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Three Ways Your Perfectionism May Be Linked to Trauma

Updated: Jan 8

Caitlin Weese LCSW-C, 200 RYT

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The strive for perfectionism is a characteristic many of my clients come to therapy with. Oftentimes, when I suggest it might be linked to past trauma, people can’t see the connection. In this blog I’ll focus on perfectionism and how it can be linked to a traumatic past. However, before I start, it is important to note that NOT everyone who struggles with perfectionism has experienced trauma. While there most definitely appears to be a connection or correlation between the two this does not mean perfectionism causes trauma or the other way around. In this article, I will be focusing on that subset of people who meet the criteria of struggling with both. So what is trauma? Trauma is the response to a frightening and potentially life-threatening situation that overwhelms our nervous system’s ability to cope. We do not consciously “choose” for something to be traumatic or not, this is an automatic process our brain engages in. Trauma can come in many forms, including physical, emotional, or sexual, neglect, or other adverse experiences that impact an individual's development or quality of life.

What does it mean to be a perfectionist?

The American Psychological Association defines perfectionism as “the tendency to demand of others or of oneself an extremely high or even flawless level of performance, in excess of what is required by the situation.” They go on to say, “It is associated with depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and other mental health problems.” People who struggle with perfectionism may feel the need to constantly prove themselves, and may be overly critical of themselves and others. This can lead to a cycle of self-doubt and negative self-talk, which can reinforce feelings of shame and insecurity.

1. It helps you to feel more in control.

When people experience trauma there are a number of responses people tend to navigate. These reactions to trauma are pervasive, and can affect an individual's self-esteem, self-worth, and overall sense of identity. This can lead to feelings of inadequacy or self-doubt, and difficulty trusting others. As a result, perfectionism can be a coping mechanism for individuals who have experienced trauma. The need for control and order may be a way to avoid feelings of vulnerability or powerlessness that often accompany trauma. By striving for perfection, individuals may feel a sense of safety and security, and be able to avoid feelings of anxiety or fear.

2. It helps you to get validation from others.

Second, perfectionism can be a way to gain approval or validation from others. As mentioned above, people who have experienced trauma may struggle with feelings of worthlessness or inadequacy. Therefore, perfectionism can provide a way to gain recognition and praise from others, which can help to temporarily decrease their feelings of shame and anxiety.

3. It helps to avoid difficult emotions.

Third, perfectionism can be a way to avoid emotional pain or discomfort. People who have experienced trauma may have difficulty processing their emotions and may use perfectionism as a way to distract themselves from painful feelings. By focusing on achieving perfection, individuals may be able to avoid dealing with their emotions, which can lead to further emotional distress down the line.

Now What?

Recognizing the link between perfectionism and trauma is an important first step in addressing these issues. If you are struggling with perfectionism, it may be helpful to examine the underlying reasons for your behavior. Are you striving for perfection as a way to gain control or avoid feelings of vulnerability? Are you seeking validation or approval from others? Or are you using perfectionism as a way to avoid dealing with your emotions? Once you have identified the underlying reasons for your perfectionism, you can begin to work on addressing these issues. This may involve seeking therapy or counseling to help you process your emotions and develop healthier coping mechanisms. It may also involve practicing self-compassion and learning to accept yourself and your imperfections. In addition, it may be helpful to reframe your thinking about perfectionism. Instead of striving for perfection, focus on progress and growth. Recognize that making mistakes and experiencing setbacks is a natural part of the learning process, and that it is okay to be imperfect. By adopting a growth mindset, you can shift your focus from achieving perfection to becoming the best version of yourself.

Closing Thoughts

In conclusion, perfectionism and trauma are closely linked, and it is important to recognize and address these issues in order to live a healthy and fulfilling life. If you are struggling with perfectionism, it may be helpful to examine the underlying reasons for your behavior and seek help to address these issues. By practicing self-compassion, reframing your thinking, and focusing on growth rather than perfection, you can learn to let go of unrealistic expectations and develop a healthier relationship with yourself and others. It is also important to remember that healing from trauma is a process, and it may take time to work through the emotional and psychological impacts of past experiences. Be patient with yourself, and seek support from trusted friends, family, or mental health professionals.

Overall, the connection between perfectionism and trauma is a complex issue that requires a nuanced and compassionate approach. By recognizing the link between these two issues, we can begin to understand the underlying reasons for our behavior and work towards healing and growth. With time, patience, and self-compassion, it is possible to overcome the negative impacts of perfectionism and trauma and lead a fulfilling and meaningful life.

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