October Scaries: Perfectionism and the Anxiety Spiral

For the month of October, we're looking at common fears. Today: perfectionism and why our brains tell us that one small correction equals a giant, unsolvable path towards an unsuccessful future. 

Perfectionist kids, teens, and college students have trouble ignoring their perfectionistic tendencies and focusing on the challenge at hand.

Our brains prevent us from fully engaging because they get so worried about what a poor grade, poor score, or poor performance means about us. Many times, the kids and teens I work with will engage in an anxious spiral. It usually looks something like:

  • If I get less than an A on this test, that means I have a bad grade

  • If I have a bad grade, that means I’m doing poorly in this class

  • I might even fail this class

  • And other classes

  • And I’ll barely graduate highschool

  • And I won’t get into the college I want

  • And I won’t be able to go to medical school

  • Which means I’ll never be a doctor

  • My life will be ruined

But when we take a step back, we can see that the anxiety spiral is little bit out of control.

There’s no way, when we use logic, that getting less than an A on your test means that your life is ruined. Our anxious minds just tell us this because they want us to be prepared for the worst case scenario.

But when we get caught up in the worst case scenario, our mental energy is much more focused on that than on the test we’re in the middle of. We have much more difficulty concentrating on puzzling out the answers.

So instead of the anxiety spiral, try just noticing that you’re anxious.

Using this anxiety spiral worksheet can be helpful for identifying what your stress is telling you.

Rather than “First this, then this, then this, oh no!” try “I’m noticing this thought right now. It’s not good, it’s not bad, it just is.”

In the example above, you’d say, “I’m noticing this thought that if I get less than an A, my life is effectively over. Ok. It makes sense to be nervous about this test. And at the same time, worrying that much about my future isn’t helping me concentrate in the moment. So I can take a pause on this thought and get back to it later if I need to.”

Don’t pass judgement on your perfectionism, just notice how it impacts you.

Recognize that it’s trying to do its job. It’s ok to be anxious. It’s ok to feel perfectionism. But you can let it take a backseat - and in doing so, let it get out of the way.

Always take the time to ask yourself:

  1. Is this thought true? (And even if it is, is it, like, 100% true or maybe just 50% true?)

  2. Is this thought helpful? (If it’s on your anxiety spiral… probably not)

  3. Even if this thought feels true, what else could be true?

  4. What’s something more helpful I could tell myself? (You might want to come up with a few options here until something really clicks.

Curious to hear more about anxiety and perfectionism counseling for teens and college students? Kelsey Torgerson works with kids in St. Louis to help manage their big feelings. Her office is located in Clayton, MO. You can reach her at 314-339-7640 or kelsey@compassionatecounselingstl.com

As an anxiety and anger management specialist, I provide counseling for kids, teens, and college students. I work with itty-bitties in pre-school to young adults graduating college, because I know anxiety can impact all of us, at all of these different ages. Please reach out with questions at any time!