When we think of perfectionism we tend to think of high-strung, high-performing individuals who hold themselves and others to exacting standards. For many perfectionists, there’s no such thing as good enough. An underlying black-and-white thinking means that the pursuit of perfection often robs them of satisfaction and pride in their accomplishments, and creates friction at work and at home.
At first blush it may seem like perfectionism is a conscious choice, but for many it is a self-defense mechanism. Rather than being an innate quality, perfectionism is often a response to environmental and social factors. In this blog post, we’ll explore the origins of perfectionism.
For many, perfectionism begins in early childhood as a response to environmental factors. In strict households ruled by explosive tempers and harsh judgments, perfectionism can be a way of defusing conflict before it kicks off. In unstable home environments where caretakers are unreliable, unstable, or absent, perfectionism may provide a path toward certainty and praise. A high-achieving student with absentee parents may find praise and validation by working extra hard to please their teachers at school.
Uncertainty may be cured by always trying to be prepared for the worst—a trait that trains children to spot flaws and problems aggressively.
In childhood, we learn how the world works. We adapt to our environments, adopting rules, behaviors, and ways of thinking that protect us. Because it works, for some, it becomes the tool they use to solve every problem throughout life. However, those childhood defense mechanisms often hold us back in adulthood.
In today’s world, especially, we live in a society where appearance and performance are carefully curated. We are increasingly exposed to things like social media at a young age, but our exposure to photoshopped images, computer-enhanced images, and influencer culture can cause many to pursue standards that are simply not realistic. It is worth noting that for many, perfectionism is not about being perfect, it is about feeling perfect. As a result, it’s important to keep in mind that for perfectionists, any sense of satisfaction is fleeting at best.
Some people, for whatever reason, exhibit high levels of conscientiousness around their appearance and performance. There is some evidence to suggest that perfectionism has a genetic component, being passed down along the family tree. For people like this, there’s an innate sense that mistakes are dangerous and painful—as well as heightened sensitivity toward embarrassment or fear of failure.
Desire for Acceptance
For some, perfectionism can be rooted in a desire for social acceptance. Having the “right” beliefs, looking the “right” way, or having the “right” job may be seen as ways to achieve status or acceptance. Often these desires are related to a deep-seated sense of disconnection or loneliness.
When perfectionism is applied to a family environment, it can create intense, emotional conflict. Concerns over social acceptance create a sense of panic as children grow into their own identities. Issues within a marriage may be kept secret, rather than being addressed and resolved with the help of support systems.
Often, counterintuitively, perfectionism is linked to low self-esteem. While some perfectionists may be high-performing overachievers, others are prone to shut down and retreat. As well as pushing us to achieve, perfectionism can be silencing and limiting. It pushes back our desire to share and create—causes us to loathe photos of ourselves and dread the thought of failing to get a new job or promotion. It may sabotage us in other ways, causing us to feel nothing is ever good enough, even when we should feel proud of our achievements.
Reach out today if you’re struggling with perfectionism. I’ve worked with countless clients over the years to help them rediscover how to enjoy and embrace imperfection in anxiety therapy. Let’s work together to find a way to harness it, without letting it rule your life.