How Perfectionism Begins
You weren’t born a perfectionist. When you were a baby, you had to try many times before you could get that spoon into your mouth without spilling food. You had to walk first by holding onto a low table, and sometimes you fell. Then you walked a few steps next to the table without touching it, and you fell down.
Finally, after many tries, you were able to walk without holding onto anything or falling. In time, you walked faster without tripping, and at last, you ran.
As a child, you found many things interesting, and you discovered that you could do some things well and others not as well.
While you were doing your best to learn to sit up, crawl, walk, and run as well as sing, hop, study, and all the other things you were involved in during childhood, the adults in your life were reacting to you. The way they talked to you and how they acted in response to what you did had an impact on you.
As you read all the following examples, realize that your parents did the best they knew how. They related to you based on their own personalities and the way they were raised by their parents. So don’t blame them, and don’t blame yourself for your perfectionism. The point is just to recognize it for what it is so that you can deal with it.
Hearing criticism often
If you were criticized often by your parents, you grew up thinking you had to go that extra step to please them and make them proud of you. Some parents never give their child high regard for what they do. Instead of saying, “Good job — I’m pleased with you,” these parents say, “Couldn’t you have done better?”
Their children grow up believing that what they do isn’t very worthwhile and that they have to strive to be better. Maybe then their parents will look kindly at them and give them a pat on the back for doing a good job.
Some people grow up in homes where other people are criticized too — people at work, neighbors, friends, and family members who live outside the home. Children in these households decide it’s wise to stay on their parents’ good side and not be like all these people who are criticized. If they can only be perfect, their parents won’t condemn them like they do other people.
Having things done for you
Imagine you’re trying to do something for your family, such as putting away the dishes. Your mother comes up to you and says, “Here, let me do it! I can do it faster. You don’t even know where the dishes go.” How do you feel?
Of course, you’re going to feel that you did something wrong because your mother can certainly put the dishes away faster and better than you. You feel you might as well not even try. She’s going to push you out of the way and belittle you anyway, so why make an effort?
But then you start to think that working hard to do things perfectly is a good idea. You want to do things well, and if you perform extra well, you can feel that you can accomplish things.
In fact, you redouble your effort to learn exactly which dish goes where, so you can jump up out of your seat after the dishes have been washed and start to put them away as quickly as (or even quicker than) your mother. You want to show her that you can put the dishes away in an expert manner.
Being compared to another child
If you heard such things as “Why can’t you be more like your sister? She gets such good grades and never gets in trouble,” you likely had the opinion that you weren’t as good as your sister. In fact, you may have thought you weren’t as good as any of the kids in the neighborhood. They all got good grades too and weren’t in trouble. You wondered what was wrong with you.
These messages from parents can be very damaging, trampling on your sense of self-worth from an early age. You figured it was hard to live up to the love your parents had for your sister, so you’d better try really hard to get those high grades and be very, very good. Only then might your parents think you were as good as your sister.
Getting little attention or affection
You may not have been criticized for what you did. In fact, you may have heard nothing at all about your performance at school or at home. Your parents were so busy with their own lives and perhaps other children that they gave you no notice at all.
So you resolved within yourself that you were going to get straight A’s and be on the basketball team, just to get your parents’ attention. All of your efforts were intensified in that direction. You wanted your parents to notice your accomplishments, and this was the only way you could think of to get them to become aware of you.
Or you may have gotten little affection. You began to notice that the only time your parents gave you any affection at all — when they put their hand on your shoulder or gave you a hug — was when you did a fantastic job in your classes, in sports, or in the play.
You worked extremely hard to do that fantastic job, and you got what tiny amount of affection they handed out for doing so. You figured you must be exceptional at everything so they would keep giving you at least a little affection.