Emotional Perfectionism: Don't Go There

Reviewed Feb 22, 2017

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Summary

Trust that you will recognize when negative emotions have persisted and worsened over several weeks to the point that your regular routines are disrupted. If you sought help in the past and felt better over time, you will again.

If you or your loved one has ever had depression or anxiety, you likely know quite a bit about the disorder—its symptoms, causes, treatment, duration—you name it. If the illness was severe, you might find yourself dreading its return in yourself or your loved one.

As natural as this is, it can create quite a bit of anxiety. While it can be helpful to be alert to the definite symptoms of any illness, a constant watch for the slightest blip on your mental health radar robs you of peace. Read on to learn what you can do to stop striving for an unrealistic perfect emotional or mental state.

Are you an emotional perfectionist?

David Burns, MD, author of The Feeling Good Handbook, maintains that emotional perfectionism is "extremely common among people who suffer from anxiety and depression." He describes several perfectionistic beliefs that set a person up for feeling worse than necessary. Do any of these distorted attitudes belong to you?

  • You should always be happy and in control of all your feelings.
  • "Normal" people don't get anxious or depressed; only "weird" people or "neurotics" feel nervous, insecure, panicky, depressed, etc.
  • Negative emotions are always dangerous or catastrophic.

Nobody's perfect

On an intellectual level, you can probably look at the list above and agree those beliefs are incorrect. But you have, or someone you love has had negative emotions in the extreme and you just don't want to go through that again. As understandable as this tendency is, you owe yourself a break from such thoughts. Try replacing worries about negative emotions with some new, more realistic attitudes such as these:

  • There is no such thing as the perfect mental or emotional state.
  • It is part of the human experience to feel both positive and negative emotions.
  • You will feel frustrated, anxious, or sad sometimes, but this does not mean you have a mental illness.
  • Low moods produce negative thoughts and vice versa; you don't have to take your moods or your thoughts so seriously.
  • You can handle negative emotions; acceptance is part of the cure.
  • Anxiety and depression are not character flaws—they are symptoms of the body. You wouldn't add to the discomfort of a toothache by feeling inferior for having one, would you?

Facing the big "what if"

If you find little comfort in rethinking your distorted beliefs about negative emotions, take a good look at your anxieties. What is the worst possible outcome that you fear from your mental state? Is it loss of control? Insanity? Death? Those are pretty extreme outcomes, yet highly unlikely if you look at statistics. If you or your loved one has been hospitalized or attempted suicide in the past, then your fears feel much more grounded in reality.

What you have to trust is that you will recognize when negative emotions have persisted and worsened over several weeks to the point that your regular routines are disrupted. If you sought help in the past and felt better over time, you will again.

You might want to work with a mental health professional to help you sort through your beliefs and fears about yourself and about mental illness in general. Perhaps she can teach you to allow yourself to feel the full range of emotions and even to accept that although some of them feel awful, you can survive them and grow stronger.

By Laurie M. Stewart
Source: The Feeling Good Handbook by David D. Burns, MD. William Morrow and Company, 1989.

Summary

Trust that you will recognize when negative emotions have persisted and worsened over several weeks to the point that your regular routines are disrupted. If you sought help in the past and felt better over time, you will again.

If you or your loved one has ever had depression or anxiety, you likely know quite a bit about the disorder—its symptoms, causes, treatment, duration—you name it. If the illness was severe, you might find yourself dreading its return in yourself or your loved one.

As natural as this is, it can create quite a bit of anxiety. While it can be helpful to be alert to the definite symptoms of any illness, a constant watch for the slightest blip on your mental health radar robs you of peace. Read on to learn what you can do to stop striving for an unrealistic perfect emotional or mental state.

Are you an emotional perfectionist?

David Burns, MD, author of The Feeling Good Handbook, maintains that emotional perfectionism is "extremely common among people who suffer from anxiety and depression." He describes several perfectionistic beliefs that set a person up for feeling worse than necessary. Do any of these distorted attitudes belong to you?

  • You should always be happy and in control of all your feelings.
  • "Normal" people don't get anxious or depressed; only "weird" people or "neurotics" feel nervous, insecure, panicky, depressed, etc.
  • Negative emotions are always dangerous or catastrophic.

