Perfectionism Vs. High-Functioning Anxiety: A Therapist Breaks Down The Differences

In the age of social media, it doesn't take long to find countless videos of people talking about their respective journeys with high-functioning anxiety. This term typically describes someone who suffers from anxiety but generally conceals it. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, over 40 million adults in the U.S. suffer from a form of anxiety. With these high percentages of numbers, it's no wonder that many have their own stories and journeys to share.

Another term that tends to pop up on social media often is perfectionism. Although perfectionism isn't a classified mental illness, it can make one's quality of life more challenging. Perfectionism is the strong desire to avoid failing and judging oneself or others for making a mistake, according to Psychology Today. Although perfectionism and high-functioning anxiety are eerily similar, they have a few differences, especially in how they relate. To give us the complete lowdown on both, we exclusively turned to Lindsey Bass, an LGBTQ+ therapist specializing in anxiety at Linden Tree Counseling, to explain these terms and what makes them different.

What is perfectionism?

Being a perfectionist is complex. Although it's valued in society because many associate perfectionism with success and hard-working traits, it has its challenges that can lower your quality of life. Before knowing whether or not you're a perfectionist, it's essential to know that it's not a term used in diagnosing someone; rather, it's a trait. 

"In psychology, perfectionism is considered a personality trait that varies from person to person, just like extroversion," Lindsey Bass exclusively tells us. "Some people have more of the trait ('perfectionists') and some less (non-perfectionists). Because it's a variable trait, researchers have also conceptualized a few different forms of perfectionism as well, which may or may not align with what we generally tend to think of [as] 'perfectionists.'" 

Like other similar traits, there are various degrees of perfectionism, and not everyone who is a perfectionist is the same. Some target their perfectionism toward themselves, while others target it at others. As Bass explains, self-orientated perfectionism is the most common type of perfectionism and involves pressuring oneself to be the best at all times — and in everything they do. Other-orientated perfectionism pressures others to succeed and avoid failing or making mistakes. 

What is high-functioning anxiety?

On the other hand, high-functioning anxiety relates to those who suffer from a type of diagnosable anxiety. However, as Lindsey Bass notes, high-functioning isn't a medical term or an official standard used to categorize anxiety. It simply describes someone with anxiety that rarely shows their symptoms in public. Whether it's a coping mechanism or pressure, those with high-functioning anxiety appear to be fine even though they're feeling anxious on the inside. "People with high functioning anxiety may have learned to cope by focusing on the outside world rather than their internal experiences, but in doing so may become anxious about their performance, which is why many descriptions of high functioning anxiety include perfectionism," Bass exclusively explains to Glam.

Nevertheless, high-functioning anxiety is just as dangerous as anxiety that can be seen. "Although these individuals may look put together and be able to accomplish everyday tasks, they still struggle with the same symptoms of anxiety internally — frequent worry, difficulty stopping or controlling worry, restless, and difficulty falling or staying asleep among them," according to Bass. That said, because high-functioning anxiety is concealed and isn't presented with any obvious signs, it can be tricky to know whether a person is suffering on the inside. Unless the other person discusses their anxiety, many people around you could be experiencing high-functioning anxiety without your knowledge.

Differences between perfectionism and high-functioning anxiety

Although they aren't the same, there's a link between perfectionism and high-functioning anxiety. "Research demonstrates that perfectionism and anxiety (as well as other mental health conditions) are related," Bass exclusively shares with us. "If someone has high levels of perfectionism, particularly if they are concerned about others' expectations for them, that there is a tendency to experience more overall psychological distress, including anxious and depressive symptoms." As Bass notes, it's difficult to often separate the two since they are often revolved around the same concept and can correlate to one another. Even though there's no direct linkage between the two, it's often believed that finding one means finding the other. However, there are a few instances in which this isn't always the case.

"It isn't a perfect correlation where all perfectionists are anxious, and all anxious people are perfectionists," notes Bass. "Perfectionists who can concentrate on what they have achieved and focus on self-improvement rather than thinking about what could have gone better if everything had worked out perfectly tended to have lower levels of anxiety than not only more rigid perfectionists but non-perfectionists as well." On that same note, those with high-functioning anxiety might not be as worried about the quality of their work but rather about completing their deadlines. Knowing these differences can make it easier to pinpoint the areas that need working on and help find the balance between productivity and a healthy mindset.

Dealing with perfectionism and high-functioning anxiety

No matter the mental health issues or complicated situations you may be dealing with, it's always important to know what it is that's going on rather than suffering mysteriously. The first step in dealing with perfectionism and/or high-functioning anxiety is knowing what you are suffering from. Like other anxiety disorders, those with high-functioning anxiety can find support and help via therapy and other lifestyle changes, per Banner Health. Setting up a routine, getting enough sleep, and exercising are small and simple ways to improve your anxiety enough to the point where you can succeed.

If you're looking to combat your perfectionism, you may want to start by setting realistic goals and expectations for yourself. After all, perfectionism can start to take over when you set unrealistic standards for yourself that can't be met at a reasonable time. "Even if someone with high functioning anxiety has higher levels of perfectionism, as long as they view themselves with self-compassion and remember that they have opportunities to learn and improve, they can avoid the more maladaptive forms of perfectionism," Lindsey Bass exclusively explains to Glam. You can also utilize resources like therapy to help come down to the root of your perfectionism and the emotions behind it, according to Oregon Counseling. "It may sound simpler than it is, but with practice and support, people with either maladaptive perfectionism and/or high-functioning anxiety can thrive," concludes Bass.