Are you a perfectionist – someone with impossibly high standards, who wants to please others, and is afraid of not measuring up? Sometimes, we mistakenly believe that perfectionism is the same as striving for excellence, but in most cases, it doesn’t actually motivate us or help us accomplish more. Instead, it leads to self-criticism, stress, health and mental health problems, and the belief that self-worth and love have to be earned.
Why do some people develop perfectionist traits?
If you struggle with perfectionism, you’ve probably wondered why you developed these traits.
And while there isn’t a single cause of perfectionism, most people recognize that their gender, culture, innate personality, and experiences play a part.
In this article, I’m going to focus on how different parenting styles can contribute to perfectionism. The purpose isn’t to blame parents, but rather to help you better understand yourself. Our parents have a huge influence on the development of our habits, values, beliefs, and how we see ourselves. And that’s why it’s helpful to look at how we were influenced by our early experiences with our parents.
As you read through the descriptions of demanding, perfectionist, distracted, and overwhelmed parents, you will probably notice that one or more describe your experience as a child.
Demanding parents value achievements—external markers of success such as awards, grades, money, and titles — and are overly concerned with what other people think. They see their children as an extension of themselves and actually derive some of their own self-esteem from their kids’ achievements. They feel embarrassed or inadequate if their children are less than perfect.
Demanding parents tend to tell their children (even adult children) what to do rather than ask what the child wants, needs, or feels. They often use emotional abuse (excessive yelling, cursing, and name-calling) and physical discipline to teach their children that failure and disobedience aren’t acceptable. And they feel justified and believe that harsh consequences will motivate their children to succeed.
Demanding parenting erodes a child’s self-esteem. Children with demanding parents become extremely hard on themselves. They constantly feel like they aren’t living up to their parents’ (and their own) expectations, leaving them with a sense of shame, failure, and inadequacy. They may have a hard time identifying what they really want and need, because they’ve internalized their parents’ goals and expectations. They also learn that love is conditional — that they are loveable only when they please others. Perfection becomes a way to gain acceptance, love, and praise.
Jeremy, 30, is a doctor at a prestigious teaching hospital. By outward appearances, he’s successful, but he feels miserable. His parents pushed him toward a career in medicine. They didn’t care that he dreamed of becoming a musician. In their eyes, music was not a “real career”, it was a hobby. He was an excellent student, but that didn’t seem to impress his parents. Their response to anything less than an A+ was to hang their heads in shame and quietly say “You’re not going to get into Stanford with these grades!” Never mind that Jeremy didn’t want to go to Stanford or Harvard or any of the other universities his parents deemed worthy. His parents’ criticism and high expectations ultimately did lead Jeremy to go to Stanford Medical School and become a doctor, but he resents his parents for it, and feels trapped.
Perfectionism can also be learned by children growing up with goal-oriented, driven, perfectionist parents who modeled or rewarded this way of thinking and acting. Perfectionism is encouraged when children are praised excessively for their achievements rather than their efforts or progress. The focus is on what the child accomplishes rather than the process — or who he is as a person.
Marco recalls his freshman year of high school when he’d set his sights on making the varsity football team. He trained and practiced all summer, regardless of the heat or the fact that most of his friends were hanging out at the pool. Marco’s parents had always encouraged him to aim high; they were proud of his work ethic and dedication. They never had to remind him to study or do his chores. Marco’s dad was a well-known, high-powered divorce attorney. He was up at five o’clock in the morning, seven days a week, headed to the gym and then to work, and often wasn’t home until after nine at night. Marco’s dad liked to make sure everyone knew he was successful by insisting on hand-tailored suits, a new car every year, and a beach house (which he was too busy to enjoy).
Marco was never satisfied with his grades, even though they were excellent, or his performance on the football field. He thought if he could just make the varsity team, then he’d be happy. So when he didn’t make it, he sunk into a depression that his friends and teachers couldn’t understand. They saw his perfect life, successful parents, and excellent grades and didn’t understand why he was so down.
Perfectionist parents like Marco’s are generally loving and don’t necessarily directly set unrealistic expectations for their children (although they may if they’re demanding as well). They model their value of a perfect family, house, and appearance through achieving at extremely high levels and attaining academic, career, or monetary success.
Many parents are so distracted that they aren’t attuned to what their children need. Usually, these parents mean well but are unaware of how their children feel, what they need, and how their own behavior affects their children. A distracted parent could be one who works eighty hours a week and isn’t physically or emotionally available. She could also be a parent who spends most of her time in front of a screen or with her nose in a book. And some distracted parents are so busy that they’re always going from one activity to the next. They never slow down long enough to really check in with their children. Distracted parents usually meet their children’s physical needs but often neglect their emotional needs. Perfectionism is a way for children of distracted parents to either get noticed or help their parents out.
Jacqueline grew up with her single mother, who was devoted to giving her all the opportunities for success that she never had. Her mother worked full-time as a bank teller, four nights a week waiting tables, and occasionally helped her sister cater parties on the weekend. This was the only way she could afford to send Jacqueline to private school and soccer camp. Jacqueline’s mother couldn’t always get to the spelling bees and soccer games, but she always gave her a big kiss on the forehead and said, “Jacqueline, I just couldn’t be prouder of you. Someday, you’re going to be someone important. I just know it!”
