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What Every Adult Child of an Alcoholic Needs to Know about Perfectionism

What Every Adult Child of an Alcoholic Needs to Know about Perfectionism

Addicted, dysfunctional and chaotic families are a breeding ground for perfectionism. Therapists and addictions counselors often talk about alcoholism (or any addiction) as a family disease because it affects everyone in the family. As I’m sure you’re aware, an addict’s behavior has far reaching consequences for his/her family, especially the children.

Alcoholic homes are unpredictable and harsh. Some children learn that the best way to cope is to become an overly compliant pleaser. We keep the peace by trying to keep everyone happy all of the time. Adult Children of Alcoholics states “…we became people-pleasers, even though we lost our own identities in the process. All the same we would mistake any personal criticism as a threat.”

This people-pleasing creates weak boundaries. We tend to overextend ourselves in order to please others. And we overextend ourselves to pursue goals and achievement at any cost. Throwing ourselves into work or school can become an escape and a way to bury our feelings. Striving for perfection and success become a way to prove our worth and to avoid criticism from our parents and ourselves.

Children in alcoholic families become overly responsible out of necessity. We often have to take care of our addicted or co-dependent parent and/or our siblings. We learn early on that others are untrustworthy and to rely on ourselves.

Trying to be perfect becomes a way to avoid harsh criticism and unwanted attention. We want to fly under the radar and perfectionism serves this goal.drunk man

Because we were blamed and criticized as children we came to internalize these beliefs and now are overly harsh with ourselves. We expect perfection from ourselves and since this isn’t possible we fall into harsh self-criticize, feeling of guilt, hopelessness, and low self-worth.

Some of the common Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACA) traits are:

  • people-pleasing
  • perfectionism
  • fear of abandonment or rejection
  • taking care of others to feel worthy
  • all or nothing thinking
  • struggle with identity
  • trying to control others
  • poor boundaries
  • difficulty trusting
  • don’t feel “good enough”
  • tend to “stuff” feelings
  • self-critical
  • passive or feel guilty when assertive yourself
  • serious and have a hard time relaxing and having fun
  • sensitive to criticism from others

If you’re a perfectionist who grew up in an alcoholic family, remember that perfectionism was a coping strategy. It was helpful when you were a child. It was the best strategy you could come up with. In other words, it was an understandable and normal response to a chaotic and confusing upbringing.

Now, it’s time to ask yourself if your perfectionism still serves you well. Or is it time to let go of perfectionism and find new coping strategies? Hopefully you are no longer living with an addict (but if you are, realize you have more choices as an adult). Your perfectionist coping strategies became habits. With work, we can change our habits if they no longer help us. You can begin to invite fun and self-compassion into your life. You can accept mistakes and not be so harsh with yourself.

The first step in any change is acknowledging that you have a problem: Perfectionism is causing you pain and suffering. From here you start to set goals and take action. There is hope!



Adult Children of Alcoholics

Co-Dependents Anonymous

National Association for Children of Alcoholics (UK)


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What Every Adult Child of an Alcoholic Needs to Know about Perfectionism

Sharon Martin, LCSW

Sharon Martin is an emotional wellness speaker, writer, and licensed psychotherapist. Her San Jose based practice specializes in helping over-stressed, high achieving adults and teens learn to embrace their imperfections and grow happiness. Her personal journey of overcoming perfectionism and people-pleasing traits, inspired her passion for this work. Sharon is the author of The CBT Workbook for Perfectionism: Evidence-Based Skills to Help You Let Go of Self-Criticism, Build Self-Esteem, and Find Balance and several ebooks including Setting Boundaries Without Guilt: A Workbook to Move You From Doormat to Empowerment. Sharon also enjoys teaching blogging and writing classes for therapists. You can find her on Twitter, instagram, and her website.

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APA Reference
Martin, S. (2017). What Every Adult Child of an Alcoholic Needs to Know about Perfectionism. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 15, 2018, from


Last updated: 31 Dec 2017
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 31 Dec 2017
Published on All rights reserved.