When Being Good Turns Bad: Stress & Perfectionism (Part 1)

When we think about ‘stress’it is often in relation to the ‘bad’ things that cause it – work,  demanding people and relationship issues or challenging events (new jobs,  moving house, Christmas with the in-laws etc.). These things ‘stress us out’ or give us cause to feel anxious or depressed and typically, as a society, we view these causes as ‘acceptable’ reasons to feel this way. It is also more acceptable, in these circumstances, to seek out support to deal with our stress – whether this support comes in the form of taking a multi-vitamin, professional therapy or whinging to a friend over a glass of wine. So, if we’ve managed to be able to identify when and why we’re stressed and to take some remedial action (some more effective than others) to deal with our stress – why does anxiety, depression and stress-related illness remain so prevalent?

One might argue that the problem is that the pressures we’re under (financial, time etc.) are   simply increasing – in other words, we just have more ‘bad’ things to be stressed about. While this may be true, my personal experience with stress has led me to some other conclusions.

Most of the time, when we experience stress, we focus on the source of the stress as both the cause of the problem and the probable solution. For example, we might feel stressed in relation to dealing with a difficult customer or boss. Typically we remain focused on why this person or situation is stressful: “I just wish they’d...They’re always...How do they expect me to...” It is their behaviour or demands that are causing us grief and as a result we tend to wait for them  to change, move on, leave or stop being such a Tool before we can return to a lovely, peaceful, non-stressed state. The problem with this approach is clear– we cannot control whether they change, move on, leave or stop being such a Tool. And of course, being in such a state of non-control only increases our stress levels.


An interesting thing happens when you start to remove the ‘bad things’ from your life – you realise that they rarely are the root cause of the stress. When I found myself in a position where I was relieved of all possible work, social and financial stressors, I was intrigued to find that I still, for some inexplicable reason, felt anxious, stressed and worried. About what? How could this be? I then became stressed over the fact that I was stressed for no good reason!  What a Loony! After getting over myself I realised that I had no other option than to stop blaming everything else around me for feeling stressed and take a look at myself and my ‘wiring’. What I found has led me to often introduce myself to clients with: “Hi, my name is Belinda and I am a Recovering Perfectionist.”

The fact is: “good”  behaviour can be just as stressful as “bad” things. How? Because“beinggood” has turned into a demand – not an external one from a difficult boss orhefty mortgage repayment – but from the internal critic or policeman in yourown head. A demand is always perceived as a demand by the body regardlessof where it comes from. Most importantly, the body will alwaystranslate the demand as a command to be alert, vigilant, on guard – readyfor ‘fight or flight’ – which is of course, the first stage of the physiological stress response. If these demands continue to command the body without abatement, itis in effect, like keeping our finger pressed on the red alert button. We aresaying to our body “stay on alert; it is not safe to relax” and if thiscontinues we never allow our body to return to equilibrium where it can healand recharge.

Having internal demandswhich create a stress response is problematic for two reasons:

1)       Unawarenessof the Creation ofHealth Problems

We usually perceive internal demands as a ‘normal’ mode of functionioning and thereforeremain unaware that our bodies are actually physiologically stressed. 

2)       Inability to Resolve Health Problems

Because “good behaviours” are seemingly innocuous and oftenself-serving, they remain hidden as a root cause of stress and if the rootcause of a health problem is left unaddressed the problem will persist.  

Behaviours which we thinkare perfectly ‘acceptable’ may well be the cause of our health problems. Sometimes we remain unaware of theirimpact because we are accustomed to them or we don’t perceive them as beingharmful – after all, we’ve been living with that inner policeman all ourlives, he’s part of the furniture. My need to do all the ironing before I sitdown to watch TV couldn’t possibly be a contributing factor to my headache!  My inability to leave dishes in the sink overnight couldn’t possibly be acontributing factor to my insomnia! My need to re-read this email 20 timescould not be the cause of my anxiety!

Internal needs and demandshave become part of the normal state of functioning for a lot of people.  Let’s look at some of the internal demands of a typical Perfectionist:

I must get it all done (“ I can’tleave things half-done”)

I must do more (“I haven’t doneenough”)

I can’t rest, relax or sit stilluntil everything is done (“I can’t be lazy/It’s not OK to rest”)

I must get it right/perfect (“Ican’t get it wrong” + “What will they think of me?”)

I must work hard/try harder (“Idon’t deserve anything unless I have earned it”)

Sound familiar?  Perfectionism is a great example of how internal demands to be good canturn bad. This example is nowhere more effectively illustrated than inthe fact that 'perfectionism’ is one of the most commonly given responses tothe “What are your weaknesses?” question in job interviews. When intervieweesadmit to being perfectionists they are turning an apparent weakness into apositive – because perfectionism can and does have many upsides: attention todetail, conscientiousness, accuracy, diligence, and excellence. In fact, itis this very ‘upside’ which makes our internal demands so pervasive,  powerful, and difficult to shed.

Most of our internaldemands have become ingrained in our minds and personality; we usethem todirect, control and judge our actions and behaviour. At some point in ourlives the need to get something right might have brought great rewards – bothexternal (blue ribbon, trophy, praise from a parent or teacher) and internal(sense of accomplishment, self-satisfaction, pride). The pay-off is great andthe mind learns that good things happen when we allow our body to be drivenby the demand to get things right. So what’s so wrong with that? Well,  nothing. That is, until you can’t get to sleep at night because you haven’tdone all the dishes.

There is nothing wrong with doing things perfectly, or putting in your best effort, or going the ‘extra mile’ – it is the degree to which this process causes you stress that is the problem. When was the last time you felt, in body and mind, like you were on holiday while you were going through the daily grind? If you don’t feel relaxed, content and calm whilst you’re ‘being good’ and ‘doing good things’ then there is some degree of stress around this behaviour – your body is being commanded not to relax. While some level of stress is required to function (after all, that’s what gets us out of bed), your body should not,  on a day-to-day basis, feel like the world is going to end if you don’t run a spell-check over that email for the fifth time. For the most part, the anxiety we feel while sitting in traffic, getting the kids ready for school or preparing for an important meeting is not ‘normal’ and should not be the normal mode of functioning. However our bodies have adapted to it, so it feels normal to us. No wonder we’re confused when we start to experience heart palpitations at the supermarket checkout for no apparent reason - we simply have no clue what we’ve been putting our body through due to our good behaviours!

So why and how do internaldemands cause us stress? One answer is Fear. In the same way that we haveattributed positive outcomes of feeling worthy, valued, loved and recognisedwith achieving and being good, we’ve also assumed that not achieving and being good will result in an absence of these things. The body is naturally scared of the consequences of not experiencing the positive feelings of love and attention and will want to avoid it all costs. It is therefore fearful –  of failure, of not being good enough, of not being worthy or loved and so on.  When the body is fearful, the stress response is activated and it can’t or won’t relax. 

In the next issue we’ll discuss another set ofpotentially damaging internal demands to do with “goodism” and being “a goodperson” and explore what to do when being good turns bad. Untilthen, I’d like to invite you to notice how simple little programs like “Imust not be late” or “I must finish this task now” are no longer serving you.  Remember, I am not asking you to be late or relinquish your duties, I amasking you to give up the stress associated with the fear of what mighthappen if you were to be late or leave a task incomplete. Good luck!