Social anxiety is the intense fear of being judged or watched by others. It is commonly confused with extreme shyness, but individuals with social anxiety feel that it is much more than shyness. It can affect their day-to-day life, such as relationships, work or school life. Others may find it difficult to maintain relationships hence damaging their quality of life. Depression is often associated with social anxiety.
Despite the fear of social interactions, individuals with social anxiety may exhibit a particular characteristic to help them feel prepared for social situations, which is perfectionism. Those with social anxiety feel the need to drastically set unrealistic standards in a social setting. For example, rehearsing a conversation many times. They may sometimes put themselves down because of something they may have said and thought it might have been stupid to say. Being a perfectionist can be a risk factor for social anxiety. As well as having high standards, they are unable to tolerate failure.1
In this article, we explain the relationship between perfectionism and social anxiety and discuss ways in which you can cultivate a healthy relationship with your mind.
You or someone you know is likely described as a perfectionist, where they are meticulous about the life choices they make. It is normal to try to achieve perfection, but it’s merely impossible to achieve this. There will always be room for errors. Although many of us may be proud to be labelled as perfectionists, studies have found that being a perfectionist is a sign of self-esteem issues.2 Perfectionists also have a higher chance of developing anxiety issues, eating disorders and depression.
Types of perfectionism
There are three types of perfectionism which are self-oriented perfectionism, other-oriented perfectionism, and self-oriented perfectionism.3
- Self-oriented perfectionism
Self-oriented perfectionists often set high standards for themselves to achieve their goals, resulting in greater productivity and success.
- Other-oriented perfectionism
Other-oriented perfectionists have high standards and are judgemental and critical towards others. They may find difficulties in developing or maintaining relationships.
- Socially prescribed perfectionism
This type of perfectionism can be detrimental to their mental health, as they can be very critical about their abilities and believe that others want them to be flawless. They may have low self-esteem and have a hard time coping with stress.
Understanding social anxiety
Social anxiety disorder is a common disorder with 2-5% of the population affected. They fear that they are judged by others, such as when speaking in class or in public, meeting new people, or attending job interviews. These somewhat simple activities can cause symptoms of anxiety to arise, such as hyperventilation, panic attacks, and trouble speaking. Individuals with social anxiety disorder avoid engaging in social situations as they may feel that their social anxiety is too intense and that it is out of their control.5
Social anxiety can affect anyone, and it is common to experience symptoms during the teenage years. Some may find that as they grow older, it gets better, but for some, it doesn’t go away on its own. Living with social anxiety can be distressing. As well as facing social situations bravely, despite the fear of being judged and experiencing physical symptoms, they can criticise themselves harshly for not being able to effectively cope with the social situation.5
Common thoughts people with social anxiety have
- “They are going to think I’m weird.”
- “It’s going to be so awkward.”
- “I’ll look like an idiot.”
- “If I get it wrong, people won’t like me.”
- After going to a social event, you’ll think, “That was awful; I looked stupid”.
If you commonly have these thoughts, you likely have social anxiety. The cause of social anxiety may have begun in childhood when they have lived through difficult life experiences, such as bullying or living with a critical parent. The exact cause of social anxiety is unknown, but we do know more about what fuels it, which can help find ways we can better manage social anxiety.4
How perfectionism fuels social anxiety
Studies have found that perfectionism may be a risk factor for social anxiety. Those with social anxiety disorder may set unreasonably high standards for themselves in social settings because of the fear that others may judge them for having low social skills.
Setting unrealistically high standards is common and healthy for people to achieve their goals but setting high standards while being highly critical of your abilities can negatively impact your quality of life. This is called unhealthy perfectionism.6
Maladaptive coping strategies
Some find it difficult to relax in social situations so they may adopt maladaptive coping strategies to help them cope with their discomfort, most often avoiding the situation entirely. These include:
- Consuming too much alcohol
- Excessive smoking
- Checking out the toilets and using them frequently
- Avoiding eye contact
- Talking too much or too little.
Impact on mental well-being
Perfectionists with social anxiety may feel unhappy about their lives. When they don’t meet the high standards they set for themselves, they may become depressed and even give up trying to succeed. Perfectionism has a significant effect on our mental well-being with increased stress and anxiety.
The use of social media can play a significant role in perfectionism. Studies have found that girls are more likely to have a decreased sense of self-worth than boys because there’s pressure to be perfect. It’s important to recognise that many people post their ‘highlights’ on their social media and may not represent their real life, so the pressure to live someone else’s life is impossible. It causes increased stress and anxiety.7
Treatment and intervention
Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT)
Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is a talking therapy and has been proven to reduce perfectionism by challenging perfectionistic thoughts. This could result in diminishing the symptoms of social anxiety.
