The ramifications of perfectionist parenting, and what to do about them later in life.
Did you grow up with overly strict, controlling, or perfectionist parents? Was familial conversation strained and limited? Did you frequently feel like you weren’t allowed to be yourself or express certain emotions?
Every child experiences invalidation growing up. This is natural and unavoidable. But some parents take it too far by being overly strict and perfectionistic.
Growing up in a household with an endless amount of rules for what is right and what is wrong (whether those rules are communicated explicitly or implicitly) is exhausting. If you constantly felt like you were walking on eggshells in your childhood home, the consequences can be quite damaging later in life.
Maybe your parents told you that certain emotions (most commonly sadness and anger) weren’t okay to feel. Maybe they told you the way that you were (sensitive, boisterous, communicative, shy) was inherently wrong. Maybe they told you that your emotional responses to things were incorrect, silly, or bothersome. Maybe they withheld their love from you unless you were performing or achieving constantly.
Whatever happened, it didn’t feel safe to be human, to feel emotions, to try things and mess up. Love was given to you based on your performance and adherence to arbitrary rules, not given based on your existence.
There is no perfect way to parent — every parent leaves psychological scars on their kids one way or another. But some parents leave more than others.
Here are the ramifications of perfectionist parenting, and what to do about them later in life.
1. Emotional suppression
The first and most common overarching symptom of having been raised by perfectionist parents is that you will be prone to suppressing your emotions. Whether it’s sadness, anger, frustration, jealousy, or any other emotion that is frequently labeled as "negative" in modern society, you will likely have a difficult time accessing certain emotions on a day to day basis.
This doesn’t mean that those emotions won’t exist in you (they will), it will just mean that it’s arduous for you to gain access to feeling your way through them. These chronically suppressed emotions will then turn into sickness, anxiety, depression, or (long-term) diseases like cancer and more severe mental illness.
The more disconnected you are from feeling your emotions, the more likely you’ll be to turn your less pleasant emotions towards yourself.
Here’s an example: Say that your parents divorced when you were six years old. Because children are inherently egocentric (they believe that the world revolves around them) you will create a story that it is your fault that your parents split up. You will then build on that story for years to come, and have a deeply permeating sense that you are unlovable and somehow flawed.
This is especially the case in perfectionist households. If there are hundreds of rules of how you’re supposed to behave, and you’re constantly getting in trouble for not adhering to them flawlessly, then there must be something wrong with you (or a LOT wrong with you).
3. Being prone to addiction
So what is addiction? At its core, addictions are maladaptive stress responses. Put another way, your addiction is what you do to cope with stress that you feel when you’re not sure what else to do with it.
People that grew up with highly perfectionist parents are more prone to addiction than most because it’s their parents' perfectionism itself that was a constantly modeled maladaptive stress response. For example, maybe your parents felt an intrinsic sense of unworthiness growing up because their parents never validated or loved them in any obvious way, so they learn to try to do life “correctly” in order to gain love and approval from their emotionally absent parents.
Surprise, surprise! You will be prone to continuing the generational legacy of perfectionism until you decide to commit to a new path.
5. Chronic stress and physiological tension
If you’re always trying to do life right, then you’ll always feel on edge, anticipating the next mistake that you’re about to make. That’s where the downward spiral of perfectionism starts. Every mistake that you make will thereby reinforce your sense of inadequacy and imperfection, compelling you to want to do things even more correctly, until you break the pattern.
6. Difficulty receiving criticism
Perfectionists have a non-stop self-critical inner dialogue. It’s like having a drill sergeant in your head telling you how to do everything in order to avoid being criticized.
When someone gives you corrective feedback (or criticism) as an adult, it will be especially difficult to receive if you had perfectionist parents. Their tone will remind you of your parents, and you will feel more triggered and defensive than if you had grown up in a loving and supportive household.
7. Living a life out of alignment and always seeking to please others
By constantly trying to live by your parents' strict standards, you will set yourself up for a long life of living to please others. As you continue to live your life for other people, you will slowly erode your sense of self and slip into a general feeling of malaise.
8. Difficulty with intimate relationships
Being in any intimate relationship is an ongoing practice of allowing your self-protective ego to dissolve, in order to allow you to get close to someone. The way to feel fulfilled in an intimate relationship is to be with someone who you love, trust, and respect, and to let go of control. If you had perfectionist parents, it’s intimacy is going to be especially challenging for you.
