Are you a perfectionist? Exploring the roots of perfectionism in adults
Perfectionism is a mindset and pattern of thinking and behaving. It consists of many tendencies, such as attention to detail, striving for perfection, unrelenting high standards, struggling to make decisions, fear of failure, intolerance for mistakes and thinking that we are not good enough so we need to try harder in order to meet our high expectations.
Perfectionists tend to set high and unrealistic goals and engage in very critical self-evaluations. Most importantly, however, perfectionism is a way of coping with stressful thoughts; it is a coping mechanism.
What causes perfectionism?
So, how do we acquire these self-critical thoughts and thinking patterns? We are certainly not born with these thoughts. In fact, we create an overcompensating mechanism of perfectionism due to experiences we've had in our lives. That is why, for many people out there, perfectionism is a trauma response. Simply put, perfectionism is a learned pattern that arises due to traumatic life experiences. Here we explore the three most common roots of perfectionism.
First, we delve into our usual suspect for trauma: our parents. But wait, we should not jump to blaming our parents! We should simply aim to understand how their behaviour influenced ours.
Most parents tried to do their best within their capacity and the tools they had at their disposal, and parents face their own vulnerabilities, weaknesses, and struggles when trying to raise us. As children, we wanted to be loved by them, we depended on them, and every little disappointment we committed threatened our sense of security and emotional safety.
During childhood, we were in a very vulnerable period of life where all we wanted was to be loved and supported. If we were raised by highly critical parents, overambitious parents, or high-achieving parents, it is likely that we resorted to perfectionist tendencies in order to cope. That is why these types of parenting styles are one of the most common reasons behind perfectionism. But, how do these parents behave?
Over-ambitious parents are those who:
- Focus on mistakes and failures
- Push children to their limits
- Do not allow them to take a break
- Terrify children with worst-case scenarios of failure
- Dismiss feelings and needs
- Focus only on successes
- In extreme cases, abuse, belittle, humiliate, and punish children for any possible setback and for not being the perfect child
If you were raised in such a household, this is probably where you first heard the phrase “you disappointed me,” and it possibly hurt you to your core. This is also probably where you first heard “what would people say?” and where this thought got stuck in your head because it seems that what other people think is more important than what you think about yourself, or even what your parents think about you.
These are the instances where you felt deep disappointment, coupled with fear, terror, anxiety and stress about your own being. This becomes your first experience of shame, a feeling greatly associated with perfectionism and, during these experiences, there was nobody to comfort you or to explain it to you - that is why it is called trauma.
In order to cope with this shame, embarrassment and trauma, we resort to creating the overcompensating mechanism of perfectionism. This is why perfectionism can be a trauma response. Through perfectionism, we try to deal with the shame and this internalised defectiveness we feel about ourselves. This is what sparks those voices that unconsciously tell us that we are never enough, that there will always be something more to do and to achieve in order to feel accepted and approved.
One other cause of perfectionism, unrelated to our parents, is bullying. Experiencing bullying in our childhood or teenage years can generate the same effects as being raised by high-achieving parents. If we were bullied, we were made to feel ashamed of ourselves and to feel that we are not enough. We were made to think that our looks, our clothes, our friends, our music, and our academic performance were simply not enough. This time, these criticisms came from our peers or even our teachers.
But, again, the only way we found to cope with this shameful "reality" is to try our very best, always. Sometimes we even daydreamed about the time when we will show our bullies what we are capable of. We dreamt about saying “one day you will beg to be my friend,” or “one day I am going to be so important that nobody will ever doubt my worth, my value, and my importance. These thoughts fuel our perfectionism and desire to be perfect.
Changes and traumatic events
Finally, another cause of perfectionism is the traumatic events or sudden changes we experienced during our childhood. These are events that shook our world during our formative years. For example, sudden death in the family, moving to a new city, a new school, a new country, or a chaotic environment in the family.
All these events can be very overwhelming for a child who will desperately try to bring some control into their lives. So, if the child cannot control their environment, they will instead try to control themselves, their thoughts and their internal world. In this case, perfectionism is the ultimate effort to control ourselves and to create a sense of safety.
So, is perfectionism a trauma response?
Perfectionism is a coping mechanism that helped us survive and navigate through life when we were younger; it was our response to an unpredictable and unsupportive environment. But, right now, it is backfiring. When we become adults, we find that we do not need this coping mechanism anymore, and that it is in fact harming us more than it is helping us.
As adults, we have the tools at our disposal to find more healthy coping strategies. Our efforts should be placed on ourselves, on how to develop ourselves. Sometimes we might feel the urge to try to change our parents and their perfectionist tendencies. But we must remember: this is our struggle, not theirs. They might not be ready for it, they might not have processed their life experiences yet or even be aware they are perfectionists. We simply need to understand where our tendencies come from, how we acquired this mindset and set boundaries with the people around us if necessary.
Perfectionism is a trauma response that was learned due to our life experiences. Perfectionism can take a toll on our relationships and even lead to burnout. Our goal now is to change our own self-talk and our habits. Thereafter, you can begin your journey towards healing your traumas and adopting healthier coping strategies. But, please remember, many people are in the same boat, struggling with their own perfectionism, and you are not alone.