Alcoholism, perfectionism and trauma. Okay, I get the alcoholism and trauma. Both of those I could clearly identify.
No way? My life was a mess. I had neglected so many bills that my credit score was in the “very poor” range. Bill collectors called me daily. I had gone from college professor to produce clerk in a grocery store. My living space had clutter in every corner. Even my bed, which I slept in alone, was covered with unfinished projects.
Did I mention that I had become an alcoholic?
Nothing about the state of my affairs screamed to me, “You are a perfectionist, Jeanna!”
The Problem with Identifying Perfectionism
I have a friend who says to me from time to time that “self can’t see self.” Having become pretty self-aware, I had trouble with this statement. Of course, self can see self if self is willing. The problem with identifying as a perfectionist occurs because they are so highly critical of self that what they see defies their perceived understanding of perfectionism.
In fact, perfectionists often have compassion for other’s mistakes but have little forgiveness for their own mistakes. Those mistakes glare at them from every corner of their lives. They see them as failures and judge themselves as imperfect humans instead of accepting that as humans they define imperfection.
I once spent an entire day organizing beads in hopes of getting my jewelry-making supplies in order. At the end of the day, they were no more organized than they were at the beginning of the day. I, on the other hand, found myself frustrated for not having perfect organization skills.
How can I be a perfectionist when so much of what I do is imperfect?
Perfectionism and Trauma
Dr. Camila Williams, a board-certified psychologist specializing in perfectionism, noticed in her work with clients with a history of sexual abuse that perfectionism is “one of those common denominators that a lot of my clients struggled with as a result of the traumas that they had gone through.”
According to Dr. Camila, people raised in “harsh environments,” which can include physical and sexual abuse, neglect, or harsh criticism, quickly learn that if they can be perfect, they can avoid pain. The victim in survival mode thinks, “if I can do everything just right, I won’t get hurt.”
Dr. Camila further adds, “it goes an extra step of in order to get love and acceptance and praise, it kind of only happens when I do really really well.” She notes that this leads to perfectionistic high standards that “ingrain that tendency towards perfectionism.”
Unfortunately, perfectionism and trauma can lead to stress later in life. Dr. Camila says that in order to release some of the pressure, “the only outlet that people find is turning to substances. How do I deal with that pressure? I’ll have a drink that will take the edge off, and then it tends to spiral out of control from there.”
8 Signs You Are a Perfectionist
While perfectionism acts as a shield that protects us from further hurt, many people who suffer from perfectionism and trauma also suffer from imposter syndrome. Underneath that shield, they see their life in chaos, making self-identification as a perfectionist difficult. These eight traits, however, can help a person identify perfectionism.
1. Perfectionists Are Highly Critical of Themselves
Perfectionists offer grace for mistakes other people make, but they often do not extend that same grace to themselves. They expect that they should always complete a task without error. When they don’t, they focus on the mistakes and failure over the journey and growth. Even when they succeed, the perfectionist will still criticize themselves for the little things they did wrong along the way.
2. Perfectionists Are People Pleasers
The perfectionist seeks affirmation from others, doing things that they otherwise wouldn’t do to make the people around them happy. They may cook to please their partner or turn down invitations to events because someone in their circle of love would disapprove.
3. Perfectionists Set Unrealistically High Standards for Themselves
Perfectionists set standards for themselves that they can’t, under any circumstances, meet. For example, they might feel that they should have all the answers all the time. Of course, no one has all the answers, but the perfectionist who has set this standard and fails will then beat themselves up believing that they lack intelligence.
4. Perfectionists Often Procrastinate
While this may seem contradictory to the perceived perfectionist behavior, it makes perfect sense in terms of their mental state. A perfectionist might say to themselves, “I procrastinate too much to be a perfectionist.” At the same time, they procrastinate on a project because they fear failure too much to even get it started. In fact, getting the perfect start is just the beginning of their fears. Students will often write the first paragraph, only to crumple it up and start over because it wasn’t just right. And they do this over and over until they find themselves forced to complete the project last minute.
5. Perfectionists Avoid Tasks They Think They Can’t Perform Perfectly
While some perfectionists procrastinate, others never start. A perfectionist believes that getting second best is unacceptable. As a result, they avoid entering the competition. Why write a book if it won’t get on the best seller’s list? There’s no reason to run a race if you can’t get first place. Don’t waste time cooking a meal you know you are going to burn. Rather than being seen as second best while they learn, they avoid doing it altogether.
6. Perfectionists Don’t Delegate
For the perfectionist, it’s often easier to do a task themselves than to explain to someone else how to do it right. Then they get aggravated when they have to redo the task anyway. For example, a perfectionist might want their towels folded a certain way, so they fit on the shelf perfectly. When they aren’t folded to the perfectionist’s standards, they will refold them, deciding to do it themselves next time. This mentality bleeds into other areas of their life so that rather than accepting help from others, the perfectionist takes on even more responsibility. They can’t relinquish control of a project because they think it won’t get done right.
7. Perfectionists Feel Pushed to Achieve Goals Rather than Pulled by Desire
A perfectionist’s goal becomes an overwhelming drive towards success rather than an enjoyable journey of desire and growth. They obsess over the task at hand, sometimes losing sight of their reason for the goal. Furthermore, they often do this at the expense of their own well-being. They will skip meals, delay sleep, and neglect leisure until the project is completed to perfection. Then, after achieving the goal, the perfectionist will continue to obsess on their flaws and ways they could have achieved more.
8. The Perfectionist Gets Defensive When Criticized
The Perfectionist doesn’t take criticism well and may quickly jump into self-defense mode when criticized. Remember, childhood trauma survivors use perfectionism as a tool to protect themselves from potential harm as a child. In fact, it becomes instinctual like learning to pull away from a hot flame. They don’t think. They just do. A child who gets beaten for not washing the dishes perfectly first becomes very meticulous at dishwashing. Then they quickly learn how to verbally defend themselves for not doing it right. In fact, in many cases, it’s not about how well they wash the dishes but rather the parent’s mood. A hostile mood could mean that perfectly washed dishes appear covered in grease. For the child, it’s a no-win situation.
Perfectionism Does Not Equal Perfect
In fact, while perfectionists strive to do everything right, most of what they really do creates a façade that only helps them appear perfect. At the same time, their perfectionism fills them with overwhelming stress from an inability to accomplish too much. In the end, the coil breaks and everything unwinds. Minimally, the perfectionist might have a minor breakdown. On the other hand, they could do as I did and develop a full-blown drinking problem.
Connecting the Dots between Perfectionism and Trauma
When I look back at my past, I can see where my problem began—from a desire to be all things to all people including a perfect wife, mom, student, daughter, and professor. I can see how my childhood led to this desire.
I wanted love from a father who I felt abandoned me because I wasn’t good enough, so I had to be better.
My need to protect myself from further sexual abuse and my children from any sexual abuse drove me to act like the perfect mother. Mistakes in this arena could lead to unacceptable devastating harm. Where my children were concerned, I gave myself no grace at all.
In the end, my coil broke, and I drank. The release I got from alcohol felt so freeing that I just didn’t know how to stop.
I had to learn how to accept me just the way I was. That only came after I found a way to give up alcohol and come to terms with the fact that I didn’t have to be perfect in order to be loved or to love myself.
After getting sober, I learned how to release perfectionism. In releasing perfectionism, I could break free from alcohol and the relapse cycle.
If you live with perfectionism and trauma and want to break free from its grip, a mindset shift may help. To learn more about perfectionism and trauma and how it might be affecting you, listen to our interview with Dr. Camila Williams on the Back Porch Chats Podcast.