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Perfectionism and Trauma


Intro

How many times have we heard people say “ugh sorry, it’s just my OCD” or “OMG I’m such a perfectionist”. Probably more often than we should. I strongly believe that as a society we share one big coping mechanism in common, we humor very serious things in order to bear to live with it. When you speak of perfectionism, you speak of something quite deep for many people that actually struggle with the idea of being perfect. Perfectionism is defined as “the need to be or appear to be perfect, or even to believe that it’s possible to achieve perfection” (goodtherapy.org, 2022). Everyone knows that being perfect is unattainable and yet there are people living in the pain of trying to reach it. Perfectionism is the peak of psychological distress for most, as you are confronted with two dilemmas that are irreconcilable; in one hand I want to be perfect and in the other hand, being perfect doesn’t exist. Finding ourselves in a place such as this creates what we call a dialectic, which leaves people in distress constantly. So it’s not a word to toss around as a joke or take lightly as it’s a true daily battle for many.

Perfectionism and trauma

Perfectionism is not a mental illness, although it is linked to anxiety disorders and many other types of mental health issues. First, it’s important that you understand that it’s okay to have high standards and want the absolute best. Striving for excellence can show to yourself and others that you have grit, discipline, good work ethic and can be a great strength in character. High standards are what create greatness and push us to our peak levels of performance. However, there’s a major difference between setting high standards and setting unfeasible standards that you cannot reach and perpetrate the feeling of failure.


At the root of perfectionism are two things: a fear of judgment and disapproval from others. Do you know where those fears often stem from? I’ll tell you! Our early childhood experiences and the type of caregiver/parent we grew up with, can have quite an impactful outcome on our sense of self. Perfectionism is a coping mechanism that you developed early on, so you could “deal” with life as you knew it. It is a defense mechanism at times to help protect you from the pain of being wrong or feeling like a failure. More importantly, your idea of failure will most likely be defined by what was modeled to you as a child, in regards to what being successful meant. I challenge you to go back in time, and answer two questions: how did my parents measure their success? How did my parents acknowledge mine? These questions will help you understand what you now identify as failure and the standards you hold yourself to. Most perfectionists have quite a negative sense of self, perhaps not feeling good enough and therefore always chasing perfection as a way to escape the pain that stems from being “not-perfect”. They are a set of people that have convinced themselves that when you are perfect, people can’t complain about you, therefore allowing you to escape feelings of pain and rejection.


I want to talk about what happens to many people raised in the black culture, more specific to what I know well, West African Culture. The first people that you learn to have a relationship with in this life, are your caregivers/ parents. Therefore, the way you connect/attach to them, will play a big role in your own identity formation and your connections/attachments to others outside that circle. In our African culture, most parents raise their children on the principle that is: your child is only as good as how they behave. This means that to be deemed a “good child” to the eyes of your parents and society, you have to “act right” which ultimately translates to never being the cause of conflict. In that instance, labeling conflict as something that is “bad” to have and to avoid at all cost. The behavioural approach is very much ingrained in the African parenting style, one where the child doesn’t get to speak up, cannot respond when their parent is talking, their thoughts and feelings don’t matter, etc (the list continues), because anything other than pure obedience, adoration of the parental figure and following rules falls under being a deception.


This approach teaches children at a very young age that in order to get what I need from my parents (love, affection, kindness, approval, etc.), I must avoid conflict and avoid how I truly feel because there’s no space for it. It teaches children that if I have an opinion that is different from yours, I have to keep it buried inside because if I express it, then I get punished, and become a disappointment. A child then associates themselves with the idea of deception for being their true selves, and to cope with that irreconcilable pain, they begin to strive to be perfect. By doing so, they avoid being a disappointment to you, and avoid conflict. That might have worked when you were a child, however as an adult now, you probably struggle in some capacity with regulating your emotions and/or expressing them. You probably struggle with conflict, you either don’t know how to deal with it so you avoid it or you deal with it in a nonchalant way because you’ve convinced yourself that there are things that are more important than dealing with feelings and emotions. Since there were so many things you couldn’t control in your life growing up, you turned to over-controlling yourself and parts of your surroundings to regain a small sense of control. But you may have done that by becoming a perfectionist.


