Mental Health Matters: Perfectionism

For most aspects of my life, I can pinpoint the exact moment when I recognized a specific trait, but I’m unclear as to when I learned the idea that I should be perfect. After much research, it seems it could have come from four areas.

#1: It is common for adoptees to develop perfectionism out of insecurity and fear that they will be rejected from their adoptive family (Brodzinsky). This seems reasonable. I discovered I was an adoptee when I was around ten years old, and the story I remember was one of happenstance. Our home included several bookcases filled with books. On one of these bookcases was a book called Why Was I Adopted? I remember sitting cross-legged on the floor and reading the book in its entirety. When I reached the end, tears dropped one by one.

“Why are you crying?” my mother asked.

“I feel sorry for these people,” I said. “They don’t know who their family is.”

She replied matter-of-factly, “You shouldn’t feel sad. You’re adopted.”

adoptedShe and I never discussed the shock that this new information carried. We never discussed “adoption,” why she and my father adopted me, or what it meant to be an adoptee ever again. I’m not sure why, and as an adult and parent, I can only guess it’s because they didn’t know how or because of shame. Adoption carries its own stigma for all parties involved. Sometimes it can be embarrassing for the adoptive parents who, for whatever reason, cannot conceive their own biological children. Oftentimes, adoptees are ashamed and feel as if they were not good enough to have remained with their biological families, thus creating a sense that they need to achieve perfection, lest they be removed from this family, too.

This is something to which the child version of me could relate. As a child with no explanation, there was this idea that I must’ve caused my own adoption. If I were just good enough, then I wouldn’t have been given away.

#2: Perfectionism can also be developed when there’s a “frequent fear of insecurity or inadequacy” (Good Therapy); apparently, it’s something parents can unwittingly teach. I’ve written before about how my mother required me to sit for long periods of time to focus on a task until it was right. In a time of typewriters and correction fluid, this meant beginning my fifth-grade report on Ethiopia over and over, until it was error-free because “it was a reflection of me.” That’s just one example. Several other instances  reveal compounded experiences where I learned that flawlessness was a preferred behavior, not just from my mother, from other family members as well.

number_one#3: “Excessive praise for your achievements” and “believing your self-worth is determined by your achievements” (Martin, 2018) can also lead to perfectionism. I was raised as an only child and was my maternal grandmother’s only grandchild for over twenty years. I was my paternal grandmother’s youngest grandchild. Being the only and the youngest means I was doted on quite a bit. Everything I did was not only praised, but it was always perfect. According to my family, everything I did was “the best.” You know what this breeds? An adult who frequently desires to achieve all the things all the time at peak perfection. It’s no wonder that, after receiving a terminal degree, my sense of ego was slowly deflated. I’d reached a pinnacle of success and there was nothing more to do to externally prove my worth. I had to determine how I’d live the remainder of life without doing something.

#4: A final idea is that mental health issues, like anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) are associated with perfectionism (Good Therapy). I can’t say with confidence that I don’t have OCD. I mean making stringent lists that make me feel as if my world will crumble should I stray from them may qualify, but I don’t know. However, for me, anxiety definitely does align with perfectionism. But, it seems to be a chicken/egg scenario. Does a predisposition towards anxiety and OCD cause one to seek perfectionism or does perfectionism cause anxiety and OCD? For me, not fully feeling a sense of belonging in my adoptive family, feeling insecure about my origin story, and receiving excessive praise seemed to have fed anxiety.

Luckily, I’ve been reflecting on perfectionism in varied ways over the past six years. Next week, I’ll delve into how I’ve unlearned (and continue to unlearn) perfectionism. Until then, feel free to add to this discussion. Are you a perfectionist? Are you a recovering perfectionist? Do you know any perfectionists? We need to undo this harmful and unrealistic standard. None of us are perfect and none of us ever will be.

