Perfectionism and Unreasonable Expectations

Managing our social anxiety and depression.

Robert F Mullen, PhD

The distinction between social anxiety disorder and social anxiety is a matter of severity; reference to one includes the other. The recovery tools and techniques provided apply to most emotional malfunctions, including depression, substance abuse, ADHD, PTSD, generalized anxiety, and self-esteem and motivation issues. These malfunctions originate homogeneously, their trajectories differentiated by environment, experience, and the diversity of human thought and behavior.  

“Dr. Mullen is doing impressive work helping the world. He is the pioneer of proactive neuroplasticity utilizing DRNI – deliberate, repetitive, neural information.” – WeVoice (Madrid, Málaga)   

Perfectionism and Unreasonable Expectations

Negative self-analysis compels us to overcompensate. A byproduct of overcompensation is perfectionism. Perfectionism causes us to set unreasonable expectations.

None of us is perfect. We all conceal things about ourselves that make us appear defective or inadequate. Often, we hide these indiscretions from ourselves by engaging in defense mechanisms such as denial and projection. Or we cognitively distort our toxic behaviors to justify or validate them. We distract, project, and rationalize.

Living with persistent negative self-beliefs for years on end is emotionally destabilizing. Persons experiencing social anxiety crave interconnectedness, but fears of intimacy and rejection challenge the wherewithal to establish and maintain healthy relationships. Our fears of negative judgment and criticism limit creativity and interactivity. These difficulties challenge our psychological health, compelling us to use defense mechanisms. Any mental process that protects us from our fears, anxieties, and threats to our emotional well-being can be considered a defense mechanism.

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Defense Mechanisms

Defense mechanisms are psychological responses that protect us from our unrelenting anxieties. They temporarily appease our sense of helplessness, hopelessness, undesirability, and worthlessness. They allow us to twist reality to conform to our irrational and unhealthy conduct.

Defense mechanisms are short-term safeguards against the thoughts and emotions that are difficult for our conscious minds to manage. Most, like compensation, substance abuse, and projection are methods of avoidance – unhealthy resolutions to our fears and anxieties that offer temporary respite but do little to moderate them in the long term. 

Some defense mechanisms, when used appropriately, can be beneficial. Without coping mechanisms, healthy or otherwise, we can experience decompensation – the inability or unwillingness to generate effective psychological alternatives to stress – resulting in personality disturbance or disintegration.


Compensation is when we excel in one area of our lives to counteract real or perceived deficits in another. The socially inadequate becomes an actor or musician. A teenager compensates for learning difficulties by excelling in sports.

Compensation has healthy applications. We compensate for our adverse thoughts and behaviors by replacing them with positive, productive ones. We compensate for our low self-esteem by becoming mindful of our character strengths, virtues, and achievements. 

Our social anxiety has negatively impacted our emotional well-being and quality of life since childhood. Our obsession with our performance and shortcomings is a constant self-reminder of our imperfections. Our symptomatic negative self-analysis provides feelings of incompetence and undesirability. These self-attributions compel us to overcompensate, which drives us to create unreasonable expectations.  

An expectation, by definition, is a fervid emotional belief that something will take place in the future. When we set expectations, we invest an interest in their outcome. An unreasonable expectation is unsound and will likely be unmet.

The Problem of Perfectionism

An unhealthy byproduct of overcompensation is falling into the trap of perfectionism. This is especially prevalent in persons experiencing anxiety and depression. Perfectionism causes us to set unreasonable expectations to compensate for our perceived deficiencies. Let’s discuss some glaring similarities between social anxiety disorder and perfectionism.

Seek Progress, Not Perfection

SAD persons worry about their performance before and during a situation and obsess about the outcome long after. We fear negative appraisal and rejection. We beat ourselves up when our unreasonable expectations are unmet. Perfectionism is not the desire to do well but the need to be faultless. Anything less is unsatisfactory. Perfectionism and social anxiety have a parallel relationship.

Perfectionists and SAD persons have lower implicit and explicit self-esteem relative to healthy controls.

A perfectionist perceives anything less than perfection as failure. It’s the all-or-nothing distortion of polarized thinking common among SAD persons. We see things as absolute – black or white. There is no middle ground, no compromise. We are either brilliant or abject failures. Our friends are for us or against us. If we are not faultless, we must be broken and inept. 

