09/19/2013 05:47 pm ET Updated Nov 19, 2013

Perfectionism Leading to Anxiety

"What's wrong with trying your best? Or striving to be perfect?" This is what my clients with anxiety disorders ask me when I challenge them not to try so hard. Their questions are understandable, though, because their striving to be perfect has been rewarded. After all, anxiety and success often go hand in hand. Going into overdrive is also likely to be rewarded with a positive outcome. So it's no wonder that people with an anxiety disorder often view striving as the only way to accomplish a task.

But perfectionism -- the need to avoid errors, mistakes, criticism, or disappointment from others -- can lead to excessive anxiety and worry, insomnia, physical ailments, inability to relax and enjoy diversions, neglect in self-care,and interpersonal relationship problems. That's when it's crucial to step back and recognize its unrealistic trade offs.

Many people with anxiety have difficulty gauging when tasks are completed to their satisfaction. They often say, "It's hard for me to know when I need to stop" despite their having invested tremendous time and energy. Then what eventually happens next is fatigue and exhaustion, or a loved one pleads for them to stop. Their "internal thermometer" for when to stop is essentially not calibrated properly. Risks associated with being wrong or imperfect are often blown out of proportion, leading to maladaptive anxiety. This anxiety, in turn, serves as a signal to work frantically, and it is only when this signal is drowned out by physical or mental exhaustion that people stop. It's no wonder that despite completed tasks and accolades, many still harbor feelings of insecurity and anxiety. Rather than celebrating having met goals, they are unable to bask in their accomplishments.

If this sounds like you, don't try so hard. Here's what you can do: When working to complete a task, set a timer (an "external thermometer") rather than using your feelings as a gauge for when you have done enough. If it can be done reasonably in two hours, give yourself two hours to finish. And here's where the difficulty begins: When the two hours are up, stop working regardless of how you feel. Resist the urge to go back and try to make it perfect. How do you know what's reasonable? Consider asking trusted peers or colleagues. But if this feels too scary, first try it in less risky situations, then work your way to riskier ones. With enough practice and positive outcomes, you can recalibrate your internal thermometer to work better for you.

Get more information about anxiety on the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) website. Learn about treatment options, as well as how to choose a therapist who specializes in anxiety disorders, and where to find a therapist in your area.

For more by Kathariya Mokrue, PhD, click here.

For more on stress, click here.