Perfectionism is a self destructive and addictive belief system that fuels this primary thought: If I look perfect, and do everything perfectly, I can avoid or minimize the painful feelings of shame, judgment, and blame.
― Brené Brown
The Origins of Perfectionism
The unfortunate reality is that most of us suffer from perfectionism to one degree or another.
We already explored the origins of perfectionism in other articles. But to briefly summarize it, perfectionism is a survival mechanism that we as children develop as an adaptation to a controlling, dangerous, and otherwise unhealthy environment where we are expected to meet unattainable standards and punished if we “fail.”
Moreover, as I write in my book Human Development and Trauma, “If children are held to impossible standards, they learn to impose these standards on themselves.”
We develop certain tendencies as a result of such an upbringing. These tendencies once helped us survive our childhooods, but now in adulthood, they are a hindrance on our path towards our goals, sometimes to the degree where a person is unable to normally function or experiences chronic emotional distress.
The Benefits of Perfectionism?
Sometimes people say that perfectionism has a lot of benefits. For example, perfectionistic people can be very productive, and their quality of work is solid because they hold themselves to very high standards.
However, one can say the same about many tragic situations or conditions. For example, one can argue that being anorexic has its pros: you avoid the problems that overweight people might have, you look “good,” and so on. Or the painfully common saying, “My childhood was very hard but it made me stronger.”
While the causal link here may be true or partially true, you see how such a perspective can be harmful. You can justify anything with it, which obfuscates the problem, and by extension makes it more difficult to actually resolve.
From a different perspective, it can be argued that one can achieve all the benefits without becoming perfectionistic. In other words, without being traumatized as a child in ways that makes one a perfectionist. It is important to understand that overcoming perfectionism will only improve your overall quality of life.
Common Perfectionistic Tendencies
- You are constantly overworked and dissatisfied with yourself.
- You see your results, and yourself, as either perfect or worthless, with no in-between (black and white thinking).
- You use language with many HAVE TO’s and SHOULD’s.
- You’re afraid of trying new things because you’re not perfect at it.
- You tend to people-please, self-erase, and self-sacrifice.
- You’re dependent on people’s validation.
- You’re terrified of criticism and not being liked.
- You experience chronic and toxic sense of shame, guilt, and responsibility.
- You are often unable to finish projects or abandon them.
- You have low self-esteem and self-worth.
- You constantly feel not good enough.
- You feel overwhelmed by tasks, even if they are simple and without severe consequences.
- You feel confused, paralyzed, empty, or aimless.
- You live in a constant cycle of energy and depression.
One of the major ways in which a perfectionistic person reacts to their “failures” is self-punishment. It is important to understand that this is a learned behavior where a person internalizes other people’s treatment of them and relates to themselves in the same way that others related to them.
We already explored how unjust blame becomes internalized in the previous article on how childhood abuse and neglect leads to self-blame in adulthood. Here, the mechanism is very similar: if a person was routinely punished for “failing,” they learned to be hard on themselves every time they feel they have failed.
Perfectionism: The Curse of Sisyphus
The most exhausting thing people suffering from perfectionism always mention is constantly feeling not good enough. That’s why I describe perfectionism as the curse of Sisyphus. In Greek mythology, Sisyphus was punished to roll a huge boulder up a hill for it only to roll down, and repeat it for eternity.
Perfectionism is the same way. No matter what you do, no matter how hard you try, no matter how good of a person you are, no matter how much you achieve—it’s never enough. So you try again, try to do more, try harder—yet it’s never enough. So you try again….
Summary and Final Words
Perfectionism is a very common set of tendencies that most people experience in one form or another. In formative years, it is an adaptation mechanism to one’s traumatic and otherwise wanting environment. In later life, it manifests itself in numerous unwanted and problematic symptoms that vary anywhere from psychological and emotional to behavioral and social.
It is definitely possible to fully overcome or at least greatly reduce these undesirable and overbearing tendencies, however it usually takes a long time and a lot of self-work, both with an expert and on your own.
References and further readings:
Does any of it relate to you or people you know? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below or in your personal journal.
For more on these and other topics, check out the author’s books: Human Development and Trauma: How Childhood Shapes Us into Who We Are as Adults and Self-Work Starter Kit.