As a teenager, Jacqueline spent a lot of time alone, studying. She wanted to make her mom proud, and she knew getting a scholarship to college was the way to do it. However, Jacqueline’s mother was too distracted and busy working to realize that Jacqueline passed up party invitations and dating in order to study. Nor did she notice that Jacqueline was binging and purging and agonized over what to wear every morning.
Jacqueline longed for more emotional connection with her mother. She became obsessed with her grades and her appearance, because she knew this would please her mother, and unconsciously she thought she’d get her attention if she were perfect.
It’s important to note that although Jacqueline’s mother seemed to be focused on her daughter’s well-being, Jacqueline experienced it as an interest in her future success, not in her as a person; her mother’s love felt conditional in this regard. Distracted parents often lack the skills to be more emotionally present. Often, their own parents were emotionally distant, so this level of attunement seems normal to them. They may not outwardly demand perfection, but some such parents give the message that success is what makes you worthwhile, while others relay the message that the child isn’t enough (smart enough, cute enough, talented enough) to garner their attention.
Overwhelmed parents lack the skills to effectively cope with life’s challenges and their children’s needs. Some parents are chronically overwhelmed due to their own trauma, mental illness, addiction, or cognitive impairment. Others are overwhelmed by chronic stressors such as a very sick child, unemployment, poverty, health problems, or living in a violent community.
Overwhelmed parents aren’t just distracted and fatigued; they aren’t able to provide a safe and nurturing environment for their children. In overwhelmed families, there is either a lack of consistent rules and structure or overly harsh or arbitrary rules. And overwhelmed parents either have unrealistic expectations for their children, such as expecting a five-year-old to prepare and clean up his own meals, or no expectations, as if they’ve already decided their child is a hopeless failure. Often overwhelmed parents cannot fulfill their adult responsibilities, so things like childcare, cooking and cleaning, and providing emotional support often fall on the older children.
Life in an overwhelmed family is unpredictable and can be emotionally or physically unsafe. It’s very confusing for children to have a sense that things are off, but not have adults openly talk about it. So when no one is talking about Dad’s depression or Mom’s addiction, children will assume that they are causing the problems and that the family will be happy and healthy if they can be “better” children. Kids come up with distorted thoughts such as If I got better grades, my dad wouldn’t be so stressed out or If I were a perfect kid, my mom wouldn’t drink so much. In addition, some overwhelmed parents overtly blame their children for the family’s problems, which compounds a child’s false belief that they are the problem.
Some children with overwhelmed parents use perfectionism to try to exact control over themselves and others in order to feel more safe and secure. For example, a teenager might edit an essay for hours or measure her breakfast cereal before eating it in order to create a sense of control and predictability that she isn’t getting from her parents. Children develop perfectionist traits as a way to compensate for feelings of blame and a deep sense of being flawed and inadequate. As you’ll see in Rebecca’s story, they come to believe that if they can be perfect, they will please their parents, solve their family’s problems, or bring respect to their family.
Rebecca is the oldest of three children. Her dad was an alcoholic, and her mom desperately tried to pretend that everything was normal in their family. Rebecca recalls that her dad would get home from work at four in the afternoon and immediately start admonishing Rebecca and her siblings for making too much noise, for their grades, their appearance—pretty much anything he could think of. Rebecca tried to please her parents, but her father never acknowledged anything she did right, whether it was getting her driver’s license or cleaning up all of his beer cans. When Rebecca made honor roll, her dad’s response was, “Now, if only there was something you could do about that fat ass of yours!” Her mom was too busy dealing with her dad and her brother, who was frequently in trouble at school, to give Rebecca any positive attention. She counted on Rebecca to help with the housework and watch her little sister after school. Rebecca’s way of coping was to try to be the perfect, responsible kid in order to gain her parents’ love and approval. She thought that if she could only be good enough, they’d see her accomplishments and hard work. Instead, she was always reminded of her mistakes and shortcomings. She felt inferior no matter what she accomplished, and now, as an adult, she continues to push herself to work even harder and do even more, putting everyone else’s needs in front of her own.
There are differences between demanding, perfectionist, distracted, and overwhelmed parents, but they all share an inability to notice, understand, and value their children’s feelings. Children experience this as a lack of interest in truly knowing them as people—their thoughts, feelings, dreams, and goals. If you were parented in these ways, you probably learned that being perfect got you attention and accolades or helped you avoid harsh punishment and criticism. Your self-worth (and sometimes your survival) depended on your ability to be the best, keep your parents happy, and create an illusion that your family was well functioning. As a result, you were always chasing external validation hoping it would finally make you feel good enough.
Now that you understand a bit more about the roots of your perfectionism, you may be interested in learning more about how to change your perfectionist tendencies. You can start with the 12 tips in this blog post or purchase a copy of The CBT Workbook for Perfectionism: Evidence-Based Skills to Help You Let Go of Self-Criticism, Build Self-Esteem, and Find Balance from any major book retailer.
©2019 Sharon Martin, LCSW. This post was adapted from The CBT Workbook for Perfectionism: Evidence-Based Skills to Help You Let Go of Self-Criticism, Build Self-Esteem, and Find Balance (New Harbinger Publications, 2019), page 6, 35-42.