Social Anxiety and Perfectionism
How the Social Phobic’s Anonymous / Social Anxiety Anonymous 12 Step Program of Recovery Can Help
One trait that is nearly universal among people with social anxiety problems is an underlying tendency towards perfectionism. The reasons for this may vary but the results are the same: our very high standards for ourselves tend to aggravate our anxiety problems. Some evidence even suggests that perfectionism may be one of the prime causes of social fear.
In any case, most of us suffer from a case of near-impossible standards for ourselves. This result of all this perfectionism is a habit of trying too hard in life. Or it may backfire into resignation and avoidance of people, jobs or other pursuits. These are common results of our attempts to live up to expectations that leave little room for our own humanity. We may never reach out to anyone else as the result. Or we may be unable to ask that our needs be met or our boundaries respected in existing relationships. Our overly high standards may in some cases cause us to demand too much from others, setting up conflicts that can further inflame our social fears.
Some of us are very aware of our tendencies towards perfectionism and others may not realize that our expectations for ourselves are out of synch with common standards of fairness. Instead there is an even firmer belief that we truly fall short as human beings. These negative self-beliefs can approach the level of religious conviction, even among those who otherwise view themselves as non-religious. Some may even defend these harsh standards vigorously.
The results of all these high internal expectations for performance are chronic feelings of shame that breed low self esteem. Shame, when taken to excess, is a toxic emotion that does further damage to our psyches. Shame, like fear, can paralyze us. Healthy shame is a social emotion—inhibiting us when needed and reminding us to follow reasonable standards of behavior. Healthy shame holds us back, when restraint is called for, but unhealthy shame tightens into excessive control that triggers self-defeating patterns. Shame that goes too far also becomes a crushing vice that can cripple and imprison the social anxiety sufferer. Even if we do not always immediately see its connection to perfectionism, we can feel the damage that excessive shame is doing to us and this may generate even more fear.
Fear also lies underneath of our feelings of shame. A fear of not measuring up, coupled with a fear of never being able to deserve the acceptance of others. All of this overlies an even deeper fear of abandonment. This is one of the most powerful human fears because for a child, abandonment can mean death. In nature this fear served for millions of years to keep small children from wandering too far from the protection and nurturance of their parents. In healthy circumstances it also kept adults tied to the protection of their families, tribes or villages. Since the fear of abandonment is an instinct tied directly to survival, the fear of death is always its hidden partner.
So what can be done to lessen these powerful fears and the shame that drives them? A gentle but determined and in-depth study of the 12 Steps of Social Phobic’s Anonymous / Social Anxiety Anonymous can address this problem from many angles. Remember that the 12 Steps are not an intellectual subject but can be studied repeatedly with good effect; with the intention of gently reinforcing within ourselves new ways of responding to our emotions and to the world. This is true so long as our intent is to let go of excessive control of ourselves and others. Surrendering control however should be towards the end of finding our true power as human beings: A power that comes from our true selves- and the universe in which we are grounded.
Gradually the 12 Steps, along with regular attendance at Social Phobic’s Anonymous / Social Anxiety Anonymous support groups, help us to replace perfectionism with compassion for ourselves and others. We learn to allow ourselves to be human and to put self-acceptance into daily practice. Self acceptance means that it’s OK to sound or look nervous, and that it’s even OK to fail. People without social anxiety disorder get nervous or fail at pursuits all the time; but are able to do so with less self-condemnation. This allows them to pass through these situations and continue trying as a part of the path towards overall success. Paradoxically the more we are able to allow ourselves to be imperfect, the more progress we are actually able to make.
The more we see moments of anxiousness, imperfection and failure as part of a natural process rather than as a profoundly shameful events, the more we are then able to resume the journey of life, no longer crippled by our social fears.
Although embracing imperfection allows us to start taking risks, in SPA / SOCAA it is suggested that we do so gently and without pressuring ourselves. We also move forward on our own timetable and no one else’s. More on this is discussed in the section of SPA/SOCAA literature on “The Principle of Gentle Persistence”.
As our recovery continues, our definition of success may also change to an image of our lives that is more balanced, gentle and self- nurturing. The truth is that human beings aren’t perfect, and so perfectionism has demanded the impossible from us, which would make anyone anxious. In place of these impossible standards we gradually learn to work gently but persistently at creating lives on a truly human scale, with space to make mistakes; time to take breaks and rest, and time to meet our needs in an unpressured and patient manner in the areas of work, play, spirituality, romance, family and friendship. In time, all of this is possible with an ongoing self-forgiveness that allows us to love ourselves warts and all.
Please note: Although Social Anxiety Anonymous makes no public affiliations, there are many truly wonderful, valuable and worthwhile written sources of self-help (or famous self-help leaders) in both the commercial and / or more publicized non-profit sector and we never mean to discourage anyone from availing themselves of such helping resources in their personal lives.