If you are offered CBT by your doctor, it is expected that you will see your therapist once a week or once every 2 weeks. Your therapist will help you through your thoughts, feelings and actions and work out if they’re helpful or unrealistic. These sessions aim to take what you’ve learned with your therapist and use it in your daily life to help reduce anxiety and stress.5
By putting ourselves in situations where we are afraid of being judged or criticised, we eventually find that in these uncomfortable situations, there is nothing to be afraid of. Exposure therapy helps individuals overcome their anxiety by gradually confronting their fears and building their courage. Your therapist will ensure your safety and make sure you’re being exposed to social situations in a safe environment.5
Mindfulness and self-compassion practices
Practising mindfulness and self-compassion can help us recognise our thought patterns and our emotions. Mindfulness briefly interrupts our thoughts and focuses our attention on the present moment. Individuals who are perfectionists and have social anxiety may deal with self-criticism so it’s important to practice self-care and speak to yourself as if you were speaking to someone you know. When you have a kinder relationship with yourself, you will have better and more fulfilling relationships with others.
Medication for anxiety management
CBT and exposure therapy is generally the gold standard treatment for perfectionism and social anxiety, but taking medication may help if CBT does not work or you don’t want to try it. Some may find it helpful to combine CBT with medication. Medications for managing social anxiety include:
- Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI); escitalopram or sertraline
- Beta-blockers to help control physical symptoms of social anxiety like rapid heart rate and shallow breathing
Fostering a healthy balance
Lowering your standards may diminish perfectionism. Recognise that you are not a machine and that you are allowed to make mistakes. Be more mindful of your thoughts by writing them down. Once we are aware of our thoughts, we take control of how perfectionism affects our lives and find ways to minimise perfectionism.9
Set realistic and challenging goals that are healthy. For example, instead of setting the goal of waking up at 5 am every morning, set the time to wake up at 7 am for two weeks and then gradually push the wake-up time back until you are comfortable. We feel more confident and less stressed when have the ability to meet our goals.9
Cultivating a growth mindset can boost our self-esteem, diminish perfectionism and reduce our anxiety. A growth mindset is the belief that our intelligence and our abilities can be developed. Those with a growth mindset thrive in the face of adversity and continuously find ways to improve, while those with a fixed mindset believe that their intelligence and abilities are fixed from birth and avoid challenges. By cultivating a growth mindset, we value more on the progress rather than the outcome. We feel more satisfied and hungry for new challenges. As a result, we lead happier and healthier lives when we don’t have the pressure to be perfect.2
The idea of being perfect and living a perfect life is impossible. As human beings, we are not able to function like machines. The pressure to be perfect causes immense stress and anxiety because we cannot live up to the unrealistically high standards we set ourselves. Individuals who may have been harshly criticised during childhood may develop a tendency towards perfectionism as adults.
Seek help if perfectionism and social anxiety are affecting your daily life. A combination of treatments like CBT, exposure therapy and medications are available to help manage your anxiety. Recognise that your self-worth is not dependent on your achievements and that it’s okay to make mistakes. Be kinder to yourself and practice more self-compassion in your life as much as possible. As a result, this should help manage your problems and make you feel less stressed and anxious.
- Wang Y, Chen J, Zhang X, Lin X, Sun Y, Wang N, et al. The Relationship between Perfectionism and Social Anxiety: A Moderated Mediation Model. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health [Internet]. 2022 [cited 2023 Sep 19]; 19(19):12934. Available from: https://www.mdpi.com/1660-4601/19/19/12934.
- Kelly JD. Your Best Life: Perfectionism—The Bane of Happiness. Clin Orthop Relat Res [Internet]. 2015 [cited 2023 Sep 20]; 473(10):3108–11. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4562912/.
- Samfira EM, Maricuţoiu LP. Not all Perfectionists Are as They Are Assessed: An Investigation of the Psychometric Properties of the Perfectionism Inventory in the Teaching Profession. Front Psychol [Internet]. 2021 [cited 2023 Sep 26]; 12:624938. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7902758/.
- Social Anxiety Disorder. National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) [Internet]. [cited 2023 Sep 21]. Available from: https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/social-anxiety-disorder.
- Hofmann SG. Cognitive Factors that Maintain Social Anxiety Disorder: a Comprehensive Model and its Treatment Implications. Cogn Behav Ther [Internet]. 2007 [cited 2023 Sep 21]; 36(4):193–209. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2151931/.
- Shumaker EA, Rodebaugh TL. Perfectionism and Social Anxiety: Rethinking the Role of High Standards. J Behav Ther Exp Psychiatry [Internet]. 2009 [cited 2023 Sep 21]; 40(3):423–33. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2730991/.
- Nazari, Nabi. ‘Perfectionism and Mental Health Problems: Limitations and Directions for Future Research’. World Journal of Clinical Cases, vol. 10, no. 14, May 2022, pp. 4709–12. PubMed Central, https://doi.org/10.12998/wjcc.v10.i14.4709.
- Werner KH, Jazaieri H, Goldin PR, Ziv M, Heimberg RG, Gross JJ. Self-Compassion and Social Anxiety Disorder. Anxiety Stress Coping [Internet]. 2012 [cited 2023 Sep 26]; 25(5):543–58. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4128472/.
- Kothari R, Egan S, Wade T, Andersson G, Shafran R. Overcoming Perfectionism: Protocol of a Randomized Controlled Trial of an Internet-Based Guided Self-Help Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Intervention. JMIR Res Protoc [Internet]. 2016 [cited 2023 Sep 26]; 5(4):e215. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5124110/.