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What Causes Perfectionism: Understanding Its Roots Through a Trauma Lens

June 1, 2024
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Perfectionism may start as a way to protect yourself but lead to an exhausting cycle of avoiding shame. For those with a history of trauma, understanding what causes perfectionism and the link to painful experiences can help you holistically address the root causes and heal.

What is perfectionism?

The American Psychological Association defines perfectionism as “the tendency to demand of others or of oneself an extremely high or even flawless level of performance, in excess of what is required by the situation.”

It's a relentless pursuit of high standards without error. This constant need to be perfect can show up as:

Assorted Seashell on Sand representing perfectionism

What causes perfectionism?

Multiple contributing factors can lead to perfectionism. These include social expectations and one’s personality or tendencies. However, a common thread for many individuals is past trauma or painful experiences as a child.

Types of trauma and harmful childhood experiences that may lead to perfectionism include:

Trauma and early experiences

Trauma can shape how you see yourself and the world around you, and lead to the sense that you need to be perfect. Research has linked perfectionism to adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). This includes abuse, neglect, and household dysfunction.

Children raised in chaotic or abusive environments might believe that they're only valuable if they're perfect. Trying to be flawless can become a survival strategy, a way to feel safe, loved, and in control. It’s a means of gaining approval and stability in a world that feels uncertain.

Man in Black Jacket Lying on White Pillow thingin about helo with perfectionism in Seattle.

Perfectionism: A survival strategy

Individuals who have experienced trauma may be on edge or afraid of making mistakes. This is often driven by a deep-seated belief that if they aren’t perfected they’ll be abandoned or hurt. Perfectionism may serve as a way to manage overwhelming emotions and maintain a sense of control when life feels chaotic. However, it only provides temporary relief from anxiety or distress.

This constant pressure to be perfect feeds into feelings of not being good enough, which is a common theme in trauma. Instead of healing, you end up stuck in a cycle. You feel shame, anxiety, or fear and you try to be perfect to feel better. Then you feel even worse when you can't live up to your own unrealistic expectations. The cycle keeps going. You end up trapped in a loop of striving for an impossible ideal that reinforces your feelings of inadequacy and self-blame.

It’s important to note that it’s not a shameful thing to have gone through life with perfectionism as a coping skill. You survived the best way you knew how. You may be in a place in life now that it’s time to release what no longer serves you and find coping strategies that support your healing.

The intersection of trauma and self-worth

Trauma can profoundly impact your sense of self-worth and identity, laying the groundwork for perfectionistic beliefs and behaviors. Enduring distressing events or harm within relationships can create negative messages about your value and competence. This can lead to pervasive feelings of shame, guilt, and unworthiness. Perfectionism may emerge as an attempt to prove your worthiness. For example, seeking validation and approval through external achievements and accomplishments.

Treatment for perfectionism

Recovery often involves untangling the complex web of emotions, beliefs, and coping strategies contributing to perfectionism. Trauma-informed therapy approaches can support you in exploring the roots of your perfectionism, challenging harmful beliefs, and developing healthier coping strategies. Some of these treatments include:

With your therapist’s support, you can work on setting achievable goals for yourself, practicing acceptance, and allowing yourself to make mistakes.

 People Sitting on Brown Wooden Chair talking about treatment for perfectionism

Cultivating self-compassion

Another key aspect of healing from both trauma and perfectionism is developing your self-compassion. This looks like treating yourself with kindness, understanding when you fall short, and allowing your feelings to exist without judgment. By practicing self-compassion, you can learn to embrace imperfection, acknowledge your inherent worthiness, and offer yourself gentleness and understanding in moments of struggle.

Coping with perfectionism involves recognizing that nobody is perfect and that it's okay to make mistakes. It's about challenging the unrealistic expectations you set for yourself and learning to embrace imperfection as a natural part of being human. It also means letting go of the need for constant approval and validation and finding fulfillment in your own growth and progress, however imperfect it may be. Shifting the focus from self-criticism to self-compassion opens the door to transformative healing.

Viewing perfectionism through a trauma lens shifts the perspective from personal failure to adaptive coping. It acknowledges that perfectionism might have served as a survival strategy in the past, but is no longer beneficial to you in the present. Understanding what causes perfectionism and its link to trauma also helps deepen healing and promote lasting change.

Seeking perfectionism therapy in Seattle?

Dr. David Zacharias has been serving patients for over 20 years. He provides compassionate diagnostic assessment, therapy, and medication management in person in the Greater Seattle Area and virtually across Washington. If perfectionism is harming your well-being, relationships, or career, reach out today to schedule a free consultation.

Written by Existential Psychiatry Staff