The main misconception of perfectionism is that it only stems from emotional and/or physical abuse and/or neglect. Sometimes, you can do everything right as a parent and still inadvertently damage your kid. A client of mine, who’s had a fairly good upbringing, struggles with perfectionism, enduring sleepless nights and countless hours spent in agony of the potential outcomes of inconsequential, or only minimally so, decisions. In her mind, each flaw carries the weight of a life and death choice. And her ruminations appear as those from someone who’s attempting to escape from prison, fearing that he’ll be shot on sight if caught.
In speaking to her about her childhood, I learned that her mother also struggled with perfectionism, having excessively high standards for each chosen endeavor, even house cleaning. Each activity had to be meticulously listed and then painstakingly completed. When my client was hard on herself, her mom soothed her and reminded her that she was already good enough as was. The explicit message was that she didn’t need to be perfect in order to be loved, but the implicit one was antithetical. For, my client noticed each time her mom berated herself when she failed to fully achieve some goal. She noticed the lists, the obsessiveness, and the self-censure. In her mind, she couldn’t fully make sense of the divergent standards: on the one hand, she was good enough; but, on the other, her mother didn’t believe herself to be.
Although obviously unintentional, you can, sometimes, be a great parent while modeling poor behavior. It’s sort of like when you tell your child not to drink alcohol or smoke marijuana when you’re doing so yourself; kids pick up on it. So, my client made sense of the discrepancy by convincing herself that her mother was simply soothing her, telling her what she wanted to hear so as to barricade her from the truth. Kids are really good at making sense of the world in the most negative ways. Thus, my client, despite her mother’s efforts, became a perfectionist, using her mom’s behaviors as blueprints for how to live.
It’s easy to think that how we treat our children is what matters most, but the way we treat ourselves is as significant; parenting is as much about what you say as it is about what you do. And, this was a blind spot for my client’s mother. Parenting is such a difficult undertaking that it’s best for us to be as emotionally healthy as possible, even if we decide to do so after birth. My client’s mother never told my client that she was wrong in treating herself the way she did, that her obsessive tendencies were forms of pathology which didn’t symbolize necessary expectations. If she were in treatment, my client may have accepted her praise and, additionally, her more realistic understanding of herself. Although her behaviors may not have changed in the short (or even long) term, her insight into them could have substantially helped my client.
Fundamentally, root causes are often attributed to poor parenting; but, sometimes, good parents, unconsciously, make important mistakes. If you were to ask my client, she would tell you that her mother loved her and wanted her to be healthier than she was. However, because she wasn’t able to acknowledge the error of her internal dialogue or her lofty expectations for herself, my client made her own assumptions, creating a philosophy of life in accepting perfectionism as the only legitimate way of being.