Perfectionists and SAD persons avoid situations that project potential failure. We worry so much about doing or saying something inappropriate that we procrastinate or avoid the situation entirely. This avoidance exacerbates our isolation and loneliness.

Perfectionists do not take criticism well. A prevailing symptom of social anxiety disorder is the fear of situations in which we may be negatively judged, criticized, or ridiculed. Because of our critical nature and tendency to reject out of fear of rejection, perfectionists and SAD persons are, ostensibly, lonely or isolated, which seriously impacts our ability to initiate, develop, and sustain satisfying relationships. 

Perfectionists obsess over their perceived imperfections. Rather than taking pride in their abilities, they prioritize their faults. Filtering is a cognitive distortion common to SAD persons. We selectively choose our perspective. We focus on the negative aspects of a situation and exclude the positive. Negative filtering sustains our toxic core and intermediate beliefs. Example: A dozen colleagues celebrate our promotion; one ignores us. We obsess over the lone individual over the goodwill of the others.

Unmet Expectations

What happens in the likelihood our unreasonable expectations are unmet? Because we have a vested interest, we are psychologically attached to the outcome. Fixed In our minds, we see it as a reality. When it does not go our way, we experience distress and disappointment.

Experts describe the reaction to disappointment as a form of sadness – an expression of desperation or grief due to loss. While it is true that we cannot lose what we have not acquired, fixing the expectation in our mind makes it real and visceral. Unmet expectations can lead to depression, self-loathing, and other traits associated with perfectionism and social anxiety.

Setting Reasonable Expectations

It is human nature to want to aspire to excellence. How do we set reasonable expectations when our perfectionism demands the brass ring? Reasonable expectations that are rational, possible, positive, unconditional, and goal-focused are more likely to be met. 

Rational: Of sound judgment; sensible. I will publish my first novel is an unreasonable expectation if we choose to remain illiterate.

Possible: If our expectations are unachievable, our efforts are futile. 

Positive:  Supporting negative behavior is detrimental to our emotional well-being. It is, likewise, irrational and, therefore, unreasonable to self-harm. Avoid pressure, negative absolute, and conditional words.

Unconditional: Imposing conditions on our expectations decreases the probability of success. Our goal is clear and concise, unimpeded by caveats.

Goal-Focused: If we know our destination, our path will be focused and coherent. The most effective expectations are calculated and specific to our intention. What is our end goal – the personal milestone we want to achieve? 

Set Expectations Early On

Setting expectations carefully in advance allows us to preplan strategies and coping mechanisms to help meet them.

Self-Esteem and Other-Esteem

Perfectionists and persons experiencing SAD are subject to significantly lower implicit and explicit self-esteem relative to healthy controls. Latent self-qualities, however, can be regenerated through specific tools and techniques. Healthy self-esteem accelerates and consolidates the structure and effectiveness of reasonable expectations. Rebuilding our self-esteem is a primary objective in recovery and self-empowerment.

Notwithstanding, we can only reasonably set expectations of ourselves. Setting expectations of others will result in frustration and disappointment because we have no control over their outcome. It is called self-esteem, not other-esteem. We only have jurisdiction over internal expectations. 

Don’t Beat Yourself Up

No matter how reasonably we set them, occasionally, our expectations will be partially or wholly unmet. We may need to modify them to accommodate the situation. We may need more practice or to extend our planned timeframe. Reasonable expectations require flexibility. While we control our reactions and responses to situations, we are subject to external factors over which we have no control. It is part of the learning process. If we reframe our perspective, we will discover the positive aspects of every experience. 

Avoid Distorted Thinking

Perfectionists and persons experiencing social anxiety are highly susceptible to cognitive distortions and other defense mechanisms. Knowing what these are and being mindful of our misuse is essential. 


Self-appreciation is recognizing and enjoying our good qualities, efforts, and achievements. For every positive attempt or interaction, congratulate yourself. You deserve to experience the pride and satisfaction that complements such efforts fully. Always be kind to yourself.

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. If we are foolishly determined to fly, our wings will melt and hurdle us to the ground. Recovery, however, is a life’s work in progress. There is no absolute cure for social anxiety, but by practicing the recovery tools and tools over time, we experience an exponential and dramatic moderation of our symptoms.

The key is always progress over perfection.

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