"You are not perfect. Get over it" is the message I tell myself when I am stressed out over not being superwoman. Yet as much as I tell myself this truth I still fail to embrace the concept fully. It is this trait, the desire for perfection, which causes me great personal angst and anxiety. There is that competing voice in my head saying, "You can do better" or "You are not doing enough." I have the feeling that I am not alone in my anxiety over the pursuit of perfection. In this post we are going to examine some of the reasons why so many of us think we need to be perfect. In a subsequent post we will explore some strategies for letting go of perfection in order to reclaim our sanity.
Where does perfectionism come from?
One of the images that may come to mind when we discuss perfectionism is the overbearing parent who constantly criticizes and scolds their child for every little mistake. Love and nurturing are withheld and may be conditional upon the child’s "performance" of what he or she can do. It is a reasonable assumption that such a child may grow up to either rebel or become a perfectionist. Yet this is not the only scenario which may contribute to the trait of perfectionism. The following list includes other possible factors involved in creating the need for perfection.
"¢ Compensation for a perceived vulnerability or life challenge
When I was a child I lived in poverty with my mother who had a serious mental illness. I grew up thinking that in order to change my life situation someday, that I would not only have to excel in school but that I had to be perfect. I felt that many people looked down upon me and my mother because we were poor. Having a mother with schizophrenia also made me feel different from other children. I felt it necessary to compensate for my life challenges by trying to stand out in my scholastic achievements. It may not be so uncommon for children who feel that they are in the minority, to feel pressure to work that much harder than others and strive for perfection.
"¢ Great responsibility at an early age
There are many children who are essentially mini-adults or caretakers at a very early age. I was such a child. I missed out on a lot in my childhood because I was responsible for my mother and keeping her as mentally well as possible. Of course this scenario was doomed for failure right from the start. I wanted to cure my mother of her schizophrenia and this is impossible. Children in such situations quite often feel that if they were somehow "perfect" that this will cure the parent with mental illness or other chronic conditions. Perfectionism is also a common trait for children and adult children of alcoholics. In an article entitled, "Alcoholism and Its Effects on the Family," author Tetyana Parsons reports that:
"Older children of alcoholics may show such depressive symptoms as obsessive perfectionism, hoarding, staying by themselves, or being excessively self-conscious."
"¢ Maintaining an illusion of control
When we feel that our life is spiraling out of control, one way to deal with this overwhelming feeling is to seek control in other areas. Striving for perfection is one defense mechanism to deal with great uncertainty. If we can’t control the world and our circumstances then we may seek to control ourselves. One way to do that is to be perfect. Perfectionism is a way to distract ourselves from the crises at hand. This way we don’t have to accept unacceptable things like having a child with an incurable illness or that our spouse has an addiction to drugs or alcohol. If we carry our magical thinking to the extreme, we may even feel that we can cure such things by simply being perfect.
"¢ Believing that bad things will happen if we are not perfect
Finish this sentence: If I am not perfect then"¦? As a child I would finish that sentence with: My mother will never be happy or sane. I will never get out of poverty. I will be unloved. As an adult my thinking is similar to when I was a child. I feel that if I am not perfect that my household will fall apart, my son with autism will regress, and everyone will be disappointed in me. Every perfectionist has their own variation of this theme. It basically equates to "If I am not perfect bad things will happen and not just to me but to the people I love." This is another illusion of perfectionism and may be an unconscious way to hold onto control when we feel we have none.
"¢ The need for approval, love, and acceptance
These are basic emotional needs of every human being. But if you didn’t get these needs met in childhood or if you learned that love was conditional upon your performance or what you can do for others, then the idea of unconditional love may be an alien concept to you. Some people with a trait of perfectionism may feel that they need to jump through hoops to "earn" another’s love. In some cases the perfectionist may unconsciously re-visit childhood trust issues by choosing friends and partners where praise, validation, and/or love is dependent upon pleasing the other person. Underneath a perfectionist’s exterior is a people pleaser. The impossible task of trying to please everyone else leaves one physically and emotionally exhausted. Striving for this type of perfection in one’s relationships is a breeding ground for both anxiety and depression.
We would like to hear from you now. Are any of you perfectionists? Why do you think you have this trait? Does your perfectionism contribute to your anxiety?