Perfectionism – A trauma responseOctober 6, 2022 2022-10-07 10:29
Perfectionism – A trauma response
Heal from perfectionism and claim your life back
Today I decided to write about perfectionism as I know that some of you are just that; perfectionists.
If you are not, you certainly know at least one person who is. You may even have one in your life. You might find them quirky at best or extremely annoying at worst. They can make your life miserable with their hard to meet demands for perfection on your part too but they can also get you out of a pickle with their orderliness and their meticulous organizing system.
If you are a perfectionist, maybe you are aware of the paralyzing fear that overcomes you at the thought of making a mistake; the shame and the ridicule that will fall upon you if you do not perform optimally. Or, the torment of the indecision because good decisions have a mortal enemy, which is better decisions.
Obsessive perfectionism as a trauma response
Whether you are one or living with one, I would like to raise awareness to the fact that obsessive perfectionism is a trauma response. As such, it can be addressed and healing is possible.
Maybe some might argue that we are born with certain personality traits which might be distinct from person to person. We can observe that among siblings who grew up in the same household and were raised by the same care givers. This can explain an inclination towards order and tidiness but it cannot explain obsessive perfectionism.
The obsessive perfectionist’s childhood
If you were born with this specific personality trait, obsessive perfectionism can stem from a childhood during which your caregivers shamed and ridiculed you every time you made a mistake; every time that you were not perfect. They punished you harshly every time you made what they considered “a mistake”. This means that you grew up with critical parents who lacked empathy. It is not uncommon for such parents to compare us with others and make us feel that we are never enough.
In addition, it is not unlikely either that they tried to control how you do things and try to impose their way as the best way. This crushed any creativity and free expression and made you rigid in your ways; unable to see that there is more than one way to do things well.
What is more, such parents thwart spontaneity and expressions of joy as they find them unruly. The child is not allowed to be a child; to scream with excitement, to explore, to be curious, to discover.
Traumatized parents traumatize their children
If your parents were like that, it does not necessarily mean that they were bad people. Nor does it mean that they criticized you to break you. If they behaved that way towards you, it is because they treated themselves and their inner child the same way. This is how their own parents brought them up. They too were traumatized in their childhood. If we do not work on our trauma, we perpetuated it and turn it into a transgenerational trauma…
As a result, you grew up thinking “I must be perfect in order to be accepted or loved.”
Consequently, the need for obsessive perfection becomes visceral. It is an automated response to every situation. Whenever faced with a task or a decision, the nervous system takes over. It highjacks the brain and has you relive your childhood fear whatever the circumstances.
This chronic fear can manifest in different ways. Every time you make a mistake, you instantly feel unworthy or unlovable. You are constantly under stress. Anxiety becomes an integral part of your everyday life. So much so that you don’t know what life is like without it.
Some unhealthy coping mechanisms
In order to avoid making mistakes, you try to create a controlled environment; meticulous archives of all sorts, to do lists and strategic planning. So, you might spend what, for others, would be a ridiculous amount of time on tiny, insignificant details. There is no time for fun. God forbid if something happens out of the blue. It could completely throw you off balance.
In addition, it is extremely difficult for you to make a decision. You agonize over as much as finding the perfect parking space. Options terrify you. Options mean that you have to choose. What if you choose the wrong one? Well, guess what! You can always choose again.
Another manifestation of obsessive perfectionism is procrastination. Yes, you read well. Procrastination. Many people attribute procrastination to laziness but it could be a byproduct of perfectionism. The aforementioned paralyzing fear of making a mistake can turn even the most conscientious and hard working person into a procrastinator. “What if I give it my all but I fail nonetheless?” a teenage perfectionist told me during a life coaching session last week. His whole family has labeled him lazy but he is just terrified of making a mistake.
How is healing possible?
I have news for all you perfectionists out there. There is no such thing as failure! How does science progress? By trial and error of course. So does life. Every choice is an attempt at success in whatever we are aspiring to get with that choice. Every attempt brings us closer to what we want. Appearances can be deceiving. What might look like a bad choice might actually turn out to be a blessing in disguise. Do you remember the story of the Chinese farmer and his horse by Lao Tzu?
Perfectionism deprives us of our humanity. We become cruel to ourselves and to others. So, please my dear perfectionists, don’t be so hard on yourselves. Stop playing and replaying in your head the critical voice that scarred you as a child. That voice is not yours. Let it fall on deaf ears! Be kind to yourselves and treat yourselves the way everyone deserves to be treated; with love and encouraging kindness.
Learn to laugh with your mistakes. Don’t take yourself so seriously. And most importantly, don’t be afraid of being laughed at. Laugh with them. Laugh at yourself. Making mistakes is part of the human experience. Some of the greatest discoveries were mistakes. Need I remind you of Columbus?
To conclude, instead of looking for perfection, get into action! Pluck up the courage and keep doing, keep learning. Don’t waste your life on an illusion that is perfection. Live, laugh, do!