Perfectionism. Doctor, how did I get this?

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So, you realized that you have “it” – turns out that perfectionism has grown inside of you as invasive species and propagated its sprouts into all the important areas of your life: work, relationships, and even hobbies. As a rule, it acts exactly like this – it starts in one area and begins spreading like weeds. But who planted the initial seed? Where did it come from?

Clearly, it comes from the place where all our psychological traits come from – from childhood. We know that this answer is a cliché, but what can do… All dysfunctional personal traits are formed under the influence of one’s family. Parents and other caregivers are the most important people in a child’s life. Their influence is unquestionable and undeniable. Every baby views her parents as Gods: there are flawless, always just, and always right. Therefore, any casually thrown word settles in her memory and stays there until “its time comes”.

Natalie came to the daycare to pick up her 4-year old daughter. Another little girl came over and stared with interest at Natalie. “Who are you?” – curiously asked the little girl. “I am Natalie, Angela’s mother. And who are you?” – asked Natalie with a smile. “I am a slob” – the girl introduced herself.

We know that what she said was not her own thoughts, but the opinion of her parents that she absorbed. And notice how strongly it sounds – it is not just a word; it is a NAME! This is how beliefs that we acquire in childhood work.

What specifically can lead to perfectionism:

  • Strict rules within the family

“You cannot leave the table before you finish your soup”, “You can’t go play until you clean up your room and put everything in perfect order”. When parents demand flawlessness and the ideal outcome of any task, regardless of what a child wants, it is very likely that the child will grow up a perfectionist.

  • When parents are focused on success and achievements

Yes, it’s true! Here, parents proclaim that the child needs to be an A-student, a champion at sports, and a winner of competitions. Achieve, achieve, achieve! No matter what you want, what you dream about – you must be the best! The child will likely become an over-achiever…

One well-known news anchor was proudly describing the achievements of her daughter – that she had excellent grades and always strived to be the best, the first. She mentioned, that no matter what grade her daughter would get, she would always tell her: “You can do better!”. And thus, the daughter was motivated to strive to achieve the best results.

Can you imagine a child who is never able to attain complete and unconditional acceptance of her success? No matter what she achieves, they always tell her that “you can do better, you must try harder”. It is like making a donkey run after a carrot hanging in front of him – motivation in the form of an unattainable prize. 

  • Excessive demands and expectations of the parents

Neurotic desire to be perfect and inability to be satisfied with yourself may be formed as a result of frequent criticism and absence of parental support and love.

“You got a B? Why not an A?”

“Just the third place in the competition? I told you that if you don’t try harder you will get nowhere!”

  • Emulating parental strategies

If either of the parents is a perfectionist, the child will likely “inherit” this trait. Children often copy their parents.

Lillian was anxious and obedient. Every evening she would put the clothing of her three children on the chairs in the order that they would be putting it on, she would fill their lunchboxes with the same food and add sauce to the rice in the same corner. Her older daughter Nayomi started doing the same thing when she moved out of the parents’ house. She acted like her mother.

  • Dysfunctions within the family: “I will not love you unless…”

The parents of perfectionist children often put enormous pressure on them. They impose a strategy for avoiding failures and present it as an axiom. 

“If you are not the best – nobody will need you!” – a father says irritably to his 7-year-old son after the first martial arts lesson.

“Irene – try not to forget! Put everything in your backpack, then take it out and review everything one more time. Make sure that you took everything you need and that it is packed well and properly. If you forget something – it will be a big inconvenience”.

When a child makes a minor mistake and doesn’t achieve 100% success, the parents express their disapproval and show rejection (“go and think about what happened”). They continue doing it until the child achieves success. To be the best, to achieve results – this becomes the only way to earn the parents’ love, and in the future, love in general. A perfectionist is not worthy even of their own love if they didn’t get a “gold star”.

When a child receives love only when they do something and do it perfectly, the child quickly understands how things work. The “love” they get depends upon many requirements and they deserve acceptance only if certain conditions are met.

Kathy told us during a therapy session: “Only at the age of 34, I learned that I don’t have to handwash the apartment floor to be loved (this was my Mom’s pet peeve) – that someone can love me just because. I couldn’t believe it for four years.”

If a child receives love based upon achievements, when they grow up they will try to be perfect to accept themselves. Achievements and super-human efforts allow them to form their self-image. They think that only accomplishments make them valuable to other people. 

Saul would devalue everything if the result didn’t cost him a lot of effort. He was very talented and could accomplish many things easily. But he was able to appreciate only things that were difficult to get. And even that didn’t last long. Everything else seemed to him insignificant.

Perfectionism can take on many forms. In general, this trait applies to all areas of life. But there are some areas that, as a rule, become dominant:

Self-perfectionism. A person has very high standards for themselves. They always evaluate themselves, monitor their speech and actions. Their desire to be perfect is their main motivation.

Social perfectionism. It is similar to the previous type and often is closely related to it. A person feels a need to meet the expectations of other people and to get their approval and praise. “If others don’t approve of me, I will fall into despair because it means that I am nothing…”

You-perfectionism. A person has very high standards for other people. They often use the phrases “They should”, “It’s their job!” A person who has this type of perfectionism has a lot of beliefs and expectations from other people: “they must be perfect and never make mistakes, and I will be judging their performance”.

General perfectionism. At the basis of this type of perfectionism lies a conviction that everything in this world should be correct, fair, and orderly. Everything that doesn’t meet these criteria is rejected. 

That’s the general picture… Over-achievement becomes the main goal. It is impossible to enjoy life while holding such worldviews. And meanwhile, life is passing by…

So what can you do? We will learn in the next article…