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.
of the Perfect
“We should all strive for perfection.” True or false?
“We should not be satisfied with anything less than perfection.” True
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
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
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
Question: “What if I’m not perfect?”
Answer: “So what? Who is? I never will be perfect, and that’s
“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
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
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
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
- “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
It’s time to give up the double standard and take up God’s