can do about it. Following are highlights of this brilliant conversation.


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Big Ideas


Our brains receive messages more quickly in the amygdala, the part of the brain that processes feelings, than to our rational processing center in the cortex. This means stress sets in before we “put our head around it”. 

Anxiety comes from a standard we set for ourselves. We feelwe have to get everything just right, and then tell ourselves that feelingsare facts. As a result, the stories we tell ourselves become our reality.


Why are we feeling that we are not enough? Perhaps it comes from comparing our real selves to the perfect photos on Instagram. Maybe it started in our family of origin when we were over-corrected. Today, 2 of 5 college students are anxious, and for many of those, it is crippling. We see the same thing in the “C” suite. The addiction to getting an A+ doesn’t stop after college. 

The desire to deliver A+ work can perpetuate avoidance or lack of participation in activities where we aren’t confident. When we don’t try something because we “aren’t good enough”, we give up experiences and adventure that could enrich our lives. 


We can think about stress like an indicator on a car. When the light goes on, you know it needs attention now: the gas is empty, oil is low, something is wrong with the engine. Stress is telling you it is time to fix something, to course correct. We get so busy “doing” to get results that we don’t check in with ourselves. Suddenly, a little stress becomes a debilitating situation. 



We should attempt to normalize the experience of anxiety. In fact, we should model failures for our kids or coworkers. “I got off on the wrong exit”, or “I got a rejection letter today”, can go a long way to normalize that we are human, and therefore not perfect.

 Our first reaction is to “fix” the problem. We don’t have to get rid of the discomfort so quickly. In fact, we need to let people get comfortable with discomfort.


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What can you do?


·     Be a Superhero flying above your life and observe yourself. 

·     Speak to yourself as if you are talking to a best friend.

·     Focus on WHO you are, not WHAT you are.

·     Learn Self-acceptance. How can you love the person you are?

·     Lack of sleep primes our trigger to be anxious. Get your sleep.

·     Social media drives comparison. 



Imagine you have three chairs. Sit in chair #1 talk as if you are the critic of your life. In chair #2, talk from the perspective of the person being criticized (you). How does it feel? In chair #3, talk from the perspective of a passionate observer. How does it feel watching what happens in the other chairs? This exercise will give you more compassion for yourself.


Create a “T” chart. On one side of the chart create a header “Benefits”. On the other write “Costs”. For any given act of perfection, weigh these two sides. What are the costs and benefits getting an A+ in all your classes? What are the costs and benefits of working all weekend? What are the costs and benefits to signing up for all the extra curriculars or extra work projects? 

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If you look for perfection, you’ll never be content.
— Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina


Under Pressure, Confronting the Epidemic of Stress and Anxiety in Girls, by Lisa Damour

Untangled, Guiding Teenage Girls Through the Seven Transitions into Adulthood, by Lisa Damour

Enough As She Is, How to Help Girls Move Beyond Impossible Standards of Success to Live Healthy, Happy and Fulfilling Lives, by Rachel Simmons

The Teenage Brain, A Neuroscientist’s Survival Guide to Raising Adolescents and Young Adults, by Frances E. Jensen

The Gifts of Imperfection, Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are, by Brené Brown

* https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/parenting-purpose/201710/the-pressure-be-perfect