• Dr. Sharon Livingston

Are You a Perfectionist? Part II


What Causes Perfectionism?

Perfectionism is an early learned response to dealing with a world that feels as if it is not under our control. It’s one of the defense mechanisms we employ to protect from feeling pain attached to seeing oneself as wrong, as having failed and therefore not a good enough member of the family or society. Perhaps they were harshly criticized or they blame themselves for an event – parents went through a difficult divorce and the child blames self. Somehow it was their fault. There’s a sense or belief that never making mistakes will prevent future family disruptions and assuage their guilt.

Perfectionists throw all their energy into doing things right and best. They are self judging when they don’t meet the mark. They also tend to be judgmental of others and their contributions.

This habit of striving for perfection becomes strengthened because on some level it works. On the one hand, it may actually prevent harm, as in the case of the child who obsessively plans for every possible contingency regarding their abusive parent. But the habit of perfectionistic striving may also “work” in the sense that it provides relief from a painful feeling. By throwing themselves into their school work and getting good grades, the forgotten middle child is able to distract themselves (temporarily) from the sadness that comes from feeling dismissed and devalued by their parents.

Each time a painful emotion arises, the brain remembers that perfectionistic striving leads to some emotional relief in the past, and so it “pushes” us toward that option in the present.

And each time we follow through with this push, we strengthen the connection between painful emotion and perfectionistic striving. Which makes that initial push stronger and stronger as time goes on. This is how vicious cycles get formed.

Perfectionists don’t engage in perfectionistic behaviors because they’re under the delusion that they’ll actually achieve perfection; they do it because it temporarily provides relief from a painful feeling.

Another contributor is having a parent who exhibits perfectionistic behavior or expresses disapproval when their children's efforts do not result in perfection. Some parents may encourage their child to succeed in every area or push perfection on them to an extent that can be considered abusive.

People with a history of high achievement sometimes feel overwhelming pressure to live up to their own previous achievements. This often leads them to engage in perfectionistic behavior.

In a nutshell, the root of perfectionism is two fold. Needing to take control of what may seem like a chaotic existence coupled with believing your self-worth is based on your achievements.

It’s a painful and highly frustrating way to have to engage the world, but unfortunately very common.

When we were kids we all had a strong desire to please adults, even abusive adults. Children don’t have the thinking skills or life experience to understand that sometimes adults are wrong. They are are at the mercy of adults when it comes to building their self-worth. These beliefs are intensified with each repeated rebuke. If an adult tells a small child that s/he is a failure, not smart enough, too fat, or not talented, the child will internalize this message, believe it to be true, and find evidence to support this point of view.

They work to be perfect as a means to gain acceptance, love, and praise, which as we know backfires and actually causes lower and lower self esteem.

If no one explicitly accepted you just as you are, you may turn to achievement as a measure of self-worth. I want you to untangle this connection. Your achievement is not who you are. Success is not a measure of your worth. You are perfectly flawed and perfectly wonderful all at the same time.

In the next article we’ll discuss how to resolve perfectionistic thinking and behaviors.