One of the more insidious effects of early childhood difficulty is perfectionism. Perfectionism takes many forms, but hinges on unrealistic or unattainable ideals for ourselves, others, and the world. Constant striving for an illusory, perfect world can lead to relationship conflicts, burnout and fatigue in our pursuits, and a deep sense of anger and frustration about ourselves or others when reality fails to live up to our lofty vision.
Perfectionism tends to get setup in childhood when we are faced with stress, abuse, or neglect that we have no control over. This could be due discord or divorce in our families, a family’s struggles with poverty, illness, mental health, substance abuse, or worse. As a young child, these events threaten to overwhelm our undeveloped nervous system, which counts on a stable and consistent outside environment in order to be regulated. There is nothing more important to a child than a sense of safety and connection with our primary caregivers, and when this is impinged, children must come up with a reason to understand why their basic needs are not being met. Children cannot emotionally, mentally, or even physically handle the reality that the world is often a painful place, where bad things can happen to us and others for no apparent reason.
In order to maintain a sense of control over our lives, children have to come up with a narrative that explains why these bad things are happening. It is normal for a child to believe that they have control over their environment and that events that occur in reality are the result of their own actions or thoughts since they have not yet made a link between cause and effect. This is called magical thinking in developmental theories, and lets a child believe that there is an alternative version reality where these bad things would not have occurred if they did something different.
This might sound maladaptive at first glance, but looking more closely at this strategy, it serves a purpose for a child. Belief that we could stop bad things from happening if we tried harder, were better, more perfect, etc, allows a child to retain a sense of control over their world, albeit false. This false sense of security protects them from being overwhelmed in a scary world, and allows them to create an illusion of safety that now hinges on them rather than the adults around them.
This protection (also known as a defense mechanism), however, comes at a huge cost. It requires a sacrifice of our intrinsic sense of self-worth. If we were really good at our core, these things would not be happening to us, but since bad things ar happening, we must not really be “enough” in some way. The logical answer to this problem, according to our minds, is to strive to improve ourselves, whichever way our mind deems most likely to prove to the world that really are good, which, by the way, ought to also stop these things from happening.
The new need to have improve of ourselves and feel in control of our life may show up in academic, athletic, or artistic performance, being socially popular, being a “good” girl or boy, being nice, being pretty, etc. These behaviors may get reinforced by our families or our community via praise, but secretly, we have started down the slippery slope of perfectionism, because no matter how good we are, the problems we have been facing are not really being created by us at all and therefore will not go away just because we are “good”. However, our minds are not very accurate at looking at our actual experience and how well our strategy is working out for us, and instead, we start to double down on being “perfect”, even when being “perfect” is not really going to stop bad things from happening or help get all of our needs met.
Over the years, these thinking and behavioral patterns lead us to be unable to complete or start projects because they seem inadequate, unable to stop criticizing parts of ourselves or others, and basically be disappointed by what life has to offer. It can contribute to depression, anxiety, substance abuse, eating disorders, or other significant mental health conditions.
Fortunately, there are many ways to work with perfectionism, beginning with understanding the game we have been playing with ourselves and how it has no solution, since life will never meet our impossible standards. We can begin to let go of this toxic narrative, and as adults, instead grieve the loss of what should or could have been there when we were young but wasn’t. We can recognize that this loss was not our fault, and scary though it may be, acknowledge that we didn’t do anything to cause some of the situations we found ourselves in, nor could we have stopped them. Instead of dealing with the problems we encounter in life as being indicative of our inherent shortcomings, we can deal with them effectively and realistically, without shame and distorted perceptions. We can more accurately assess what in reality we have control over, and begin to accept things which we cannot.
I am currently junior and have been struggling with perfectionism, literally, all my life. This was a very important read for me and helped me to understand myself and my past better. I even see my present in another light. Though this new information at the moment is a bit heavy for me, I very much appreciate the sharing of this piece. Hopefully I can slowly change my life around.
-An Anxious Perfectionist
This can be a bit heavy, and I glad you found it useful! This is the beginning of understanding how to recognize the shame underneath perfectionism and I to begin to recognize it as a reasonable response of a child in a challenging situation.