Perfectionism

| The search for perfect

People are sometimes described, or describe themselves, as ‘perfectionists’ and indeed about half of people are born with an innate preference for closure, idealism or control that can lead, naturally, to an amplification of a search for ‘perfect’.  When the drive is a natural expression of an innate preference like this it can lead to significant personal success and achievement in the world. However, like all strengths, it is exaggerated when you experience sudden or chronic stress and can become an achilles heel. Additionally, like other behaviours and responses in life and work, this pattern may also have roots in the relationship system in which the individual belongs.

Unchecked perfectionism – the kind that usually has its roots in a relationship system – can take over a life and lead to burnout (“I’m exhausted by working to try and make everything perfect”), eating issues (“I will only eat the perfect foods / I will look perfect. . . “), obsession with work/process addiction (“I must get everything just perfect. . .”), romanticism/affairs/separation (“I’ll find the perfect lover/partner. . . “), OCD (“Everything must be controlled/clean/tidy/perfect. . . “) and depression (“Nothing is perfect, I give up.”).

When the roots of perfectionism are found, acknowledged and honoured in the system then the effect softens and the dynamics can be the source of significant inner resource and strength.

There are several systemic roots to perfectionism worth considering if you recognise this quality in yourself. Please scroll down for more.

The first question to ask when exploring possible systemic roots of perfectionism, is where the message came from that results in an inner voice, a ‘life sentence’ like: “I must get everything right…” or “I must make everything perfect…” or “I must be perfect…”. To illuminate the deeper patterns and loyalties it may be useful to ask yourself:

  • For whom do I have to be perfect? (Perhaps there is a secret loyalty to an inspiring or punitive parent, grandparent or teacher.)
  • What is the worst thing that would happen if I don’t ‘get it right’? (Who would hurt or exclude me?)
  • What was the worst thing that happened in my family (or school or community) when I (or someone else) didn’t ‘get it right’?

Perfectionism can emerge from an unconscious attempt to be seen or to belong, as can sometimes occur in adoption and in single, ‘only children’. An unspoken search for connection can also be embodied by someone with a distant or emotionally unavailable parent. These systemic patterns can get translated into a number of ‘life sentences’, questions that hang like a shadow over us, influencing our behaviours and responses:

  • “If I get it right and do it perfectly, will you see me?”
  • “I am going to be so good you will really see me!”
  • “I must get it all right/my life must be perfect because there is only me.”

In other contexts it may be triggered or amplified by trauma or chronic stress. The cumulative effects can create an inability to relax completely or allow imperfections. In these situations it’s useful to ask:

  • What chronic stress or trauma have you or your parents experienced that you are trying not to remember, not to include – so that everything is ‘perfect’?
  • When did the stress begin or the trauma happen?
  • To whom are you loyal in a way that you cannot be fully happy or relaxed in your own life?

Perfectionism often expresses itself through very high competence levels. To put it another way shame and the fear of being shamed can express itself in extreme competence and control. Someone who has reached a peak in their chosen field – who is recognised as excellent – may be using that, for example, to mask the fear of shame or a ‘forgotten’ trauma.

Panic attacks, which are often experienced by those who describe themselves as perfectionists, can be viewed systemically as a trauma that is too fast or too big for the brain to process and so it goes into the body to try and be processed there. Perfectionists who have panic attacks are often searching for control and that can lead to really useful questions about what the control represents.

  • When did I nearly/really lose control?
  • Who else has lost control around me?
  • Who had to make everything perfect in order to keep control?

The hidden dynamics that lead to perfectionism will often be found in family systems. However they can also be held in social systems, for example by migrants and refugees whose loss of belonging can trigger a desire to ‘get it right’ so that they don’t lose their home again. This dynamic enters the system and gets passed, if not processed, on to the subsequent generations.

Links and resources

This is a ‘pop-up page’ about perfectionism that goes into a little more detail than is possible within the articles from which it is linked.

For all the articles on this site, please see this page.

For further reading with a systemic perspective please see the ‘Further Reading’ page, here.

To explore opportunities to attend one of John Whittington’s public constellation workshops please explore here