Perfectionism can be exhausting. Constantly trying to attain these greater-than-life expectations we have placed on ourselves can be quite tiring. And, yes, we are the ones that have placed these expectations on ourselves, most people around us do not expect as much from us.
However, these feelings and expectations stem from somewhere. Perhaps people in our past did expect as much from us. So, who expected so much from us? What is the root of perfectionism? And, if it is something that we learned, is it possible to unlearn it?
What is Perfectionism?
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 and that 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, perfectionism is also a way to cope with stressful thoughts, it is a coping mechanism.
What Causes Perfectionism?
But, how do we acquire these self-critical thoughts and thinking patterns? We are certainly not born with these thoughts. In fact, we create this overcompensating mechanism of perfectionism due to experiences we have 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 describe the three most common roots of perfectionism.
First, we delve into our usual suspect for trauma: our parents. But, wait, we should not jump into blaming our parents. We should aim to simply understand how their behavior influenced ours. Most parents tried to do their best within their capacity and the tools they had at their disposal back then. Parents had their own vulnerabilities, weaknesses, and struggles while trying to raise us up. 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-achiever parents, it is likely that we resorted to perfectionist tendencies in order to cope. That is why these sorts of parenting styles are one of the most common reasons behind perfectionism. But, how do these parents behave?
Over-ambitious parents are those who:
If you were raised in such a household, this is probably where you heard for the first time the phrase “you disappointed me,” and it possibly hurt you to your core. This is also probably where you heard for the first time “what would people say,” and 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, to explain it to you, that is why it is called trauma.
In order to cope with this shame, embarrassment and trauma, we resorted 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 with this internalized 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 of being raised by high achieving parents. If we were bullied, we were made to feel ashamed of ourselves and to feel as not enough. We were made to think that our looks, our clothes, our friends, our music, our academic performance were simply not enough. This time, these criticisms came from our peers or even 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,” “one day I am going to be so important that nobody will ever doubt my worth, my value, and my importance”. And, these thoughts fuel our perfectionism and desire to be perfect.
Changes and Traumatic Events
Finally, another cause of perfectionism are 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 try to control themselves, their thoughts and their internal world. In this case, perfectionism is the ultimate effort to control ourselves and to create some safety within us.
If you want to learn more about the roots of perfectionism, we suggest you take a look at this video breaking down the causes behind perfectionism.
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, 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 needed.
Perfectionism is a trauma response that was learned due to our life experiences. Our goal now is to change our own self-talk and our habits. Perfectionism can take a toll on our relationships and even lead to burnout. So, if you suspect you are a perfectionist, we invite you to read this free guide to identify your perfectionist tendencies. 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, you are not alone.
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