January’s Mental Health Matters: Acceptance

February’s Mental Health Matters: Anxiety

66 thoughts on “Mental Health Matters: Perfectionism

  1. For me, at least one reason is that my dad always expected me to anticipate and know how to do things–even if I hadn’t been taught. Or if something went wrong, I should have known that would happen too. There was no such thing as a learning experience, just a “you should have known better” experience.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I got that a lot from my grandmother, and it leaves no room for being a person who makes errors. I also think it’s generational. We were left to figure out life, which I don’t think is bad, but a little guidance may have been good lol

      Like

  2. so sorry, Kathy – I can’t begin to imagine…
    as for perfectionism – I suppose it’s another to be lobbed into the category of ‘practice, not perfection.’.
    recently read & much enjoyed “The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F**K” by Mark Manson – wonderful!!! wish I could inject it into my veins daily lol

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  3. Hi Kathy – thank you for this post about perfectionism. You have given me an opportunity to pause and consider your experience as well as my own.
    I aspire to be a recovering perfectionist! I feel that my perfectionism comes from internalizing a number of things. One is being a firstborn and new generation child, in whom many people hoped for the manifestation of their hopes and dreams. They invested love, time, and resources in me, and so I’ve always had a strong sense of not wanting to disappoint.
    [Another is] having a strict upbringing, which often meant very little patient, compassionate room for error. Your mother’s requirement that you stay with a task until it was right harmonizes with my own background. Whereas I’m glad I was encouraged to develop the muscle of not abandoning things at the first sign of difficulty, I only felt safe experimenting and “failing” in rare instances and in my own stubbornness.
    As an adult it has been challenging to not loathe myself for less-than-stellar “performances” in different areas of my life. As a seasoned adult I can now articulate my belief that children need to feel worthy, seen, and loved for being themselves – not just when they are obedient and get good grades and do things that their families can brag about.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Lesssllliiieee! Happy to see you here 😉

      What you’ve written resonates so deeply with me, especially that very last part, “and do things that their families can brag about.” Just last year, I visited my great aunt. Her home healthcare worker was there at the time and my great aunt wanted me to tell her about my books, and “tell her about when you were interviewed on TV,” and…and…and. And I wouldn’t do any of it. She was a little miffed, but after all these years, I’d finally figured out this was what I’d been taught to do and, not only was I tired of it, but I also feel as if I’ve surpassed this type of behavior.

      Anywho, thanks for this comment. I’m glad I’m not the only one who experienced this.

      Like

  4. Kathy I find your mental health series very informational, your articles make me think. And perfectionism I think it’s something most people can identify with. I often joke that I’m a recovering perfectionist. But in all seriousness, I’ve seen how this can cripple one’s work and progress in life, generally. Thank you always for sharing your story and experiences with honesty.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks for these kind words Khaya! I appreciate them. I’m always surprised by how many people can relate to these topics, yet how many of us rarely raise the “me, too” flag (so thanks also for your affirming words). I just want all of us to be a little healthier, if we can 😉

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  5. Great post. My friend found out about 3 years ago he was adopted. He was 45. He had a hard time processing that information and felt lied to. I explained to him that he had an awesome life. I asked him to imagine how his parents felt not being able to conceive when they were considered the right black folks? He had two parents that loved him and provided for him. He grew up in a big house, was sent to the best schools and they loved him immensely. I told him that they were probably embarrassed because we didn’t speak about infertility back then. He’s in a much better place which is good because his father’s health has diminished due to dementia.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I understand exactly how your friend felt. Just for the record, pretending someone is your child is a form of not telling the truth (a lie) and I hope your friend understands/understood that it’s okay to be angry about that. It’s a lot to process…as long as you’re not angry forever. I personally don’t think that’s healthy.

      I’ll be writing more about my adoptee experiences in terms of mental health next month, actually.

      I’m also happy to hear your friend is doing well and at peace with his situation; however, I do want to add that good schools and big houses don’t make up for not knowing who you are or where you came from.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Agreed I just told him that he had an exceptional childhood with two people who loved him you can be mad at them not telling you but when was the right time because his parents divorced when he was 10 he was angry about the divorce and acting up so was that a good time to say hey guess what you’re also adopted he continue to act out through most of his childhood and they loved and accepted him and he finally settled down so honestly timing was not on their side but again you can’t hold your parents responsible forever they loved you they provided for you and at the end of the day I told him to talk to them but have patience and understanding but you can’t change the past and I asked him did he want to know his birth family and he said he didn’t know now

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  6. Thank you for sharing!!.. I don’t worry about perfection or what others think I should be or achieve… the universe is not perfect and neither am I, I just follow my heart “It is not easy to find happiness within ourselves, and it is not possible to find it elsewhere.” ( Agnes Repplier)… 🙂

    “Your time is limited, don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma, which is living the result of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of other’s opinion drown your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition, they somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary” Steve Jobs

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    1. Thanks Dutch! I say that’s the best way to live, actually. If we’d all worry about ourselves and doing what brings us joy, then the world might be a bit happier place.