The thing is this; being perfect won’t make people have less conflict with you or for you to have less conflicts with them. Unresolved issues will persist until we find the resolution and deal with it head on. It’s not because you're avoiding a conflict that it resolves itself. Newsflash, conflict is healthy! Contrary to what our parents told us, conflict is good for your relationships. You need it! If you have no conflicts, then just like that kid again, you are not getting your needs met. Can you imagine what the state of your life and relationships would be like if people solely judged your worth based on how you behave? Not caring how you feel, what you were thinking or what was happening in your life. Who behaves perfectly at all times? That expectation that was put on you so young, it is something you must unlearn in order to heal that wound. Remember that children are supposed to be loud, playful, rebellious, make mistakes, act silly, cross all kinds of boundaries, etc. They are children. This is their first time on planet earth, with you as their primary model of how to act in this world. So no, they “shouldn’t” just know how to act right. I think that as African folks, we have some deep rooted issues as a result of many things in our history, but I also know that our parents did the best they could with what they had. You can love and care about your parents, while also acknowledging where your gaps are as an adult, to try to do things differently for the future generation.

My story and road to perfectionism

I always promised to be honest with my readers and share insightful life experiences so that even if only one of you can relate, I'd be fulfilled, so here is my story. I spent the first 8 years of my life in Cameroon, Africa. I was an extremely outgoing, energetic, full of life kind of kid. If I didn’t have to go to school, I would leave our family house at 9h00 after breakfast and come back in the evening for dinner after a day of play and hanging out with neighborhood kids. For context, I was being raised at the time in a house full of adults and never had children around to play with, so I left to go to neighbors or play with street kids. No matter what was happening in our life, I felt included in our community, felt like I belonged and could always be myself. After immigrating to Canada, I lived with my parents, whom I didn’t know very well as we had been apart most of my life at that time. During that time apart, my parents had my younger brother, who was already 1 year old by the time I ever met him. If you’ve read my other blogs, you know that transitioning to Canada was the toughest years of my life. I was bullied, I felt isolated, I missed what I knew and most importantly, I felt like I was living with a bunch of strangers in a country I didn’t know nor recognised. I became the “bad kid” according to our African norms because I would lie, steal, hide stuff, get into fights at school, get suspensions, etc. In retrospect after doing my own healing as an adult, I understood that I was experiencing a traumatic transition which led to psychological distress. I still picture it 'til this day, of me crying myself to sleep for months at a time, always wanting a piece of home (Cameroon) and never feeling comfortable in my own skin. I’m pretty sure for a good 6 months as a kid, I was clinically depressed and just completely emotionally dysregulated. My parents didn’t know what to do with me, and probably felt quite defeated because they didn’t understand what my needs were. They used to threaten to send me back to Cameroon if I didn’t want to behave right.


By the age of 12, we moved out of Montreal, to Ottawa. We were still experiencing discord but it had lessened. I remember that I had to agree to a behavioural contract and sign it, saying that from now onwards, I would behave well and stop causing trouble or go back to Africa. I didn’t know in that body and at that age why I acted the way I did, but all I knew was that I had to agree in order to proceed to the move into the house. I don’t know with what power invested in me I was able to do that, but it’s almost like I pushed a switch in my brain and became a different person. I shoved down whatever I was feeling or thinking, and just tried to be the perfect child so I would stop causing my parents so much heartache. I truly did feel bad for being a source of stress and I didn’t want to cause issues anymore. I believe that is when my perfectionist tendencies began; I wanted to do everything right. Regular tasks that took the average person 30min would take me 2 hours because I wanted to do it right. I stopped being the outgoing, bubbly, full of energy kid I was, and almost became a robot. I started taking responsibility super seriously (probably too much for my age), I wanted to be the perfect student, perfect child, perfect friend and most importantly perfect in this skin that I felt burdened with so society would stop coming from me. I used to beat myself up for making mistakes, or anytime my teachers, coaches, relatives felt disappointed in me for something or gave me critique. It was very hard for me to be anything short of perfect because I had internalized that if I allowed myself to feel, I would cause issues.


