Perfectionism Paralysis - How it begins

Let us continue our adventure/case study into perfectionism. In the first episode we talked definitions and I attempted to describe the emotionally draining experience of inadequacy that I felt playing the rigged and futile game of perfectionism. If you missed the opening episode, you can catch up here.

So, how did this all develop?

There is, of course, no simple answer to this question. In addition, the possible contributing factors towards my perfectionistic tendencies might be quite different to the experience of my friend.

If we were to conceptualise things from a CBT (cognitive-behavioural therapy) psychological framework, like most things the core reasons can be related to the way we see ourselves and the world around us. Our view of ourselves and the world starts to develop very early in life and is influenced by our early experiences (e.g., our family, society, school, peer group etc.) and by our temperament. From a CBT perspective, it would be conceptualised that us peeps who experience perfectionism have had experiences that have led us to develop a view of the world that encourages the pursuit of unrelenting high standards.

Perfectionism often begins in childhood. One way in which it can develop is through direct learning and the process of negative and positive reinforcement.

I was a reasonably bright child. In Kindergarten when I managed to read my first book all the way through, aloud, the teacher sent me straight to the Deputy Principal. I remember this pretty good (I think), because I was terrified. Up until that point I had only come across the Deputy when I had delivered the “naughty” kids to her office. But on this occasion I was required to read the book to her and she lapped it up. I got showered in praise and scratch and sniff stickers. And I was pumped!

It’s entirely possible that as this praise continued when I did well at academic things at school, I eventually learnt that setting high standards to achieve such things made me feel good and was worth pursuing. When I obtained scratch and sniff stickers it was a good day. This might have encouraged me to continue trying to be successful. It’s entirely possible that over time, a very rigid and inflexible belief took hold. One that was much too intertwined with my self-worth. Something along the lines of “I will only be worthwhile if I am receive a scratch and sniff sticker/am successful”.

But I don’t think it was just the direct learning that taught me that perfectionism was the way to live my life. Like a lot of others, it also feels like something that I have just always been. And the science would support this.

There is evidence to suggest that an individual’s temperament may influence the development of perfectionism. Temperament refers to the characteristic ways that we think, react and behave. It is fairly stable over time – from a very, very, very young age – and may be partly genetic.

And I’d agree with this too. I’d hedge a bet that I was setting high standards before I read My Grandfather likes old movies to Mrs Owen that day.

Studies have shown that people who avoid seeking out novelty and who persist towards goals despite frustration and fatigue are more likely to develop perfectionism later in life. Hello Sam.

And why would I avoid novelty and keep persisting? Because it’s sort of like I have a guilty soul. I remember trying to explain to Dr M many, many moons ago.How it felt as if my default emotion was guilt. He looked remarkably devastated at this epiphany. I don't think he should have. I’m not.

Again, the research agrees that underneath it all, perfectionists are often plagued by guilt and shame. Maladaptive perfectionism -- a drive to perfection that generally has social roots, and a feeling of pressure to succeed that derives from external, rather than internal, sources -- is highly correlated with depression, anxiety, shame and guilt.

It’s complicated isn’t it? For every individual, the life experiences, cognitive process and core emotional reactions that might lead to perfectionism might be so very different, yet there is some research which highlights some commonalities. These are my hypotheses for how my perfectionism might have started. It was only be understanding and accepting where it might have come from that I could then look at what things were keeping it going (ahhh – here’s this ep’s cliffhanger!).

Stay tuned to find out what these were.

Comment on this post (1 comment)

  • Annie says...

    WOW! Thanks Sam. You always write such thought provoking stuff. You are a treasure to me and my family.

    16 July 2016

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