The Origins of Perfectionism—and 4 Tips to Manage It
In the previous article, we looked at the four most common perfectionistic tendencies. Today, we will explore the origins of perfectionism and some tips to manage it.
The Origins of Perfectionism
Perfectionistic tendencies are almost always a consequence of a dysfunctional childhood environment, and the individual was overly controlled and likely abused in other ways in this environment. Their caregivers usually possessed (and probably still do) strong narcissistic traits where they were either unable or just wouldn’t see the child as a separate, self-interested human being. They perceived the child as an extension of themselves or someone who was only there to meet their needs. The child was told what to do, what to feel, what to think, and consequently, were unable to develop a strong sense of self. For them, being authentic and genuine was both prohibited and punishable.
And so perfectionistic tendencies developed as a technique of survival whereby an individual adapted to their dangerous, controlling, and otherwise unhealthy environment. They were not treated as a person, were expected to meet unrealistic standards, and were passively or actively punished whenever they “failed.”
For example, if a child is expected to get straight A’s at school and is punished every time when they come home with a lower grade, the child learns over time that their parent’s love is conditional, that they HAVE to get only A’s to avoid their parent’s rejection, that their self-worth is closely tied their grades, that if they receive anything below an A then it means they are a bad person deserving to be punished, that this is extremely important, that in this scenario they and the parent are against each other instead of working together, and so on.
All of that leads to chronic feelings of anxiety, unworthiness, hurt, isolation, sadness, anger, invalidation, and many other complicated emotions, moods, psychological phenomena, and behaviors that may also be forbidden and punishable. To manage this, the child develops certain adaptations and tactics that are oftentimes identified as perfectionistic tendencies.
While these mechanisms help a child survive their challenging upbringing, their carryover into adulthood can be maladaptive, confusing, and painful. Here, what once was necessary for survival has now become a hindrance.
So how can you make your struggle with your perfectionistic tendencies easier?
Tips for Overcoming Perfectionism
Routinely remind yourself that you are an adult now, that you are safe, that you don’t have to strive to be perfect anymore, that making mistakes is normal, that even if and when you make a mistake you will be okay, and so on.
Don’t confuse that with “positive thinking” where you simply lie to yourself that things are better than they actually are or repress emotions. You are simply reminding yourself that you are not a child anymore, that all these controlling people can’t hurt you anymore if you don’t let them, and that you can relax now. This is realistic and empowering.
People who struggle with perfectionistic tendencies—or with any other consequence of a problematic and wanting upbringing—lacked love as children. Therefore, they didn’t learn to love themselves. Usually their inner dialogue is an internalization of how others talked to them. And so such a person’s self-relationship is based on ordering themself around, self-attack, self-punishment, chronic shame, toxic guilt, SHOULDs and HAVE TOs, and similar things.
Many people treat themselves worse than they do others. Not only that, they may see it as a noble virtue! Self-sacrifice is encouraged and even expected in our culture. As long as it’s not narcissistic or otherwise objectively hurtful to others, there is nothing wrong with taking care of yourself and loving yourself. Sadly, many people don’t realize that because they were raised to take care of their caregivers’ needs, lacked love, and were punished for self-loving behaviors.
So learn to treat yourself well. Don’t talk to yourself in a way that you wouldn’t with someone you love. Let go of people-pleasing. It’s time to learn how to take better care of yourself, both physically and mentally.
3. Making mistakes
Mistakes are completely normal. They are a part of life. They are a part of your learning process. Not only that, they are necessary in order to learn and grow.
Many of us have seen a small child trying to walk: they fall down, get up, try again, fall down, get up, try again…. At some point in life, however, we learn that making mistakes is bad. It’s only after certain conditioning that we learn to be afraid of mistakes and resent them, instead of accepting them, owning them, and learning from them.
So accept that you will make mistakes, and that it’s okay. Learn more about personal responsibility. Take responsibility for your mistakes, and don’t put it on yourself when it’s not your fault. Become more comfortable with the consequences of your actions, and, again, reassure yourself that you, as an adult, will be able to deal with the consequences.
4. More resistance to rejection
Rejection equals death for the small, vulnerable child because, simply, a child is completely dependent on their caregivers. So, being rejected as a child is tremendously painful and if we never take time to process these inner wounds, we end up carrying it into our adulthood and stay overly sensitive to rejection.
But, adult life is full of rejection, and it’s true that you won’t be liked by everybody, and you shouldn’t even have such a goal. There will always be people who like you, there will be others who don’t, and there will be some who straight up hate you. Some of it is valid as we all have our personal preferences and values, and some of it will be unjust because there are insensitive, toxic, irrational, or hurtful people in the world.
So all of us will occasionally experience rejection. And that’s okay. Now, as adults, we don’t have to be terrified by it; we can endure it. Work towards building more resistance to rejection.
Perfectionism is, in many ways, a complicated and debilitating adaptation. So it is important to understand that it takes time and some serious inner work to finally overcome it. Try to implement the tips mentioned above, accept that it will take a while, be gentle and patient with yourself. Learn about and practice healthier boundaries. And, if necessary, look for professional help to make the process easier.
What is or was the hardest thing for you about it? What did you find helpful in overcoming it? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comment section below or write about it in your journal.
Photo by jeronimo sanz
Cikanavicius, D. (2017). The Origins of Perfectionism—and 4 Tips to Manage It. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 24, 2017, from https://blogs.psychcentral.com/psychology-self/2017/07/perfectionism-origins-tips/