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Perfectionism

Education and reflection can contribute to building self-awareness. The patterns we develop over time help us adapt to our environment but can backfire when taken to extremes. The article below helps further explore why some strive for perfection. 

Why We Seek Perfection

The idea that we need to be 'perfect' in order to receive approval, attention, or affection from others is common among many people from dysfunctional family systems. Because perfection is never attainable, this belief sets us up to always feel inadequate and unworthy of approval, attention, or affection from others. Learn more about how perfectionism arises as a strategy for surviving trauma, neglect, and dysfunctional family dynamics.

Perfectionism in its extreme form is essentially the desire to do everything absolutely correctly the first time without ever making a mistake. In a less rigid form, perfectionism can take on a compulsive quality that forces us to keep working on something until it is perfect, even at the expense of our own health or our relationships with other people. Another common form for perfectionism to take is to prevent us from even starting something new because we know it will never be the way we want it to be so we don't even bother beginning.

Perfectionism is a defense mechanism that is designed to shield us from being seen as vulnerable and thus it gives us a type of security because it helps us feel like we have some control over our lives. The security we feel, however, is a false sense of security because the more we try to control our lives through perfectionism, the more out of control our lives actually become. This is because perfection is not possible in the way most of us think about perfection. No matter who we are or what we are doing, we can always find something that could be different or better if we start to analyze it. This is true for every field, profession, sport, job, or activity we can think of. In this way perfectionism prevents us from actually enjoying or appreciating what we are doing or experiencing in the moment because we are worried about the small flaw, weakness, or mistake that might be discovered.

In other words, we are worried about being found out. We are concerned that if we don't have everything perfect then someone will learn the secret that we think we are hiding through our perfectionism: that we are fundamentally flawed or damaged.

 

Underneath perfectionism is always the distorted belief that we are not good enough just as we are and so we go about trying to prevent this fact from being discovered at all costs.

 

One of the biggest problems with this scenario though is that no matter how well we do something or how good a project turns out, we can't allow ourselves to feel proud of it or feel good about ourselves because we know that it will never be good enough to erase the feeling of basic badness that we believe about ourselves.

This is where it can be useful to have an understanding of how trauma shapes our thinking about perfection and subsequently our behavior. In the case of perfectionism, what happens is that as children we need to be accepted and appreciated for who we are, unconditionally. We need to know that we will be loved and protected no matter what. Many of us don't get this message, though, and instead we get the message that love and protection are conditional. They depend on what we do and not on who we are. We learn that we have to take care of other people and be who they need us to be in order to get our own needs met.

    

In trying to understand the roots of perfectionism it is important to understand how it gets set up. As children we need to believe that we are loved, that our world is relatively safe, and that our parents or caregivers are going to protect us. When our outside circumstances start to reflect back to us that our need for love, safety, and protection might not be guaranteed we start to feel very scared and anxious. If our parents, caregivers, and life experiences are not able to help us make sense of the things that are threatening this need for love, safety, and protection then we start to create a fantasy in our own heads to explain why bad things are happening to us. The fantasy we typically come up with is that bad things are happening to us because we are bad.

This fantasy or belief is rooted in the magical thinking, cognitive development, and life experiences of our early childhood and thus has little to do with reality. But it does help us calm the anxiety and relax the fear we have been experiencing because we now have an explanation for why bad things are happening to us and we also have a way to make things better, at least in the short term. In other words, in the magical thinking of a child, we determined that it is better for us to be bad in a safe, predictable world than good in an unsafe, unpredictable world.

What does this mean actually? This means that when something bad happens to children, like abuse or neglect, children can't afford to think that it is because their parents are abusive or uncaring. This makes the world too scary and unpredictable for children. Children need to believe in the fantasy that their parents will love and protect them no matter what. Unfortunately, children who are in this type of situation are confronted with a huge problem. The problem being the need to maintain a fantasy of unconditional love and protection from one's parents or caregivers butting up against the fact that very abusive and neglectful things are happening at the hands of their parents or caregivers that don't look or feel like love or protection.

Here's where the perfectionism gets set up. At this point children unconsciously say to themselves that bad things are happening to them because they are bad people, not because their parents or caregivers are abusive or neglectful. Adopting this view maintains the necessary fantasy of being loved and protected while also ironically providing an explanation for why it isn't happening. This explanation justifies the abusive or neglectful behavior of the parents or caregivers, thus keeping them in a positive light, but it does so at the expense of the children.

 

Buying into the negative fantasy or “distortion” of being bad by taking the blame for the abusive and neglectful behavior of parents or caregivers not only redeems the parents or caregivers of any wrong doing (while maintaining the positive fantasy or “illusion” of being loved and protected), it also gives children a formula for fixing the problem (at least in the immediate future) and thus having more control over a situation that was fairly out of control beforehand. The formula for fixing the problem, of course, is to not be bad anymore. Children in this situation will therefore try to earn the love and protection they so desperately need from their parents or caregivers by trying to do things right or by trying to be good.

This strategy has a fatal flaw though. It is based on the irrational belief that parental love and protection are contingent upon being good. Although children need to believe this, it is not true and thus their attempts to gain parental love and protection through being good will not succeed. The children do not know this though and so they keep trying to earn love and protection through being good. The try harder and harder to be good, to the point of perfection almost, and still they don't see the love and protection coming that they are trying to earn. So they keep coming back to the original premise, that it must be they who are flawed and unworthy rather than recognizing that it is the parents or caregivers who are dysfunctional. In this way, trying to be good becomes established as a means for obtaining parental love and protection, but because children unconsciously know that what they want probably won't happen once they have achieved a certain level of goodness, they continue to raise the bar on what they expect of themselves. This has the dual effect of strengthening the positive fantasy that their parents or caregivers love and protect them while also strengthening the negative fantasy that they are bad by absolving these same parents or caregivers of any responsibility for abuse or neglect and shifting the blame to themselves.

In order to protect their parents and the positive fantasy associated with them, children keep setting the bar higher and higher for being good enough to receive their love and protection. This naturally leads to the manifestation of perfectionism in such children because they can't afford to see what would happen if they didn't keep setting the bar higher. They are afraid that if they stopped at a certain level of excellence then the abuse or neglect wouldn't stop and their positive fantasy of loving and protecting parents would be false. So they continue to raise the bar in order to avoid having to make that determination. In other words, they get to keep the positive fantasy, but it is always at the expense of themselves. The positive fantasy of loving, protecting parents is financed by the belief that they are bad children.

One of the ways out of the clutches of perfectionism is to view life as perfectly imperfect. This means that the flaws, imperfections, and inconsistencies in life are all opportunities for us to practice letting go of negative controlling behavior and being open to the lessons that being soft and vulnerable can teach us. Perfectionism operates to obscure or hide the aspects of ourselves that we are embarrassed about or ashamed of. By hiding these parts we prevent other people from really seeing us or knowing us and so they end up liking us for who we are on the surface rather than who we really are inside. This of course only confirms our deep-seated fear that if people really saw our vulnerabilities, insecurities, and challenges that they wouldn't like us. When things are perfectly imperfect it means that the challenges and frustrations we face every day are not extraneous events or untimely distractions, instead they are simply a part of life and thus are opportunities for us to practice being real rather than being perfect. 

 

Consider giving something your best effort and leave it at that.

 

It doesn't have to be perfect because we recognize that perfection doesn't exist and will only leave us feeling inadequate or inferior. In this way we get better at focusing our priorities and dealing with what needs to be addressed rather than what we think we should be doing in order to earn approval, attention, or affection from other people.

by Ryan Kennedy, MA, LPC, LMFT, RN, BC-DMT, CACIII

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