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The Trauma of Perfectionism

How shame begets insecurity in relationships.

Key points

  • Perfectionists tend to desperately avoid their negative feelings.
  • Perfectionists feel shame because they confuse responsibility and blame.
  • Chronic blame during childhood creates a harsh inner critic.
  • Rather than loving yourself, consider how you've been rejecting love.

Many of our patients don't merely seek out therapy to feel better; they enter treatment to learn how to smother their emotions. Negativity terrifies perfectionists, believing they will fall apart from their unwanted feelings. They find all sorts of ways to avoid them.

One way is to prove themselves. By doing so, they fight to establish a core sense of who they are, which is immutable after enough validation. But, each perfectionist lives with an inner critic, who, in turn, disqualifies each achievement. Some of them seek proof through romantic success; others do it professionally. Yet, as they attempt to cultivate the perfect indicator of their worth, they remain blind to the complexity and fragility of any achievement or even any formation of one's self-concept. And, as they continue to obsess over that ultimate validation, they leave so many of their loved ones behind.

Perfectionism may be a way to erase the beliefs and memories of past experiences. Clinically, we know that shame is often the progeny of trauma. Trauma and childhood experiences, including those in early school years, shape us in so many ways; they shape our identities, our self-perceptions, our coping mechanisms, and our ability to trust others. When we’re hurt as children, it becomes difficult to overcome that pain as adults, even if we know we aren't to blame. However, perfectionists, who tend to personalize (meaning they often take too much responsibility for something that wasn't their fault or only partially was), frequently blame themselves by referring to their essence. They tell themselves that they failed because they're stupid or were rejected because they're ugly. They struggle with the complex nature of any outcome.

Due to a penchant for black-and-white thinking: it's either this or that. "I'm either attractive, or I'm not." "I was either lucky or good." "I must be to blame for my abuse because my dad was mad at me."

When my perfectionist clients consider their imperfections through external, negative feedback, they’re often transported back to their childhoods, encapsulated in helplessness and shame. In an environment wherein each action is highly scrutinized, each mistake aggrandized, and each misdeed is used to shame, the child grows up to value herself based solely on her tallies. Was she kind enough, smart enough, polite enough today? Did she offend? (The word 'enough' is a misnomer because the questions imply perfection.) Perfectionism is, fundamentally, a state of both knowledge and ignorance, of the awareness of one's inability to reach nirvana and of believing that she can. The construct of the good girl, for example, the one preoccupied with social justice and the general well-being of the world, becomes not merely an ideal to aspire to but a suffocating despot.

For her, blame and responsibility are inextricably intertwined.

Patients often struggle with understanding that, on the one hand, an abusive parent was responding to them and, on the other, did so excessively and cruelly. The majority of parents do not engage in this. Additionally, they struggle with differentiating between responsibility and blame, desperately avoiding the former because they conflate it with the latter. Responsibility asks: Can you try something else to help make this work better? Blame asserts: You should be punished for this failing. Whereas responsibility is either collaborative or inquisitive and used to problem-solve or understand, blame, especially when aimed at a child, is often a redirection of one's own guilt and sense of inadequacy.

Perfectionists often run when their relationships struggle and the inner critic reappears, another way by which feeling is avoided. They create excuses to push others away as the fire to embark on another quest for validation is rekindled. And their partners, or prospective partners, just as often feel dejected. In the wonderful film Good Will Hunting, about a boy repeatedly traumatized in the foster care system, during a discussion about a potential love interest with his therapist, Sean, Will, the firm's protagonist and patient, responds to Sean’s plea to call her by saying:

Why? So I can realize she’s not that smart, that she’s boring? Y’know? I mean…this girl is like perfect right now, I don’t wanna ruin that.

Sean’s response, one of the most poignant comments in the movie, was:

Maybe you’re perfect right now. Maybe you don’t wanna ruin that. I think that’s a super philosophy, Will; that way you can go through your entire life without ever having to really know anybody… You’re not perfect, sport. And let me save you the suspense: This girl you met, she isn’t perfect, either. But the question is: whether or not you’re perfect for each other. That’s the whole deal. That’s what intimacy is all about. Now you can know everything in the world, sport, but the only way you’re findin’ out that one is by givin’ it a shot. You certainly won’t learn that from an old f*****r like me. Even if I did know, I wouldn’t tell a pissant like you.

In the film, Will deeply hurts his partner and only stops when, during the famous climactic scene with Sean, he realizes that he doesn't deserve to be abused, subsequently accepting that his partner likely didn't believe he was that awful. There's a saying that one can't love others until he loves himself, but we can denote that one can't allow love in if he's certain he's unlovable. This means that love isn't possible when you spend most of your time fortifying yourself against those who try to love you for fear of being conned or, worse, discovered as a monster. The focus shouldn't be on loving oneself (which is an impossible feat for most and leads to a state where one pushes away any threats, even those which are in reality potentially helpful, to one’s self-image) but, rather, on allowing someone else to love you.

Characters are impossible to pin down and generalize, so considering yourself as an essence and cultivating a type of one are errors. You may be worthy of respect one moment and not the next. Or, an individual may admire you one moment and not the next, which may be based more on their emotional state, rather than anything you did—this happens when children are mistreated. Therefore, making oneself lovable can easily transform into another quest for ultimate validation.

On a Seize the Moment Podcast episode, philosopher Mark White spoke about the superhero Thor and the comic’s perspectives on morality and character. White argued that self-esteem constitutes an unstable structure that must be rebuilt daily. The question of worthiness is qualified by the day it is asked. Worthiness isn’t an end-point; it’s more like a well that has to be replenished constantly. Once you start resting on your laurels, you merely fall into it. This means that any form of self-love would always remain fickle. Our perfectionist clients learn how to tolerate uncertainty rather than how to love themselves. And they learn that love has to be maintained through effort. They have to wake up each day and ask themselves what they should do to sustain it. The perspective shifts from who you are, some immutable essence, to what you're doing and how you've been improving while learning to trust your partner's judgments. If your partner still values you, congratulations, you've made it through another day. It's all that any of us can hope for.


Because excellence is more than good enough: On the need to distinguish the pursuit of excellence from the pursuit of perfection. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 2022. Gaudreau, P. et al.

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