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Perfectionism as a Trauma Response

Perfectionism as a Trauma Response

Perfectionism and trauma are interconnected in complex ways, often leading to a variety of psychological and emotional challenges. Let's explore this connection:

1. Perfectionism is many times linked with I’m not Good Enough:

We tend to think of perfectionism as a good thing, but at a more profound level, perfectionism is a personality trait characterized by a relentless pursuit of flawlessness and an intense need for high achievement. People with perfectionistic tendencies set exceedingly high standards for themselves and are overly critical of their own performance, often feeling unsatisfied even when they achieve impressive results.

Long ago, when we first began to feel not good enough, we learned the best medicine we had on hand: perfectionism. Many people who have perfectionism tendencies have at the root cause the Wound of “Not being enough/I’m not good enough”. One of the most common reasons for perfectionism is childhood trauma, mostly, developmental trauma based on the relationship with our mother and father. Most of our parents were disconnected from themselves, from their body, emotions and their real needs and due to this, they couldn’t connect with us at a deeper level, see us for who we are, not for who we are supposed to be and fulfil our needs.

Childhood trauma caused us to develop a negative core belief and a deep feeling that people are not trustworthy, and neither we are. Our self-worth was shattered, and we felt responsible for the neglect, abuse (emotional, physical, verbal, sexual), and unavailable emotional parents that we had. As we endured all this, we internalized the belief and the idea that we are bad and worthless.

Feeling like we were not good enough it was very painful as children and to survive we shut off all our feelings and emotions. Because of this, we missed the chance to develop our emotional body and as a result, now as adults, we struggle to self-regulate our nervous system, to contain or sit with our emotions and process them.

3. Connection between Perfectionism and Trauma: The connection between perfectionism and trauma can be understood through several mechanisms:

  • Coping Mechanism: Perfectionism can develop as a coping mechanism in response to trauma. People might adopt perfectionism as a way to gain a sense of control over the environment and the emotions. By striving for perfection, we attempt to create a sense of order and predictability in our lives.
  • Self-Worth and Validation: Trauma can significantly impact an individual's self-esteem and self- worth. Perfectionism can emerge as an attempt to prove oneself as valuable or deserving of love and acceptance. By achieving high standards, individuals may believe can gain external validation that counteracts feelings of worthlessness stemming from trauma.
  • Fear of Failure: Traumatic experiences can lead to heightened anxiety and a fear of future negative events. Perfectionism can be fueled by this fear, as most of us believe that by achieving perfection, we can prevent future failures or traumas from occurring.
  • Avoidance of Vulnerability: Trauma can make us more guarded and wary of being vulnerable. Perfectionism may serve as a defense mechanism to avoid exposing our vulnerabilities. By projecting an image of flawlessness, many of us hope to shield ourselves from judgment or potential harm.
  • Persistent Stress: The constant pressure to be perfect can create chronic stress, exacerbating the negative impact of trauma. The stress caused by perfectionism can amplify symptoms related to trauma, such as anxiety, depression, and emotional dysregulation.

4. Why it’s so hard to let go of perfectionism and accept that imperfection is an inherent part of the human condition? Here are some additional signs to keep an eye out for:

Oftentimes at the root of perfectionism is a limited belief or a mindset that says “If I let go of perfectionism”, I will not receive attention, validation or respect and I will not be accepted by the people around me. Perfectionists often believe that unless they achieve perfection, they are not worthy of recognition, love, or approval.

Most of the people who struggle with perfectionism also struggle with:

External Validation: People who hold this belief might place a strong emphasis on external validation, meaning they rely on praise and recognition from others to feel good about themselves. This can lead to a cycle of constantly seeking approval, which can be emotionally draining and lead to feelings of inadequacy if it's not consistently received.

Attention-Seeking Behavior: In some cases, individuals who believe that they need to be perfect to receive attention might engage in attention-seeking behaviors or overexert themselves to meet their own high standards. This can lead to burnout and a diminished sense of self, as their worth becomes closely tied to the approval and attention of others.

Fear of Rejection: The fear of rejection or criticism can play a significant role in this mindset. People might think that if they reveal any imperfections, they will be rejected or dismissed by others, leading them to strive for an unattainable level of flawlessness.

Impact on Mental Health: Holding such a belief can have negative implications for one's mental health. It can lead to chronic stress, anxiety, low self-esteem, and even conditions like depression. The constant pressure to be perfect can be emotionally exhausting and lead to feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt.

It's important to recognize that this belief is a cognitive distortion – a flawed way of thinking that doesn't reflect reality. Nobody is perfect, and seeking validation solely from external sources can be detrimental to one's self-esteem and overall well-being. It's healthier to cultivate self-acceptance, self-compassion, and a balanced perspective on both strengths and weaknesses.

5. Healing and Recovery: Addressing the connection between perfectionism and trauma requires a holistic approach:

  • Therapy is one of the best tools to get to know yourself, to explore your wounds and needs and to learn how to heal yourself.
  • Self-Compassion: Learning to be kind to oneself and embracing imperfections can counteract the harsh self-criticism associated with perfectionism.
  • Mindfulness and Somatic Practices: Practicing mindfulness and somatic exercises can help us become more aware of our thought patterns and emotional responses, allowing us to manage perfectionism, the emotions related to this and trauma-related distress.
  • Support Networks: Engaging with supportive friends, family, or support groups can foster a sense of connection and reduce feelings of isolation.

None of our childhoods were perfect. Many of us had good childhoods with loving parents, others not - but perfection in the way that all of our wants and needs were met?!

Nope. I don’t think so.

So, we all grow up with some wounds. Some emotional feelings like sadness, anger, and shame, that are now hard to hold and bear. And I know from my own trauma and childhood that this “I’m not good enough theme”, it sucks. As children, we didn’t have many options and opportunities to change something in our environment or to change our parents.

Now, as adults we have. We can keep going and repeat this program and old wound or we get to decide to have a better life, different from our childhood.

Now we choose. We can choose to commit to this emotional healing journey and to live the life we want.

Addressing perfectionism and its connection to trauma takes time, patience, and a willingness to seek help. It’s possible to overcome perfectionism and it’s important to remember also that seeking professional help is a sign of strength and can lead to improved mental and emotional well-being.

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