The root cause of perfection is complex, but it’s clear it can be a difficult and misunderstood condition. In some cases, perfectionism is a trauma response to criticism, fears and trauma. In others, it can be about control and having unrealistic expectations. Despite the reason, all hope is not lost for people who suffer from a perfection complex. According to experts, there are many ways to make peace with perfectionistic tendencies. Therapy can help provide insight, support and healing techniques for self-forgiveness and forgiving others.

Is Perfectionism A Sign Of Trauma?

What Is Perfectionism?  

If you have a conversation with someone long enough, it isn’t uncommon to hear them say they are hard on themselves, they’re a perfectionist, have a perfectionist complex or they have impostor syndrome. Additionally, factors like social media make it easy for us to see how others live, comparing our lives to them. We may in turn feel we have to change our appearance, wear designer clothes and copy the styles of others to be accepted. While a little bit of perfectionism is normal and healthy, it can also be problematic, and cause long-term challenges.

There are specific traits associated with it that can be a surefire sign of someone who has experienced trauma. To add, it isn’t as simple as someone who never thinks they’re good enough and has a perfection complex, or is an overachiever. Perfectionism can become traumatizing and exhausting as someone has unrealistic expectations of themselves even they may not be able to achieve. This condition can have an unfortunate and deeper reason for existing.

But first, let’s examine what it is, and where it may come from. Psychology Today describes perfectionism as a personality trait, rather than a mental illness with potentially harmful traits to the perfectionist and others. But perfectionism can be a result of mental health disorders like obsessive-compulsive disorders and anxiety. In short, the article mentioned the inner pressures perfectionists may feel to avoid failure and other painful emotions. As a result, they can for example overthink, think their contributions are never good enough, can be less productive and may not enjoy going with the flow compared to others. The condition can be found in children through adults. 

An article states perfectionism is common and “2 out of 5 kids” have perfectionistic tendencies. It adds that perfection can lead to other conditions such as anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression, self-harm, and conditions like anorexia and bulimia. This reveals that perfectionism may not only stem from trauma but can cause trauma in people as a response to perfectionism. As a result, someone who was already traumatized and has a perfectionism complex may endure even more trauma, creating a challenging cycle. 

The Perfectionism-Trauma Dance: Where Does Perfectionism Come From?

What is the root cause of perfectionism? Is it trauma? Is it from shame? Some believe perfectionism stems from childhood. This would describe the child’s environment as they grew up with rigid or overly strict parents. Parents may have expected too much of their kids, giving them adult responsibilities, and being unreasonably critical if they “don’t measure up.” 

Children who grow up with a parent who is perfectionistic with them can end up depressed, discouraged, and anxious. Additionally, being criticized by a parent can make feelings of shame rise to the surface. Because of this, the child may grow up self-conscious and unsure of themselves and can become codependent or a people pleaser. This behavior can be to control the negative judgment and criticism they may face as they did from their parents in their childhood. A PsycheCentral article covers this in more detail, stating perfectionism can be a child’s way of trying to be loved and accepted by a parent.

 Another source cites perfectionism stemming from fear–specifically a fear of failure. This can be tied to parental influences, or the unrealistic amount of pressure someone puts on themselves. Failure to them may not just be an opportunity to learn from a mistake, but a threat to their self-esteem and identity. Because perfectionists often have “all or nothing” thinking, they can jump to conclusions if they don’t succeed or aren’t perfect. They may think thoughts such as, but not limited to:

  • “I am worthless unless I am successful.”
  • (After demonstrating excellence) “I need to improve. I can do much better.”
  • “If I can’t do this perfectly, I won’t even try.”
  • “I should be more like so and so.”

Lastly, perfectionism is often connected to some mental health disorders like PTSD, anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder to name a few. To illustrate this connection, a scientific study noted people who had socially-prescribed cases of perfectionism had higher percentages of PTSD. This is mostly due to the way perfectionists feel overly responsible for all the bad outcomes they experience. It can be very difficult to let go of a traumatic event or an accident that has happened to them. Furthermore, thinking of it occurring in the future can produce feelings of anxiousness. 