Nobody's perfect

On an intellectual level, you can probably look at the list above and agree those beliefs are incorrect. But you have, or someone you love has had negative emotions in the extreme and you just don't want to go through that again. As understandable as this tendency is, you owe yourself a break from such thoughts. Try replacing worries about negative emotions with some new, more realistic attitudes such as these:

  • There is no such thing as the perfect mental or emotional state.
  • It is part of the human experience to feel both positive and negative emotions.
  • You will feel frustrated, anxious, or sad sometimes, but this does not mean you have a mental illness.
  • Low moods produce negative thoughts and vice versa; you don't have to take your moods or your thoughts so seriously.
  • You can handle negative emotions; acceptance is part of the cure.
  • Anxiety and depression are not character flaws—they are symptoms of the body. You wouldn't add to the discomfort of a toothache by feeling inferior for having one, would you?

Facing the big "what if"

If you find little comfort in rethinking your distorted beliefs about negative emotions, take a good look at your anxieties. What is the worst possible outcome that you fear from your mental state? Is it loss of control? Insanity? Death? Those are pretty extreme outcomes, yet highly unlikely if you look at statistics. If you or your loved one has been hospitalized or attempted suicide in the past, then your fears feel much more grounded in reality.

What you have to trust is that you will recognize when negative emotions have persisted and worsened over several weeks to the point that your regular routines are disrupted. If you sought help in the past and felt better over time, you will again.

You might want to work with a mental health professional to help you sort through your beliefs and fears about yourself and about mental illness in general. Perhaps she can teach you to allow yourself to feel the full range of emotions and even to accept that although some of them feel awful, you can survive them and grow stronger.

By Laurie M. Stewart
Source: The Feeling Good Handbook by David D. Burns, MD. William Morrow and Company, 1989.

Summary

Trust that you will recognize when negative emotions have persisted and worsened over several weeks to the point that your regular routines are disrupted. If you sought help in the past and felt better over time, you will again.

If you or your loved one has ever had depression or anxiety, you likely know quite a bit about the disorder—its symptoms, causes, treatment, duration—you name it. If the illness was severe, you might find yourself dreading its return in yourself or your loved one.

As natural as this is, it can create quite a bit of anxiety. While it can be helpful to be alert to the definite symptoms of any illness, a constant watch for the slightest blip on your mental health radar robs you of peace. Read on to learn what you can do to stop striving for an unrealistic perfect emotional or mental state.

Are you an emotional perfectionist?

David Burns, MD, author of The Feeling Good Handbook, maintains that emotional perfectionism is "extremely common among people who suffer from anxiety and depression." He describes several perfectionistic beliefs that set a person up for feeling worse than necessary. Do any of these distorted attitudes belong to you?

  • You should always be happy and in control of all your feelings.
  • "Normal" people don't get anxious or depressed; only "weird" people or "neurotics" feel nervous, insecure, panicky, depressed, etc.
  • Negative emotions are always dangerous or catastrophic.

Nobody's perfect

On an intellectual level, you can probably look at the list above and agree those beliefs are incorrect. But you have, or someone you love has had negative emotions in the extreme and you just don't want to go through that again. As understandable as this tendency is, you owe yourself a break from such thoughts. Try replacing worries about negative emotions with some new, more realistic attitudes such as these:

  • There is no such thing as the perfect mental or emotional state.
  • It is part of the human experience to feel both positive and negative emotions.
  • You will feel frustrated, anxious, or sad sometimes, but this does not mean you have a mental illness.
  • Low moods produce negative thoughts and vice versa; you don't have to take your moods or your thoughts so seriously.
  • You can handle negative emotions; acceptance is part of the cure.
  • Anxiety and depression are not character flaws—they are symptoms of the body. You wouldn't add to the discomfort of a toothache by feeling inferior for having one, would you?

Facing the big "what if"

If you find little comfort in rethinking your distorted beliefs about negative emotions, take a good look at your anxieties. What is the worst possible outcome that you fear from your mental state? Is it loss of control? Insanity? Death? Those are pretty extreme outcomes, yet highly unlikely if you look at statistics. If you or your loved one has been hospitalized or attempted suicide in the past, then your fears feel much more grounded in reality.

What you have to trust is that you will recognize when negative emotions have persisted and worsened over several weeks to the point that your regular routines are disrupted. If you sought help in the past and felt better over time, you will again.

You might want to work with a mental health professional to help you sort through your beliefs and fears about yourself and about mental illness in general. Perhaps she can teach you to allow yourself to feel the full range of emotions and even to accept that although some of them feel awful, you can survive them and grow stronger.

By Laurie M. Stewart
Source: The Feeling Good Handbook by David D. Burns, MD. William Morrow and Company, 1989.

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