Why am I driven toward perfectionism since my childhood?

Karen R Koenig

The drive behind perfection is more complex and subtle than parental modeling and expectations. If there was a tremendous amount of dysfunction and shame-based activity in your house growing up, perfection becomes its antidote. If things look good from the outside, no one will suspect Dad’s drinking, Mom’s depression, Grandpa’s Peeping Tom episodes, or Grandma’s shoplifting excursions. If emotional, sexual, or physical abuse is occurring and it’s not getting addressed, living a cover story of perfection conceals it. Sadly, just by putting their energy into making life appear so, people can convince themselves that all’s right with the world when it isn’t.

In this way, perfectionism is a direct reaction to being raised in a shame-based family. Then there’s the hope that if you’re a good little girl, Mommy won’t throw things and Daddy won’t stay out all night or get arrested again. We try to manage situations that are not of our making and over which we have basically no control by being good because most of us are raised to think that good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people. Not so, not so at all. It stands to reason that if being good sometimes calms down Mom or Dad, then being good all the time (that is, perfect) will win the day. You come to believe that if only you can keep up your grades, maintain a spotless room, not fight with your siblings, and do all your chores just right, nothing bad will happen.

When something bad does happen (and it always does), you think it’s your fault and redouble your efforts rather than understand that your impact as a child on the behavior of your parents or relatives is slim to none. That they’re triggered by their own internal impulses is beyond your ability to comprehend, especially when they blame you for their actions and make you feel responsible for their acting badly. As a child you believe they are right and you are wrong. Unfortunately, you build your life around the belief that you can fix other people and the world all by yourself if you only keep trying and trying and never give up. It’s the worst kind of rat race, the most lonely treadmill, the saddest example of a dog chasing its tail.

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