Abuse & Neglect Abuse Effects

Perfectionism and Trauma: How Abusive Parents Raise Perfectionists

Perfectionism and Trauma: How Abusive Parents Raise Perfectionists | Hopeful Panda

If you had abusive parents, especially ones who were highly critical and unreasonably demanding, you likely struggle with perfectionism. This post covers the relationship between perfectionism and childhood trauma. It also discusses how your abusive parents might have made you into the perfectionist you are today.

Do you tend to want to do everything perfectly, even to your own detriment? Does the smallest mistake make you feel like a complete failure? Do you feel like you need to be the best in everything, even when it’s irrelevant to what you want?

If you answer yes to all of the questions above, then you are likely a perfectionist.

As a perfectionist myself, I know the daily struggles that come with trying to do everything perfectly, even when I know that I don’t need to. And it’s something that stemmed from my upbringing with a highly critical and impossible-to-please mother.

What is Perfectionism?

First, I’ll briefly discuss what perfectionism is, the signs of a perfectionist, and the different types of perfectionism there are.

To put it simply, perfectionism is the pursuit of flawlessness. However, experts tend to define it as “a combination of excessively high personal standards and overly critical self-evaluations”.

Signs of a Perfectionist

A perfectionist is someone who has the need to be perfect, seem perfect, or do things perfectly.

To achieve perfection, a perfectionist often fixates on imperfections, tries to control situations, works hard, or is critical of self or others.

Here are some signs of a perfectionist:

  • Highly critical of self or others
  • Inability or refusal to perform a task unless it can be done perfectly
  • All-or-nothing thinking
  • Procrastination
  • Extreme fear of failure
  • Low self-esteem; never feeling good enough
  • Accepts nothing short of perfection
  • Obsession over mistakes and imperfections, unable to see anything else
  • Judgmental and tough on self or others when mistakes or failure occurs
  • Views the results as the most important part of anything
  • Inability to enjoy the process or learn from it
  • Inability to see something as completed until the result is perfect
  • Takes an excessive amount of time to complete something that don’t typically take as long for others to complete
  • Believes that nothing they do is good enough or worthwhile unless it’s perfect
  • Sets and have unrealistic standards or expectations
  • Defensiveness
  • Sensitivity to constructive criticism
  • Feelings of disappointment, depression, anger, frustration, or annoyance with self if goals aren’t met
Signs of a Perfectionist | Perfectionism and Trauma | Hopeful Panda

Types of Perfectionism

According to Dr. Gordon Flett and Dr. Paul Hewitt, leading experts in the field of perfectionism, there are three types of perfectionism that fall on a spectrum: self-oriented, other-oriented, and socially prescribed perfectionism.

Self-oriented perfectionists demand perfection from themselves.

Other-oriented perfectionists demand perfection from others around them, like their spouses, colleagues, or friends. They can be judgmental and critical of others, which ends up straining their relationships and ability to connect with others.

And socially prescribed perfectionists believe that other people demand perfection from them. They feel immense external pressure from the world and society to be perfect. They are very self-critical, set unreasonably high standards for themselves, and constantly worry that others will reject them.

According to Dr. Flett, socially prescribed perfectionism seems to be the most detrimental type. It is consistently linked to health and emotional problems.

People raised by abusive parents can have qualities of any of the perfectionism types. Though they most commonly have elements of the socially prescribed type. Unsurprisingly, it’s because of how they were raised.

Research on Perfectionism & Parents

According to research, perfectionism can originate from a bunch of different factors, not just one’s parents. Some of these factors are:

  • Biological factors such as genetics and temperament
  • The individual’s relationships with their family, friends, teachers, and other people
  • Societal and cultural pressures for perfection

The research also notes that all of these factors impact one another. However, due to the nature of this site, we’ll focus on how parents play a role in raising perfectionists.

Despite how other factors may be involved, parents are a child’s first relationship and interaction with this world. They are also the child’s natural role models whom the child looks up to and learns from.

One study explains how unhealthy levels of perfectionism can pass from a parent to their children. It claims that “A family environment characterized by parental criticism and demands is an incubator for perfectionism and illness in children”.

The study finds that parents who tend to criticize and punish their children for making mistakes or not doing well enough tend to push children towards higher levels of socially prescribed perfectionism.

Whereas parents that tend to have unrealistic standards generally push their children towards higher levels of all three types of perfectionism.

So in the end, while other factors can play a role, parenting tends to play the most significant role in whether a child ends up with perfectionistic traits. And these traits can be debilitating and damaging to the child’s well-being.

If a parent loves their child for who they are instead of what they do and teaches them that imperfections are a part of life, it can make a huge difference, even if the child feels pressure to be perfect from other sources.

How Childhood Trauma Causes Perfectionism

Most of the time, abuse victims struggle with feeling not good enough, or even enough. This is one of the many lasting effects childhood abuse can cause.

They tend to feel like they have to be “better”. Therefore, many of them struggle with perfectionism.

Here are some examples of certain parental treatments that might’ve led to your perfectionism:

  • Criticized for not doing a good enough job at something
  • Punished for not getting 100% or A+ on a test or assignment
  • Often compared to a sibling or other child who is “smarter” or better at something
  • Shamed for making a mistake or not knowing the answer to a question
  • Shown affection, love, or attention only when something was done well
  • Praised for accomplishments, but never for the effort that was put in to get there

So why you struggle with perfectionism likely boils down to these possibilities.