      Thanks also for that Jobs quote ❤

      Like

  7. Yeah im a perfectionist but manage it now ve recognising time limitations and the need to make the best of resources/info/capability I have at the time rather than strive for what is unrealistic. I love that you had an assignment on Ethiopia around the same time that I left my homeland and was beginning to shed my culture with my parents’ push for us to assimilate in our new home.

    What a way to find out you were adopted. Is this writing and the search for reasons helping? More and more I’m inclined to go ‘well, that was the past and I’m just going to be in the present + set intentions for the life I want’

    Liked by 2 people

    1. That is odd that I had a report specifically on your home country. I just thought of a joint writing idea, but I’ll tell you privately.

      Sooo, what you’re reading is the past search/introspection I did to understand myself and how I came to be at a certain point. Around 2014, I accepted the past and my life’s story, which is how I’m able to be present and more conscious and whole now. These ruminations are just examples of specific topics.

      Like

      1. Cool….looking forward to gearing more.

        Aha…makes sense…def different approach to your present day. I am so glad you didn’t take it as a critisism…was worried after I hit send. I went through a long period of picking over the bones of the past until realising it wasn’t serving me anymore.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Yeah. Sometimes things crop up and I despair, but for the most part, because I’ve identified specifics, I can stop and say, “oh that’s my fill-in-the-blank issue” and move forward.

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  8. Kathy, I really struggle with perfectionism too and for me it’s directly tied to making mistakes. I often feel ashamed when I do, which stems from my childhood and the way I was treated when I made them: with silent or passive-aggressive disapproval. To avoid feeling bad, I work extra hard to try and do everything perfectly. This is exhausting and I usually mess up as a result.

    Your post speaks to how perfectionism is all about pleasing others. Sometimes I’m able to put this in perspective and say to myself, “Nobody’s asking me if they’re good enough for me, so why am I trying so hard to be perfect for them?” If I could only remember to say it more often!

    Thank you for sharing your experiences and for starting this dialogue. It’s helpful to know that I am not the only one dealing with this issue. (By the way, it took me forever to write this because I wanted it to sound “perfect”) 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

    1. “To avoid feeling bad…” that really resonated with me because I find it’s at the root of all of my own despair (when I’m in despair).

      Thank you for providing your personal story with us/me. It’s funny how we end up doing the very thing we tried to avoid (e.g., “messing up”). Thanks also for recognizing the part about pleasing others. Whether it’s because we were belittled or praised, ultimately, perfectionists are always looking for or avoiding approval.

      The other thing I’d add to your question is that you’re okay…just the way you are. We all are.

      Thank YOU for reading and commenting. Authenticity is important and I hope we can all help one another in different ways.

      Like

  9. Awesome post. I tend to be something of a perfectionist. I feel like if something I’ve done isn’t perfect then I failed. Even more so if it doesn’t get the recognition I felt it deserved or if it fell apart. It’s already bad that I procrastinate. I get anxiety and stress too so I try to work on those issues.

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  10. What a difficult way to find out you were adopted! As for the perfectionism, your explanations make sense to me. The one about excessive praise is particularly timely, I think, because we live in a time when parents think constant praise is a good way to build self-esteem. But I’ve heard it said that it’s much better to praise your child’s willingness to try, and take on a challenge, than it is to praise the result…for exactly the reason you said. It’s all too easy for us to teach our kids that all we really value is their perfect achievements.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. It was for sure difficult, but I didn’t face it until years later (which I’ll blog about later).

      And yes…I think some folks in the generations after me are gonna have a tough road ahead ;-), unless they learn not to associate their worth with praise.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I agree! I shouldn’t admit this, but we already saw this a little when our daughter got her first job after college. She kept complaining that her boss didn’t tell her she was doing a good job often enough. Finally, my husband just told her that she’s EXPECTED to do her job well. And to consider the paycheck she gets in return as the “pat on the back” she was looking for!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. lol you absolutely SHOULD admit that here. I’m glad you did 🙂

        The unintended consequences of something that seems positive when you’re in the midst of it is very interesting.

