Overcoming Anxiety with a Binary Mindset: A Tip From an Imperfectionist

As you may or may not know, I suffer from anxiety/panic disorder. It’s gotten a lot better since I moved home from Korea, but it hasn’t gone away, and it was really difficult the first few weeks after it started.

In the early days of my recovery, I read the book How to Be an Imperfectionist, and though the book is full of good advice, there was one tip that really stood out in my mind as something useful for people dealing with anxiety*.

Stephen Guise, the author of HTBAI, dealt with pretty crippling anxiety in his time, so he knows where he’s coming from when he says that perfectionism is a major cause of anxiety. Socially anxious people are more concerned than anyone else about a social interaction; they want it to go perfectly, and may or may not imagine all the things that could go wrong. If they do end up at the party or talking with that person, and it doesn’t go perfectly (and it won’t, because we’re humans on earth), then the person walks away feeling like a failure.

Enter the Binary Mindset

Guise says that decreasing a fear of making mistakes begins with a shift in your perspective.

He starts by talking computer lingo, but don’t worry, it’s stuff we all know; 0 and 1. Computers speak it. He goes on to talk about digital vs analog information. Digital information is finite and defined, and analog is more of a spectrum. Guise says we need to adopt the binary or digital mindset in order to overcome fear of failure.

He gives a lot of good examples, but the basic idea boils down to this; in a digital or binary task, you either succeed or you don’t. There’s no gradient of success. You flip a switch. It’s either “on” or it’s “off.” The focus is on if you take the action, not how well you do.

Contrast that with the analog idea of a task like a speech; you won’t fail absolutely 100% but you probably won’t be completely flawless either. You fall somewhere on a spectrum.

The trick is to make as many tasks binary as possible, including ones we normally put on a spectrum (like speeches).

Reimagine your speech. Instead of aiming for 100% flawless delivery, which is pretty much impossible, instead decide that getting up on stage and giving the speech is a success; a 1. That’s it. You can make all kinds of mistakes and still consider it a success because you did it. You redefined success and put it in a binary position.

Let’s extrapolate. You want to go to a party. Before, in your analog state, you would want the party to be fun the whole time, you wouldn’t want any awkward time drifting between friends, and you would want to be witty and charming when you were talking. Anything other than that is some kind of failure, and your night (especially for an anxious person) is ruined. Or it doesn’t exist because you’re too psyched out to go.

Now, redefine that in binary. If you go to the party, it’s a 1 – success. If you don’t go, it’s a 0 – fail. No matter what happens at the party, if you go, you have succeeded. So let’s say you go, and it’s okay, and you leave early when you get tired, but you went. Success!

As I’ve talked about a lot with every book of Guise’s, the idea is to build up a mental stronghold of success. If you keep succeeding, you enter a positive feedback loop that will help your mental state. Likewise, if you keep failing (in your mind), you enter a negative feedback loop where you are more likely to fail the more you fail because you are used to and expect failure.

I’d rather get used to successes, even small ones.

Personal Experience

I tried this immediately after reading about it. I redefined anything I could as a 1/0 situation. When I went to the doctor for the first time after coming back to America and getting healthcare, I wasn’t sure what would happen. I might have my insurance rejected, or have to pay a lot more than I was expecting, or the doctor would find something wrong with me, or the medicine might be expensive…there was a large spectrum of things that could go wrong.

But instead of thinking of all of those things, I said that if I drove myself to the doctor, it was a success. Even if my insurance somehow had messed up and they didn’t take it. The only way to fail was to not go.

I went. It went well. Yes, there was some back and forth over insurance (isn’t there always), but I was able to talk to my doctor and got good results. But the point is that even if I hadn’t gotten good results, it would have been a success.

I did the same thing with pretty much every social encounter as well; something that’s tough on an introvert with anxiety. If I did the thing, it was a 1, no matter how it went. D&D session wasn’t quite what I’d hoped? I went, so it was a success! Got super tired after talking with a friend? I did it, so it was a success!

This sort of mindset has been hugely helpful so far. I mean, it’s changed how I view everything. Of course it hasn’t taken the anxiety away, and it doesn’t mean I float through life like a butterfly, but it does mean I realize that situations are up to me to control. I define success on my terms, and if I can define it so I will succeed, so much the better.

The binary mindset. It’s the bee’s knees, y’all.

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*Disclaimer: if you do have depression, anxiety, or have suffered trauma or abuse, this sort of advice will only do so much. I always encourage you to see a doctor or psychiatrist first. They are trained professionals. The advice I give on this blog is more general. 🙂

13 thoughts on “Overcoming Anxiety with a Binary Mindset: A Tip From an Imperfectionist

  1. This is fascinating! I’ve recently noticed more psychology articles on changing the parenting paradigm to aid kids — praising their effort (if they tried) rather than praising the final product (which might be a TERRIBLE story or picture). I guess the idea is that if you only praise perfection, your kids will generally feel worthless and be afraid to try; but if you overpraise, you’ve got a budding narcissist.

    So maybe if we focus more on the effort and “what did you learn for next time?” we’ll have less anxious kids who know that perfection is a myth?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think so. As a former teacher, we got a lot of advice on how to praise students – it was important to praise them, but we had to praise them in a way that promoted the effort, as you said. When they did well on a test or made a drawing, we said “I can see you worked hard on that!” or similar, and that’s supposed to encourage kids to love challenges. And yeah, hopefully this will help kids with perfectionism and also with kids who grow up thinking they have to be smart or they aren’t valuable.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I LOVE THIS SO MUCH
    Following you now especially for a great post like this
    I have this exact same problem, but I hadn’t linked it to perfectionism before! I had an inkling I was a BIT of a perfectionist because I would get daunted by starting or completing projects because I didn’t want it to be imperfect, but now I am even more sure than ever.
    I worry about everything that could possibly go wrong, even though things are bound to go wrong, so I love how you are telling me to shift my mindset and consider other things a success! Like the fact that I went to the doctor’s, even if my insurance isn’t accepted.
    LOVE IT

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Also am always here to support other people with anxiety and love that you lived in Korea for a bit! I hope it was a happy experience… as a Korean I would hate to live there for longer than… maybe a year at most, to be honest.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It was a happy experience! The things that caused the anxiety were things that could have happened anywhere, and the reason it got so bad was because of previous problems I’d bottled up in the past. I loved Korea! I may never live there again, but I would certainly want to go back and visit.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Aw that’s great! I hear it’s ultra convenient to live there, which I do envy, and the cost of living isn’t as high as it is in the States in the busier areas. Anxiety seriously is a bummer 😦 I hate it… and bottling up is terrible, too… but so hard not to at the same time because you just want to function as a “normal” human being and brush things off sometimes

        Liked by 1 person

      3. It is in some respects! Walking everywhere was great, and the public transport was of course excellent. The only disadvantages come if you don’t have a car; then you’re constrained in some ways. Like when I would walk to the grocery store and could only buy what I could carry home.

        Liked by 1 person

      4. Oh but I hear that they deliver EVERYTHING to you no matter where you are now and it’s such fast service 😮 I would unashamedly use those rolling cart things I see old women using

        Liked by 1 person

    2. Thank you! If you are struggling, I strongly suggest reading the book the tip is from! (How To Be An Imperfectionist by Stephen Guise) All the tips are solid gold, and I read and reread it when I was first dealing with anxiety. It gave me a lot of comfort at the same time equipping me with a good toolbox to help recover.

      Liked by 1 person

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