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Why Perfectionism Became My Response to Childhood Trauma

I have always been a perfectionist. It’s my contention that I came out of the womb that way. An innate mechanism within me functioned at such a high standard that I constantly got told I was “an old soul” and “mature for my age.” Not only could I juggle numerous tasks at once, but I also had the capacity to read the world and everyone around me, gauging it for perceived danger and adapting my behavior accordingly. You could say it was a superpower, and in fact, it was a very clever adaptation or coping strategy for dealing with a traumatic upbringing. 

I was born to a mother who had her own mental health issues which made her unpredictable and incredibly emotionally volatile. My parents divorced when I was 3 and my dad disappeared, leaving me with a mother who, though she loved me, couldn’t often cope with the responsibilities of raising me. I became the de facto parent and my mother came to rely on me far too much to meet her own emotional needs. I knew that I needed to be a good girl, stay out of trouble and excel in everything I did to keep her at least stable enough so that I could survive. An only child, I had nobody else to rely on but myself most of the time and when I was sexually abused by my step-grandfather from the ages of 8 till about 11, I realized that nobody would protect me but me. I couldn’t afford to make mistakes. It truly felt like life or death.

So, I became the best at everything I could. My litmus test for simply feeling adequate enough and in control of my world was perfection. Any failure on my part not only made me feel like I didn’t deserve to be alive, but like I had brought anything bad that ever happened to me upon myself for not being good enough. As I got older, this perfectionism morphed into compulsive people-pleasing, constant apologizing for everything even if I didn’t do anything but breathe, seeking constant validation for things and the inability to truly absorb compliments without feeling like an imposter.

While I recognized that I was guilty of this extreme perfectionism, I’ve even written about it on numerous occasions for The Mighty under the guise of “What ‘High Functioning’ PTSD Looks Like” and “What Lies Beneath the Mask That Hides My Anxiety and PTSD,” I don’t think I truly recognized the degree to which perfectionism was becoming maladaptive and even toxic until I stumbled upon the book “Perfectly Hidden Depression: How to Break Free from the Perfectionism That Masks Your Depression” by Margaret Robinson Rutherford, Ph.D. 

On page 12 of the book, she defines the 10 characteristics of perfectly hidden depression as follows. Parentheses are my responses.

  • Are highly perfectionistic and have a constant, critical, and shaming inner voice. (Check.)
  • Demonstrate a heightened or excessive sense of responsibility. (Check.)
  • Detach from painful emotions by staying in your head and actively shutting them off. (Oh God… check.)
  • Worry and need to control yourself and your environment. (Red alarms in my head… check.)
  • Intensely focus on tasks, using accomplishment to feel valuable. (Beginning to stress sweat profusely… check.)
  • Focus on the well-being of others but don’t allow them into your inner world. (Get out of my head, Dr. Margaret! Check.)
  • Discount personal hurt or sorrow and struggle with self-compassion. (Gulp… check.)
  • May have an accompanying mental health issue, such as an eating disorder (check), anxiety disorder (check), obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) or addiction.
  • Believe strongly in counting your blessings as the foundation of well-being. (I don’t want to sound ungrateful… check.)
  • May enjoy success within a professional structure but struggle with emotional intimacy in relationships. (Crap… check.)

As I read the list, I sank into my chair, feeling defeated. Almost five and a half years of therapy and I still struggle with every single one of these? What’s wrong with me?

After a temporary pity party — which didn’t last long because I couldn’t admit that I had (ouch) failed at not being perfect, which even as I write this sounds completely ludicrous — I realized that I’ve been hanging on to this coping strategy for dear life because it’s the one that has made me feel the safest for so long. But if I’m being honest, 2020 was a very rude awakening in terms of disrupting the efficacy of this coping strategy. I didn’t feel safe, I didn’t feel in control, I didn’t feel productive or valuable, I didn’t feel perfect. I felt flawed and I felt human and I was absolutely uncomfortable in my own skin and head. 

So I read her book cover to cover, did a lot of the exercises, but most importantly brought the subject into the work I was doing with my own therapist. Not like it was some kind of surprise to her, as she knows all too well my penchant for taking responsibility for everyone and everything and for beating myself up mercilessly for failing at anything. But I told her that since I cannot do any of the things that up until now have made me feel like I mattered, I need to figure out how to let go of this perfectionism and learn to be OK with being human. 

I cannot say that I’m there yet. To be honest, I’m far from it. I struggle with feeling helpless a lot and I have had to do a lot of soul searching to redefine what brings me meaning. I’ve had to let go of any illusion that I can actually protect myself from trauma or harm because in reality, none of us can. Bad things can and will happen. But they aren’t a reflection of our worth and they do not make us any less deserving of love. I’m going to hold onto that piece of the healing journey and slowly let it sink in, flaws and all.

Photo by Kinga Cichewicz on Unsplash