        Liked by 1 person

  11. For me personally, wanting to be perfect stems from the ‘limiting beliefs I developed ‘I’m not good enough’ and ‘It was my fault this/that happened’. Every now and than, I fall back in that trap.

    These days, often it is said ‘we are all imperfect, we are humans’. And although there is truth in that saying, I also feel it’s often used as an excuse. So I started to say ‘we are all perfect in our own way, because we are individuals. Taking responsibility for our uniqueness, will lead to balance’.

    Emotions are at root thoughts, which will lead to feelings as anxiety and perceptions as ‘I have to be perfect’. One of my most favorable question to ask ‘How do you know it’s true?’. Is the source for your thinking and thus emotion valid? How do you know?

    She is, apparently, active many years, but I discovered her recently. Marie Kondo, teaches people to decide how to tidy up there belongings by asking the question ‘does it sparkle joy?’ I believe it’s also a good question to ask regarding thoughts and feelings. If not, than that thought doesn’t serve you, or the person, or the project, etc. Decrease and/or let go of it.

    Anyways, as always, great read again, dear Katherin 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks for sharing that Patty. I never realized (until writing this one) how many people lived with low self-worth and become perfectionist as an opposite affect, almost. I agree that “we’re all imperfect” is an excuse…an excuse not to do/live better. I like your phrase a little better because of the word “unique.” We are all unique and that leaves room for growth!

      And I TOTALLY agree about Kondo! I use a similar approach with almost everything. If an experience is not sparking joy, then I need to find a different way to be in that moment.

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  12. Great article! I’ve resolved not long ago to stop trying to reach perfection for two reasons: 1. I can’t achieve it; and 2. The pursuit robs me of the joy in the journey. Now, instead I only compare myself to my idea of the best version of myself. That makes for a reachable goal in line with things that make me feel full.

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  13. So brave. If only more would delve into the self. We’d let things go earlier rather than trying to fix them. We’d be healthier physically. We’d leave unhealthy folks with no good plans for us be… within weeks not years. We’d walk away from jobs that stopped feeding our souls. This is so important. I’m not adopted but I’ve yet to meet my dad. So abandonment issues fires up this perfectionist.

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    1. I agree Elizabeth. I’ve tried to raise my children to do this (as second nature), by having them stop and think about the role they’ve played in a situation when it goes left. It’s a small way to help them stop and take responsibility for who they are and what has happened. I’m hoping this translates to “delving into the self” in some way for them.

      And…I totally understand the abandonment piece. It lasts way more than it should in our psyches.

      Liked by 2 people

  14. I USED to be a perfectionist. (Although according to my editor, I still am. LOL!) Where you were the only or youngest, I was one of nine lost in the middle. Being an honor roll student made me stand out from my average-student sibs.I studied and went above and beyond like you wouldn’t believe through school and into college. It was exhausting, and it backfired. When my sibs would fail at something – no biggie, better luck next time. But if I did, send mercy from heaven because I’ve started Armageddon! LOL! I snapped at 22, moved 3000 miles away and started again. I was happier, and it was meant to be because that’s when I met my husband and we raised three children and enjoyed a 35-year-marriage before I lost him. My experiences taught me to raise my children as individuals, and they each excelled at different things in different ways. Perfectionism is an aberration to be avoided. Much better to do YOUR best than to have to be THE best.

    Once you delve into perfectionism though, don’t expect people to view you differently even after you’ve backed away from it. It’s been close to forty years and both our parents are gone, but my older brother sent me birthday greetings yesterday worded, “To our mother’s smartest child.”

    Go figure. LOL! 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Parents…gotta love them. They did the best they could, I suppose, and as you’ve shown here, it’s always up to us (at some point) to take the reins and CONTROL, ALT, DELETE in some cases. Kudos to you!

      But it’s this part…”Much better to do YOUR best than to have to be THE best…” that I really had to figure out.That’s what I’ll be talking about next week.

      And that last part about your brother… How siblings felt (and continue) to feel about one another based on the past is really fascinating to me. What you’ve described seems to be pretty common, and I wish I knew why…like why would he be saying that decades later?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Well, for my family, we get on pretty well, especially since losing Mom last summer, but I’m considered the “distant” one. If you need me, let me know. If not, I’m out. 😀 😀 It helps with my peace of mind, but perhaps it means something else to them.

