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Confessions of a (Mostly) Reformed Perfectionist

June 23, 2016

By Tracy Harder, MSC, LAC, Survivors Workshop Facilitator

Do you remember the one question you missed on that fourth-grade science test that kept you from scoring 100 percent? Or the word you missed in every spelling bee you were in? I do.

In fact, I am very clear about the fact that water boils at 100 degrees Celsius and I am not a big fan of the words centennial, hippopotamus, or receipt. I have suffered from most of my life from perfectionism, which to me is no joke. Feeling shame about making a mistake and having the initial reaction of wanting to hide it is not fun. In fact, just the thought of writing this blog gave me anxiety. How can I possibly measure up to the people who have written blogs and have Ph.D.’s and more experience than me?

Perfectionist Tendencies Can Start in Early Childhood

My perfectionism developed and honed from a very early age. I remember when I turned four or five my parents took me to a fancy restaurant for crab legs. (What the hell?) I remember sitting there, prim and proper, with my hands folded in my lap. I remember people telling my mother what a wonderful, well-behaved child she had.

My mother beamed, and basked in the compliments. I figured out quickly, “Aha! This is how I earn my mother’s love and approval!”

From then on, I strived to make perfect grades and to always toe the line, always trying to be “good enough.” For you see, my beloved mother is a perfectionist herself and her perfect little girl reinforced her need to be good enough too.

Pia Mellody, in her book Facing Codependence, says, “Everybody’s poop smells. To be human is to be imperfect.”

She goes on to say that functional parents do not hold themselves up as the higher power in the family—the god and goddess if you will—and that when they make a parenting mistake that affects their children, they own it and make amends. But, what about those of us raised in a home where our parents were the god and goddess reigning supreme? A home in which mistakes were not okay?

I love my parents and through my own work, which has included going through The Meadows’ Survivors I childhood trauma workshop myself, I realize now that they were parenting out of their own trauma brought on by dysfunctional messages they got from their parents.

Perfectionism Hinders You More Than It Helps

Perfectionism has been a friend and a foe in my life. As a friend, it helped me a few years ago to organize and plan from the ground up what I must say was a pretty amazing wedding –although I was a complete and nervous wreck the day of. It also enabled me in some ways to complete a difficult counseling program and earn a Master’s Degree, but it took repeated attempts.

As a foe, it literally drove me to drink. And then, even after getting sober through a 12- step program, I continued to attempt perfection in my step work, which resulted in a relapse. Trying to be “perfect” can also alienate me from people, because my attitude becomes, “ I want to be perfect and am sure you must want to be as well, so let me show you how!” In respect to the core issues of The Meadows Model of Development Immaturity, this attitude is indicative of “better than” self-esteem, invulnerable boundaries, good and perfect reality issues, and containment issues of being out of control with controlling others.

Or, as Pia would say, I turn into “a tight ass.” This is not good for my relationships, to say the least.

Tips for Overcoming Perfectionist Thinking

For those of you reading this and relating, here are a few helpful techniques I use to alleviate the stress of perfectionist thinking:

  1. I give myself permission to be imperfect.
  2. I admit my mistakes to affirm that it’s okay to make mistakes.
  3. I make amends for my mistakes
  4. I remind myself that only my higher power is perfect and that I’m not my higher power.
  5. I do daily affirmations to a photo of my inner child, telling her she is perfectly imperfect just the way she is, and I treat her as such throughout the day.

The pain of the five core development immaturity issues mentioned earlier, and relationship issues drove me into therapy and 12-step programs. Both made it possible for me to practice these techniques.

As a result, there has been a considerable improvement in my relationship with myself and in my relationships with others. After all, who am I to think I could ever be perfect? Through the practice of admitting my mistakes to others I have realized that, for the most part,I am the only person who is not okay with my mistakes.

This corrective experience illuminates the fact that the people in my life now are understanding and forgiving. More often than not, they share their experiences with similar situations, thereby increasing intimacy and strengthening these relationships.

Perfectionism will always be a part of my personality, but the good news is that through insight and action it can definitely be managed.

The Meadows’ Survivors Workshop

The concepts and therapeutic exercises that comprise the Survivors I workshop, are the same ones that drive the overall treatment philosophy for all of The Meadows programs. Participants explore the childhood trauma that fuels self-defeating behaviors such as addiction, mood disorders, and troubling relationships. They also work on processing and releasing negative messages and emotions rooted in their pasts, and find the freedom to fully embody their authentic selves.