You will resent your partner challenging you. You will resent the things that they say that you perceive as criticism. You will fear that your partner getting close to you will mean that they will witness (and confirm) your fundamentally unloveable nature. And you will be prone to defensiveness, passive-aggressive communication, and stonewalling your intimate partners.
Again, the way that you succeed in intimacy is letting go of control and simply allowing your partner to be who they are. It’s, therefore, understandable that people with perfectionist parents would have a difficult time allowing themselves to be loved and seen by another.
But it isn’t all doom and gloom. Here are the three biggest benefits that come from being raised by perfectionist parents.
1. Work ethic
While it isn’t a guaranteed benefit for people (it depends on what area of your life your parents tried the hardest to control), a strong work ethic is a common side effect of having had perfectionist parents. Reason being, if your parents only praised you for your successes, then you’ll be that much more likely to want to only do things that you will be recognized and validated for.
People with perfectionist parents often grow up living by the equation “More work = more love.”
2. Financially secure life
If you’ve prided yourself on doubling down on your strengths, then it would naturally follow that you will eventually be financially rewarded for your efforts. Personally, all of the most successful entrepreneurs that I know are driven by a deep sense of shame. It is their unique neuroses that were formed in childhood that led them to where they are today.
3. Ability to get things done
Not just in your financial life, but throughout the majority of your life, you will be a high functioning individual if you grew up with perfectionist parents.
Leaky faucet? You’ll learn how to fix it, and you’ll fix it within a matter of minutes. Your grandma fell and broke her hip? You’ll oversee her hospital treatment while helping your kids with their homework, your friends with their lives, and you’ll still perform flawlessly at your job. Never mind the eye twitch... that will go away eventually.
So, how do you counteract your perfectionist upbringing? Are there things that you can do to balance yourself out from the "do things right" mindset? Yes. There are.
Here are the top six best ways to be less concerned with perfection, striving, optimization and doing things "right" and sinking into a healthier and more balanced life of trust, surrender, and ease.
1. Feel your feelings.
Perfectionists suppress their emotions. To undo that damage, you must become intimately acquainted with your feelings. This process is similar to getting strength back into a muscle that has atrophied.
2. Get in touch with your authentic desires.
Instead of living your life for others, you must become aware of what it is that you actually want. Easier said than done.
Sit still and think about it. Meditate on it. Journal about it. Have conversations with friends, family members, and coaches. Try a bunch of things, "fail" at most of them, repeat. Do whatever it takes to figure out what it is that you want, and then go after those things until they are a part of your daily life.
3. Be a human being, not human doing.
Regularly remind yourself that you are inherently valuable just for existing, not just for the value that you bring to the world in a more externally tangible way. You are loveable as you are, today, in this very moment. I promise.
Instead of pretending like you have any control over life, surrender to life. Surrender into resting and regularly making time for your self-care. Surrender into allowing yourself to experience your emotions as they come up for you. Surrender into letting someone love you. Surrender into not knowing what you’re going to be doing with your life in five years, let alone five minutes from now.
Let go. Take your hands off of the metaphorical steering wheel, and simply trust that life has your back.
Perfectionists tend to take every part of life overly seriously. The antidote? Laughter.
Whether you intentionally make time for laughter by going to see movies, stand-up comics, or professional improvisers or not, cultivating the ability to laugh at life (and at yourself) will serve you well in your journey of letting go of perfectionism.
6. Learn to meet your own needs first.
Instead of over-functioning and trying to meet everyone else’s needs before your own, try flipping the script. Meet your own need’s first. Many perfectionists have no idea where to even begin with such a task.
Here’s some recommended homework for you if this concept fries circuits in your brain: commit to putting yourself first for an entire week. Invest in your self-care. Indulge in the kind of play that you enjoy. Make your self-care and rest a priority. Be selfish.
See what thoughts or feelings come up for you during this process, and choose to love and accept those thoughts and feelings. If you enjoy the week and prioritizing your own needs, carry on. If you hate it (hint: you won’t) then go back to your old ways and continue to always be on the edge of burnout. The choice is yours.
Breaking up with perfectionism is as difficult and as easy as regularly choosing to live by the above six tips.
Life is a joke. A big, messy, chaotic, beautiful joke. Treat it as such. Take yourself less seriously. Laugh more. Love bigger. Be a mess. Your heart, body, and mind will thank you for the shift.
This article was originally published at Jordan Gray Consulting. Reprinted with permission from the author.