How did my upbringing turn me into a perfectionist?

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Charles J. Sophy, MD
Adolescent Medicine

You may likely turn into a perfectionist when your upbringing involved adults who displayed the following characteristics:

  • rigid or moralistic in their attempts to keep you on an honest course
  • did not role model forgiving and forgetting when mistakes, failures, offenses or backsliding occur
  • too hard, too brutal, too rigid, too unrealistic or too idealistic in their expectations of you
  • did not provide positive reinforcement for any positive change, no matter how small or slight it was.
Karen R Koenig
Psychology

Our upbringing is a major factor in determining whether or not we turn into perfectionists. As with psychiatric and substance disorders, perfectionism tends to run in families. If you have one parent who’s a perfectionist and one who isn’t, you have a fighting chance. If both parents are so inclined, I’d be surprised if you were able to escape the p word. Of course, what our parents model about the pursuit of excellence is only one element molding us into poster children for the unflawed.

But it is a key influence.

Here’s how it happens. We see Dad or Mom working late, skipping meals and family events in order to feverishly climb a career ladder. We watch them clean obsessively or practically kill themselves whipping the garden into shape. Maybe they refuse to have guests unless the house is in order top to bottom, push themselves to overachieve at sports and supposed leisure activities, have to be the perfect hosts and never let guests lift a finger, or wouldn’t dream of leaving the house without looking like Ms. or Mr. America. Often their energy goes into chiseling an ideal body or devising a rigid diet plan that will magically make them svelte and slim.

Dirty laundry and messy rooms aren’t tolerated. How you and they look is a big deal and how things appear to the outside world overshadows how things feel in your heart. They care what the neighbors think, don’t want to embarrass themselves, hate to let anyone down, stay busy until they get sick or overcome with exhaustion. Being selfish is the worst thing anyone could possibly be. Their ideals are impossible to achieve, but that doesn’t stop Mom or Dad from trying. And their pressure on you to conform and excel, even when it’s patently obvious to everyone else that it’s not in your best interest, is relentless.

It’s this combination of modeling perfection and expecting it of you that nails shut your perfect coffin. You share their belief that one person should never disappoint another, so how could you ever dream of not doing what they tell you or not striving to meet their lofty standards? Sometimes parents don’t even need to say a word about what they expect of you; it’s in their every glance. More than that, it’s the unstated family message that perfection is expected and nothing less will be tolerated and how terribly disappointed they’ll be if you don’t measure up.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.