As a full grown adult, I can confidently say that I’m a recovering perfectionist. Although I’ve been able to work through a lot of sh*t, I think I’m still working through a big challenge; learning to be okay with not expecting “me” from others. It’s hard to complain, but I will try. Because I’m a perfectionist, I overthink all scenarios put in front of me and always go the extra mile for others, not just for myself. I have such high standards in everything I do and combined with my self-discipline, I never half-ass anything that is important to me. I often find myself disappointed in people that proclaim to care about me or that I’m important to them, because they fall short of the standards I hold them too, which truly are my standards. I understand that it is not fair to expect people to be us, or to do things like we would do it, but it doesn’t take away from the feelings and emotions that are experienced as a result of that. Something can be logical and make sense cognitively, but emotions might not align. I am working through realigning and coping with those distressing emotions, when I finish rationalizing those situations. So again, no one is perfect! As I help my clients work through theirs, I work through mine as we are all incomplete people in some shape or form. Yes, even therapists!!!

Overcoming perfectionism

Recovering from our perfectionism may require deep trauma therapy for those who feel confident that they are in a space to put their life under a microscope. I recommend looking for a therapist that is trained to provide such service. Trauma therapy requires you to be in a safe place mentally, emotionally and physically in order for it to be helpful and not cause further distress to your health. You need to be in a space of growth in order for the growth to happen. For those who aren’t there yet, here are some steps you can use to start your journey and begin coping.

Step 1 - Learning to recognize perfectionism

Starting by admitting that you are a perfectionist, is a first step. Asking yourself important questions to uncover more about yourself. Have people told me that my standards are too high? Are my standards getting in my way? Do I feel like I never meet my standards? Perhaps, I feel easily depressed, anxious or angry when I don’t?

  • Identifying your perfectionist feelings: Do I feel depressed, angry, frustrated, anxious, etc. ?

  • Identifying your perfectionist thinking: Do I catastrophize situations, have an all-or-nothing thinking, constantly think “I should” do something, overthinking everything?

  • Identifying what your perfectionist behaviours: Avoiding/procrastination by fear of imperfection of the task, taking too much time completing simple tasks, obsessive thinking/checking, agonising small details, etc.?

Step 2 - Using tools to overcome perfectionism

Tool 1: Changing your thinking

  • Rebuild realistic thinking to step away from your perfectionist thinking

  • Changing your perspective to view if from someone else’s and then reflect on that

  • Start looking at the bigger picture of things. Does this really matter? Will this matter a year from now? If the worst comes, will I survive?

  • Learn to compromise and play with your tolerance window. This becomes EXTREMELY more difficult in intimate relationships! Buckle up.

Tool 2: changing the behaviour

  • Exposure therapy is the best proven way to break out of obsessive cycles. Facing your fears head on, helps your brain build a tolerance to the things you’ve conditioned it not to tolerate. Ex; Leave some place messy in the house, be late to that appointment by a few minutes, purposely don’t pack something, etc.

Tool 3: overcoming procrastination

  • You will need to create realistic schedules and reframe goal setting. Do this with a friend to start if it’s too difficult on your own at first. Have them be your accountability buddy.

  • Learn to set priorities based on what matters most to you and not what you think “you should” do based on others’ opinion.

Step 3 - Reward yourself

Celebrate small wins! Even as adults, we need a reward system to encourage us to continue positive behavioural patterns in our lives. You work hard to face your fears and change your patterns, you should congratulate yourself and treat yourself!


Don’t forget to reach out if you need guidance to start on that journey! I'm happy to help you!

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