        Liked by 1 person

  15. This is good post. Thanx for sharing this info about your real self. I am not a perfectionist, according to my mother, I do everything backwards. Hearing her repeat that over and over certainly helped her opinion become imbedded in my psyche. She’s gone now and I am still working on the fact that because she said it, doesn’t make it so.

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  16. Definitely a work in progress. These days, I’m more in the arena of the progress than perfection. For many years, perfection was masked by fear – fear of not succeeding. Fear of not being good enough. Fear of getting it all wrong! Whatever it happened to be at the time. For example, I am certain that’s why I didn’t apply to the University of Florida my senior year of high school.

    You see for me: Perfection and fear joined hands together, danced together and eventually got married. The two conceived a protective factor and defense mechanism lived out as: if I don’t try I don’t have to worry about not being perfect. So because of this partly self-induced belief that I had to be perfect I often hid from living out my potential and often took the easy route because then all would be well.

    Such a horrible way to live.

    Now I live and teach students that I work with that perfection is an unrealistic goal. Whereas, progression is worth pursuing and fighting for and I’m so thankful I am finally figuring it out!

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    1. This is very good. For me, my perfectionism shows up as a fear of not finishing, so I don’t start stuff. Because I can’t start something I might not finish, which is so backwards because I also can’t finish stuff I never stuff. But at least I won’t be bad at it if I don’t start it.

      Brains, man.

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  17. Your insights on this topic are excellent, Katherin. For me personally, perfectionism can lead to paralysis. I also become hyper-focused on small things, without appreciating the bigger picture. Whatever I tackle, I tend to want to become an expert at. I’m fortunate to have mastered many things, but it can also be exhausting and unending. Thank you for writing about this.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you Judy! I’ve seen what you describe in action. It’s like the opposite of what I’ve described, where almost nothing gets done or one aspect of the thing is super perfect (seemingly).

      You’re welcome and thank YOU for reading and commenting 🙂

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  18. Good post. Perfectionism is a blessing and a curse…if managed properly (which really isn’t perfectionism I guess) it can lead you to success…opposite…despair…

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    1. I’m glad you mentioned this Anne. Because in a lot of ways, I wouldn’t have the success I have today, had I not been attempting to achieve perfectionism, but at the same time…there were some physical consequences, such as anxiety of not achieving perfectionism which led to physical effects, like sleep paralysis, etc.

      Balance is key.

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  19. I was made aware of my perfectionism/starter-finisher/obsessive doer behaviour when I fell ill. Well, I already knew. And it was my health or severe lack of that finally flagged it up. I literally worked myself to the ground.

    An OT told me there was no right way to do things & it was my coping mechanisms that I had developed over a number of years. A form of some control in a hectic life maybe. Too hectic. And that it could all be undone over time.

    I am still working on it. I didn’t come from a background of praise, quite the opposite. So perhaps being a perfectionist is giving myself praise in some weird way. But I don’t really know. What I do know is that it is exhausting. I’m glad to give myself a break more now, I don’t really have a choice.💙

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thank you for sharing this. I left out trauma as a way to become a perfectionist because I (personally) discuss it so much here, but you’re ABSOLUTELY right and I’m glad you mentioned it. It’s like you don’t want to ever lose control again, so you set these unrealistic ways of being in the world.

      Although I’m sorry to hear you had to face illness to repair this, I’m happy to know you see things more clearly and are in process of learning a new way.

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  20. Loving your mental health matters series Dr. G!

    Your personal experiences and writing points brings both connection & gravitas to the discussion. Thankfully encouraging us all to open up.

    Perfectionism is my biggest barrier to writing. Which is why videos have been a creative freedom zone for me. One take and done! Versus blog and article writing where it’s sooooo tempting to edit for days.

    Solution: I often transcribe my YouTube videos using a free transcription app and presto – writing and videos done simultaneously in one step.

    There is always a way… out & up! The key is to OPEN the door.

    Just like you’ve done!

    Dr. D 🎥🎙🌈☀️❤️ 🖊

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you Dr. D! I appreciate that coming from you ❤ I can see how this would manifest in writing because you'd never finish for fear of it not being PUBLIC perfect.

      Thanks for the Pro-tip and also for that quote of encouragement at the end 😉

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Lori, thank you for commenting and sharing this link. I’m pretty sure I read this one and it was a different and alternative take on how perfectionism affects us differently.

      And oh yeah…I’ve had many a meltdown because things were not going the way I envisioned.

      Like

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