As a result, they bear the burden of thinking they did something wrong or that they should do something different to change it. Additionally, they can try to go to great lengths to prevent it from happening to them again, trying to control the outcome. If they cannot control the desired outcome of a situation, they can appear preoccupied, replaying the event over and over again, feeling depressed.

Perfectionists may become more stressed than the average person if things that are out of their control happen to them. Feeling in control can provide feelings of safety and protection. On the contrary, if they cannot control a situation, panic attacks can arise for some. Each reaction can be different from each person. It’s easy to see how someone can develop depression and self-esteem issues because of this. Perfectionists can unconsciously dig themselves into a deeper hole by having these types of thoughts, which make life harder and less enjoyable. Thus, the cycle of distress for the traumatized perfectionist continues. 

Understanding Perfectionism (And Its Types)  

By understanding each type of perfectionism, we may be able to understand the root cause of it or have more compassion for those who suffer from  it. Perfectionism has one of three types of ways it shows up in people:

  • Self-oriented
  • Other-oriented 
  • Socially-prescribed

The first type, self-oriented perfectionism, is self-directed. This means the person places unrealistic expectations on him or herself, can be a procrastinator, and may punish themselves with blame and criticism for not being “good enough.” Self-oriented perfectionism can result in self-esteem problems and anxiety. Even depression can stem from this. Next is the other-oriented type of perfectionism which focuses on others being perfect. The impact can be frustrating for others, expecting them to achieve high standards the perfectionism set for them. In return, the one on the receiving end may feel whatever they do is not good enough. 

Other-oriented perfectionists may criticize or judge others, and push people around them to achieve more and do better. However, people who are the targets may become resentful, feeling their value relies solely on their success and achievements, rather than their personality, talents and character. Finally, the last perfectionist type is socially-prescribed perfectionism, which makes the person feel socially anxious and afraid of being judged. This type is also internalized like the self-oriented perfectionist. To add, they may feel unsure if they can live up to the standards their family, employees or friends place on them. They are hard on themselves and may not have the confidence needed to relax and enjoy social situations. 

Aside from perfectionism impacting someone’s mental health, it can affect their physical health as well. Imagine avoiding starting a project because you are afraid of failing. You may overthink about it, or imagine the worse, stressing yourself out more than necessary. You may forget to eat a balanced diet, because the stress is giving you some digestive issues, or because you’re preoccupied with a new task. Further, you could forget to tend to your hygiene, or may not want to socialize with anyone. You may not sleep well, or take care of yourself in healthy ways. As a result, you may lack energy, feel unmotivated, and beat yourself up for example. Some perfectionists can have headaches and even battle constipation as a manifestation of their perfectionist complex. Physical health challenges will look different to each individual, but these are some ways perfectionist-based anxiety can look. 

Final Thoughts: Treating Or Making Peace With Perfectionism

The root cause of perfection is complex, but it’s clear it can be a difficult and misunderstood condition. In some cases, perfectionism is a trauma response to criticism, fears and trauma. In others, it can be about control and having unrealistic expectations. Despite the reason, all hope is not lost for people who suffer from a perfection complex. According to experts, there are many ways to make peace with perfectionistic tendencies. Therapy can help provide insight, support and healing techniques for self-forgiveness and forgiving others. 

Another way to deal with perfectionism is to give up the illusion of control. There is only so much we can control in life. Having faith takes the pressure off to control the outcome. Knowing God is protecting you and that things happen in His time, as they can help us release control. Secondly, it can help us practice self-compassion. Understanding our worth as God’s children can help us with this, as well as having grace with ourselves. Nobody is perfect, and that’s ok. But remember, God made us in His image, therefore you are beyond good enough.   

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I have found my cancer journey to be a positive and profound transformational experience. I’m inspired to share my healing journey here, and trust you’ll find hope, encouragement and purpose as you discover the healing power that lies within you.