Updated: Jan 31, 2019
Even Batman, that darkest of superheroes, understood the value inside every human being. “You are someone. You mean something,” he is quoted as saying. But it can be hard in this crazy, modern society to keep sight of your greatness and truly appreciate the contribution you make to the world.
The fact is that modern society pressures us into many unnatural and unhealthy shapes, forms and expectations, and it is little wonder that conditions such as anxiety and perfectionism are on the rise. Forget laser-vision and limbs of steel; these days we increasingly focus our superpowers on paranoiac fear and an obsessive need to get things right.
I believe that in order to create healthier, happier, and more creative lives, we must learn how to deal with the limitations of anxiety and perfectionism and begin to use our superpowers for good. How do we do that? Well, first, we must understand what we choose for ourselves when we invite anxiety and perfectionism into our minds.
The physical symptoms of anxiety will be familiar to many – your heart races, your palms sweat, an acute sense of terror rises up inside you. But these symptoms are simply physical feedback. What’s truly happening is your mind is signaling that it feels overwhelmed. Your brain is taking in too much information from your surroundings – sights, sounds, smells, emotions, activities – and it is telling you that it can’t handle the situation. Your mind begins to perceive that you are in danger, and it demands that you protect yourself. Pronto.
Anxiety usually shows up when we are in new or unusual situations. You are being confronted with new information, and your mind begins to believe you can’t deal with it. However, what is vital to understand is that although your mind is interpreting the situation as causing fear, what you’re actually feeling is excitement. This excitement-as-fear indoctrination often begins very early in life.
Think of a young child, navigating a challenging piece of playground equipment. Their minds are calculating, their heart is pounding, and they are breathing hard with excitement. They look to their loving parent and see fear on that face. Or perhaps they are encouraged by their caregiver, “Don’t be afraid, darling!”. In either case, in that moment, the child learns to interpret the physical signs of excitement, as fear.
Whereas anxiety is about information, perfectionism is about judgement. We each have a set of standards that we live our life by; some of these standards we have chosen for ourselves, but many others we have inherited or absorbed from family, peers and society. From these standards, we learn to judge ourselves and our adherence to these expectations: How did I perform? Where do I fit in the larger scheme of things? How do I compare to others, and to my own standards?
Perfectionism occurs when we forget to balance the striving for these standards with a healthy appreciation for mistakes, miscalculations and misfortune. When we choose to ignore the value of perceived ‘error’ and chase imaginary, ideal results, we make inevitable mistakes and missteps wrong – and make ourselves wrong in the process.
Unsurprisingly, perfectionism is closely linked to anxiety. When we are trying to get everything right, it is easy to become overwhelmed by the information and elements we are desperately trying to control.
Both anxiety and perfectionism are potentially very limiting in terms of your capacity for joy, fulfillment and success. In the case of perfectionism, your mind becomes hyper-focused on the desired result and on every detail of your project or task. With anxiety, you become hyper-focused on the environment around you. Like a super-sensitive radio receiver, you begin to pick up on every little stimulus.
In both cases, the condition draws you out of yourself and into the event that is controlling you. You become a victim of external circumstances. In doing so, you lose the anchor within yourself, and limit both your personal power and your creativity.
Of course, once you are in the cycle of anxiety or perfectionism, the challenge becomes even more acute. We have been taught by society that these kinds of behaviors are wrong, and so you find yourself in constant wrongness for feeling these things. In your desire to be the same, be liked, and be accepted, you may begin to withdraw, contract and shut yourself down – even those traits that make you uniquely great.
However, I want you to consider: what if wrongness is just a point of view? What if who you are, and what you experience, are simply superhuman capacities in disguise?
Living without limits with anxiety and perfectionism
The way to move beyond the limitations of perfection and anxiety is to turn on the lights, change your point of view and see these experiences for the possibilities they truly are.
For instance, anxiety arises from a heightened awareness of your surroundings – an amazing superpower that you can easily turn to your advantage. With this perspective, it is no longer necessary to fear the information, resist it and feel wrong about yourself. Instead, you become willing to receive the stimuli in your surroundings; you become a treasure-box of information and observance.
It is equally as possible to see the determination and perseverance that underlies perfectionism. By appreciating these traits in yourself, the experience shifts from a desperate need to avoid mistakes into a scenario where mistakes work for you. When you ‘stumble’, you experience the mistake as feedback and learning, and draw upon your innate determination and perseverance to create something greater.
Crucially, you must allow your mind to move out of wrongness, limitation and hyper-focus, and encourage it to see possibility in every experience. The most powerful way to do this, is by asking a question.
When you ask a question, your mind begins to explore all the possibilities available. To be most effective, don’t look for an immediate answer. Let your mind stay in a state of ‘query’; searching, wondering, inquiring. And allow the possibilities to find their way to you.
When experiencing anxiety, effective questions may include:
“What is this feeling, really?” Is it fear, or is it excitement?”
“What am I aware of? What information am I getting here and how can I use it to my advantage?”
“What capacities do I have by picking up information that I haven’t
For the perfectionist, effective questions can be:
“How can I use my desire for ‘betterment’ to my advantage in this situation?”
“What capacities of ‘never give up, never give in, never stop’ do I have, that I can acknowledge now?
“How can I use this mistake to my advantage?”
Most importantly, to move beyond the limitations of any perceived wrongness, ask yourself, “What’s right about this situation that I’m not getting? What’s right about me that I’m not getting?”
What a world we would create if we each acknowledged and claimed our superpowers – particularly those we have learned to fear, ignore or restrict. For me, it is these traits that hold the greatest potency. And, when you allow that potency to shine, when you step out of wrongness and live every experience without limits, you become more than a superhero – you become a leader for a greater world.
Susanna Mittermaier is a psychologist, psychotherapist and author of the #1 international bestselling book, “Pragmatic Psychology: Practical Tools for Being Crazy Happy.” She is a certified facilitator for Right Voice for You, a special program by Access Consciousness®. A highly sort after public speaker, Susanna has been featured in magazines such as TV soap, Women’s Weekly, Empowerment Channel Voice America, Om Times, Motherpedia, Newstalk New Zealand and Holistic Bliss. Susanna offers a new paradigm of therapy called Pragmatic Psychology and is known for her ability to transform people’s problems and difficulties into possibilities and powerful choices. Follow on Twitter @AccessSusanna.