What Is The Root Cause Of Perfectionism?
Are you a perfectionist? Or perhaps you know someone who obsesses over the smallest details? You may be wondering why people become perfectionists. As an individual who has struggled with perfectionism, I understand the frustrations and pressure that perfectionists place on ourselves. Years ago, I thought that some people were simply born perfectionists and there was nothing they could do about it. Like having brown eyes or freckles, it was something that could not be changed or chosen. However, when I researched perfectionism, I discovered that perfectionism is a learned behavior and therefore it CAN be changed.
The primary reason people become perfectionists have to do with the way they view themselves, and the way they view the world. We each begin to develop our perception of ourselves and the world around us in our early childhood years. Somewhere along the way in our developmental years, perfectionists create an expectation of unrealistic standards for themselves—and sometimes for those around them.
What helped me in overcoming my exceptionally high standards was to identify where they originated. This helped me understand what led me down the path to perfectionism, and to develop more realistic expectations. Below are some of the most common early childhood experiences that lead to perfectionist tendencies.
Desire for Reward
A reward could be something physical or tangible, or it could be positive words. As a child you subconsciously learn the types of positive rewards you would receive for a job well done. Without even knowing it, your desire to receive more positive rewards and positive attention from your parents, family members, teachers, and coaches may have led to your mentor or loved one telling you they are proud of you. Your desire for more positive acceptance may have been translated into you believing that others will only be proud of you if you excel at your activities, athletics, projects, and schoolwork. This is a type of direct learning that may have led to your perfectionist tendencies.
On the opposite end of the spectrum from reward and praise, is negative reinforcement and punishment. This is also a direct learning experience that comes from your parents or mentors as they criticize or punish you for your negative behavior or minor mistakesn. An example of negative reinforcement is if your teacher gives you a detention and yells at you if you are two minutes late for class. Sometimes this could be taken to the extreme, like a parent beating a child for a minor mistake.
Negative reinforcement is meant to teach you manners, respect, and responsibility, however sometimes the negative reinforcement comes from your mentors own expectation of perfection. Even if the intention behind negative reinforcement or punishment is meant to be beneficial, it can create pressure on children that makes them feel as if they are bad, wrong, or have disappointed the adults in their life.
As a small child, you learned to walk, talk, and perform daily activities by mimicking what you saw the adults in your life do. While your parents and the adults in your life may have provided you with adequate positive reinforcement, this positive reinforcement could have been overshadowed if you watched as they set unrealistic (perfectionist level) expectations for themselves.
As you watched as the grown-ups in your life allowed their need for perfectionism to monopolize much of their time, you may have thought that this was normal behavior and followed suit. For example, if your parents often worked late, brought work home, worked on the weekends, and rarely took a vacation, you may have translated their behavior as being the only way to achieve success and praise. Simply by observing their behavior, you learned that work and high achievement was much more important than time spent relaxing or having fun with family and friends.
If you are perfectionist who is looking for ways to create more balance in your life, begin by identifying the early childhood experiences that led to your need for perfection. By understanding when your perfectionist’s tendencies developed, you will have an easier time acknowledging that it is a learned behavior. As with any learned behavior, there are alternate behaviors that they can be replaced with. By starting at the source, you can take the first step towards overcoming your perfectionism, through acknowledging where and when it developed.
Regardless of how you developed your perfectionistic tendencies, it is important to remember that you were not born a perfectionist. Perfectionism is a learned behavior. This is good news because if it is learned, it can be unlearned. Adopting and learning new standards will take time and work, but as an ex-perfectionist I can assure you that the rewards are worth it.