  1. Your parents encouraged perfectionism, whether intentionally or unintentionally
  2. Perfectionism was a way to gain love, approval, validation, affection, and/or attention from your parents
  3. It was a way to protect yourself against ridicule, punishments, and/or abuse
  4. Perfectionism is a response/coping mechanism to the childhood trauma you experienced
  5. Society encourages perfectionism, further perpetuating the existing perfectionism that resulted from your upbringing

Realize that these possibilities aren’t mutually exclusive. They can all be reasons why you may struggle with perfectionism today.

1. Perfectionism was encouraged in your family

According to Dr. Flett, “If you are a perfectionist, you’re more likely to have perfectionist parents. It can be genetic, and it can also be modeling and circumstances”.

Parents may knowingly or unknowingly establish perfection as the standard in their children. They might’ve done this by criticizing mistakes or a lack of perfection. Or they might often compare their children with other children who are “better”.

There are severities to how parents encourage perfectionism in their children.

For instance, severely emotionally abusive parents may constantly humiliate, shame, and ridicule their children over every little flaw or mistake they make.

These parents may intentionally manufacture flaws or constantly move the goalposts so they can continue to belittle their children.

Or parents might criticize their children for acting a certain way, sending the message that who they are isn’t okay. This teaches the child that appearances are more important than being themselves.

Other parents may unintentionally encourage perfectionism by only praising their children when they’ve done well or achieved something.

Or parents may have ingrained perfectionism in their child by constantly telling them how “perfect” they and/or their actions are, even when the child makes mistakes or has flaws.

This adds pressure on the child. It makes them feel the need to stay perfect or excel at everything so they don’t disappoint their parents.

2. Perfectionism was a way to gain love or approval from your parents

If a child was often praised for their achievements rather than their efforts or progress, perfectionism can develop. It is also prevalent in those whose parents often withheld love or affection.

Some of us may end up chasing perfection because it was our only way to gain acceptance, praise, validation, approval, or affection from our parents. Because otherwise, our parents might not have given us any attention or love.

We learn that we’re only valued or loved for our achievements, not for who we are.

Due to that, we end up becoming people who let our achievements dictate our self-worth. We learned that love is conditional and we can only get it if we’re perfect.

3. Perfectionism was your protection against abuse

So some people use perfection as a way to gain love or approval. Meanwhile, some people use perfection as a way to defend against abuse.

However, it can be seen more as avoiding failure rather than striving for perfection. Because in that, they just want to protect themselves.

When you were a child, you might’ve been under constant criticism or even punishments from your parents for not meeting their expectations of you.

So now, you might do everything you can to be perfect or avoid failure whatsoever. That way, you can continue avoiding the backlash you used to get for messing up or for not being perfect.

Over time, you learned that perfection was the only thing that kept you from getting abused or hurt.

4. Perfectionism is a response to childhood trauma

Many people who experienced some form of childhood trauma often struggle with low self-esteem, negative self-talk, self-blame, shame, guilt, and low self-worth.

As a way to regain agency or control in their lives, these individuals will use perfectionism as a coping mechanism.

They start believing that “If I just do everything perfectly all the time, I can avoid further criticism or feeling like a failure. If I’m perfect, I won’t have to experience the trauma again.”

5. Perfectionism is encouraged by society

As your parents’ child, you feel the need to conform to your parents’ standards. And that’s not your fault. Wanting to please our parents is natural; it’s something we’re born with.

And as a fellow human in society, you feel the need to conform to society’s standards. And this might reinforce your perfectionism.

This is true especially when you already struggle with negative self-talk and low self-esteem due to the abuse you faced earlier on.

There are movements nowadays to celebrate differences, imperfections, and whatnot. But there are still a limitless number of things celebrating perfection and the “best”.

Success, achievements, beauty, winners, and perfection in general lurks around every corner of the internet and of society as the “ideal” way to be and to live. It becomes many people’s ultimate goal to achieve. And if they don’t, then they’re classified as losers.

Any display of weakness or sign of a flaw is pretty much frowned upon. Any mistakes or errors are pointed out, judged, made fun of, or criticized to oblivion.

So even if you managed to escape the perfection ingrained in you by your parents, society continues to reinforce the idea that perfection is what you need to “survive” and to be “good enough”.

How Childhood Trauma Causes Perfectionism | Perfectionism and Trauma | Hopeful Panda

Conclusion

We may struggle with perfectionism due to our trauma. It became our way to gain acceptance, approval, validation, and love. Or it was our only defense against an unpredictable or unsafe home.

Thus, our need to be “perfect” manifested. We end up tying it to our self-worth and letting it dictate how we live and who to be. Anything short of perfect may cause us to feel like we’re not worthy.

Being a perfectionist is hard. It comes with a lot of struggles. It causes us to live a life full of stress, anxiety, and dissatisfaction because we’re always trying to do better and avoid mistakes.

But remember, it is not your fault. It was just programmed into you.

With how you were raised, it’s almost “normal” for you to turn out to be a perfectionist. It was your defense and your way to earn the love you deserved.

The most important thing is to remind yourself that you don’t need to be perfect to be worthy and valuable.

Realize that you were raised with flawed beliefs that tied your self-worth to something impossible like perfection. It’s not something you believe in. It was ingrained in you by your parents and by society.

Try to remember that as long as you’re trying, it’s okay if things aren’t perfect. But if you still feel the need to be perfect, that’s okay. Just remember to give yourself the compassion and patience you need to slowly work through it.

Check out my next post on this series: The Problem with Perfectionism

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Hi there, I’m Estee. Having grown up with an abusive mother, I know how isolating, frustrating, and hopeless everything could feel – back then as a child and even now as an adult.

I am always trying to better understand and manage the effects of the abuse I experienced. And this journey I’m on inspired me to create Hopeful Panda. Learn more here.

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