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Learning to Live Above Severe Anxiety: Addressing Perfectionism
By Paula J. Marolewski

The following journal entries were written as an adjunct to the book Fire in My Mind: Personal Insights and Practical Help for Severe Anxiety, a Bible study on severe anxiety. Here, you will find additional information about my personal experience with severe anxiety, focusing on what I have found particularly helpful. My prayer is that these entries will help and encourage you if you or someone you love is struggling with severe anxiety.

The Curse of the Perfect

“We should all strive for perfection.” True or false?


“We should not be satisfied with anything less than perfection.” True or false?


Oh, how easy it is to confuse those two statements! And the anxiety that results when we do!

Because the fact is, we should all strive for perfection. We should have high standards, have dreams and goals, and not settle for anything less than our best.

However, we also need to recognize that perfection is not necessarily an attainable goal – it’s a target, but many times (perhaps even most times) we cannot actually reach it.

But not reaching perfection does not imply failure! Not reaching perfection does not mean you live an unsatisfied, unfulfilled, unhappy life! Oh, you can live that way … but there’s no need to. It may take awhile to overcome old habits and replace faulty beliefs, but you can learn to be happy with what is, with your best, and with other people’s best.

The bottom line?

Perfection is a rare blessing.

Perfectionism is a constant curse.

Instead of “What If …?”

A large part of my anxiety was “What if”-ing myself to death. “What if this happens?” “What if that happens?” “What if she doesn’t like the work that I did?” “What if I don’t measure up?”

I cannot describe the incredible feeling of relief when I learned to replace “What if…?” with “So what?”

Now, this is not a sarcastic, belligerent, “So what?” No. It’s said with a shrug of the shoulders, a small smile, and a willingness to move on.

Question: “What if I relapse into bad habits and trigger an anxiety attack?”
Answer: “So what? Then I’ll get up again, put it behind me, and move on.”

Question: “What if I set a boundary in a relationship to protect myself, and the other person throws a hissy fit?”
Answer: “So what? If it happens, I’ll deal with it, but the boundary is there to protect myself, and I’m sticking with it.”

Question: “What if I’m not perfect?”
Answer: “So what? Who is? I never will be perfect, and that’s okay.”

“So what?” is simply a way of restoring balance to life. “What if …?” makes me live in the world of extremes, worries, fears, and pressures. “So what?” let’s me live in the now, in an imperfect world, with what and who I am.

Controlling Control

I want to be in control at all times. Of myself, of my circumstances, of my time, of my future, even of other people.

That’s a lot to have on my mental plate, so my desire to be in control makes me anxious.

The reality, of course, is that I am not and cannot be in control of many things. Life happens, and nobody tends to consult me about it.

And that makes me even more anxious.

I envision control as a clenched fist. Clenching your fist requires energy. After awhile, it’s exhausting. If you keep trying to clench your fist, your whole body gets tense. As your grip starts to slip and you try even harder, things get worse.

Likewise, seeking to be in control requires energy. After awhile, it’s exhausting. If you keep trying to maintain control, your whole mind gets anxious. As your grip starts to slip and you try even harder, things get worse.

There’s only one way of controlling the anxiety caused by control:

Let go.

Deadly WPTs

In the arsenal of anxiety, WPTs are one of the deadliest weapons. WPTs are “What People Think.” You know:

  • “I made a mistake … she will hate me!”
  • “He sounded distant on the phone … he must be mad at me.”
  • “I said something stupid … everyone will laugh at me!”
  • “She had to leave early … I must be boring.”

For myself, the reason WPTs are so devastating is that I always imagine the worst, so my anxiety level skyrockets. Now, what’s the truth of the matter? Usually, everything is absolutely fine, and there’s nothing to worry about. I’m simply making assumptions about what people think or feel.

But aren’t there times when there really is a problem? Doesn’t it sometimes happen that people really are thinking negatively about me? Sure – but the fact is, that’s going to happen. It’s part of life. Once you accept that you aren’t going to be perfect and that not everyone is going to like you or be happy with you all the time, then you can deal with reality. Sometimes, there’s absolutely nothing you can do about the situation. Oh, well. That’s life. Sometimes, you can take action to rectify the situation. So you do what is necessary.

Here’s the key: WPTs are simply a way of borrowing trouble. Being anxious about “what people think” is a waste of energy, because they may be thinking nothing negative at all.

So let go of the WPTs. Resolve not to make assumptions about what people are thinking or feeling in the absence of real data. Deal with reality – don’t let your imagination wreak havoc with your anxieties.

Give Yourself Grace

Do you live by a double standard? I often do. I’m learning not to. My double standard for far too long has been this: I am understanding and compassionate and extend grace toward you and any problems you may be facing, but I personally have to perfect at all times with no problems, no issues, no faults, no mistakes, no sins, no failings.

Yikes! Talk about a major stressor!

Time to remember that God himself doesn’t expect that of us. Does he call us to strive toward perfection and holiness? Yes, absolutely. But he knows we won’t reach it in this life: I John 1:8 reminds us that “If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us.” He expects us to fail and to fall, and he gives us every grace when we do: “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (I John 1:9).

It’s time to give up the double standard and take up God’s standard: GRACE.

Copyright © 2009, Paula J. Marolewski. All rights reserved.
The above article may NOT be reprinted.
Fire In My Mind Cover

Interested in learning more about severe anxiety?

Read Fire in My Mind: Personal Insights & Practical Help for Severe Anxiety. Fire in My Mind is a unique and deeply moving Bible study on severe anxiety, providing personal insights, practical advice, and profound scriptural meditations on eight key aspects of anxiety: racing thoughts, fear, shame, irrationality, doubt, anger, exhaustion and loneliness.

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