Did you know that perfectionism has its roots in childhood emotional neglect? Children who were raised by neglectful parents tend to be very hard on themselves well into their adulthood.
When outside abuse by people who have unreasonable expectations gets under your skin, it becomes internalized. As a result, you pick on everything you do and nothing is ever good enough. This can result in procrastination, stalling your progress or never even beginning a project because you are afraid of being judged or failing.
Since neglect is different from direct mistreatment, as it is more of an absence than presence of something, it can be difficult to nail and trace as the source of your current problems. Unable to find specific examples, you take the blame, believing there is something fundamentally wrong with you at the core of your being. It’s time to face the truth and free yourself.
Roots of Perfectionism
Adapting to a home where one or both of your parents were neglectful takes effort. Neglectful parents want children who are easy and make no fuss or requests. Since you wanted to be good, you stopped asking questions because you didn’t want to anger them. You hid your emotions because you didn’t want to bother them. In other words, to survive you were forced to change who you were. A daisy became a rose; a pine became an oak.
To be a good girl or boy, you pushed your feelings deep down until no one could see them. “(…) you become un-sad, un-angry, un-needy, and overall unemotional so that your parents are less bothered or burdened by you. Life becomes easier in the family, but life inside you becomes deeply lonely,” writes Jonice Webb, Ph.D. in her article: 3 Guilt and Shame Messages of Childhood Emotional Neglect and How to Defeat Them.
As a result, your identity becomes shame-based and you feel empty. You believe that no one wants to see what’s inside you. To cope, you become a shadow of yourself — passive, obedient and extremely self-critical. Not knowing know to trust yourself, since you were not validated as a child, you seek validation outside instead. This prevents you from getting to know who you are and makes you susceptible to abusive relationships.
This destructive belief that what you are feeling bothers other people can also undermine your efforts towards success. Wanting to be liked and accepted, you are willing do anything you can to get the approval your neglectful parents denied you. You push away your needs, desires, goals and dreams and make it all about what ‘they’ want.
Fortunately, you have all the power to stop this self-sabotaging behavior. The journey begins with taking full responsibility for your experience now. What happened to you was not okay. But are no longer a child. You are now free to grow, make your own choices and every right to say no to abuse and exploitation.
“I can’t give you a surefire formula for success, but I can give you a formula for failure: try to please everybody all the time.”
— Herbert Bayard Swope, American editor and journalist, first recipient of the Pulitzer Prize
10 Steps to Heal Childhood Neglect and Quell Perfectionism
- Honor Your Feelings. Feelings are a part of our humanity and biology. No matter how noble your intentions may be, any efforts to deny them will be futile. It’s like trying to hold a balloon under water. Feelings are neither right or wrong. They just are. It is beneficial to acknowledge them and trace their source. Great way to do this is in a journal. Get a hold of what you are feeling and drill down by asking why. Why are you feeling this way? Why did this happen to you? Why is it important right now? And so on. Something is calling your attention. I have a reminder set on my calendar that pops up at random times, asking me how I’m feeling. My task is to pause and state three adjectives. After a few weeks of this, I found myself more aware, emotionally literate and less reactive.
- Get Curious About Who You Are. Your internal landscape is unique and no one but you has the keys to enter your secret garden. “In you is hidden the treasure of treasures,” states the ancient inscription on the Temple of Delphi. By cultivating curiosity and observation, you can get to know your most common thought patterns and learn to recognize and manage your emotional triggers. So when you feel a wave coming, you’ll be ready for it. Thought patterns are not your ultimate reality. Triggered emotions are not your ultimate destiny. To get a better feel for who you are, what you like and how you like it, try Morning Pages — filling three pages with uninterrupted, uncensored writing, longhand. You can also record your musings on an audio device and look for recurring themes. Make it important to spend quality time with yourself and if you need guidance, hire a coach or a therapist. It could be the best investment you make.
- Embrace Your Uniqueness. Perfectionism is rooted in self-criticism. But who do you benchmark yourself against? Does this ‘perfect’ person even exist? Argue against that critical voice. Challenge it. There is only one you in the entire Universe. Rather than criticizing yourself, get to know yourself. You may discover that the less you try to be like someone else and embrace your uniqueness instead, the more you will shine. Catch the voice that is judging you and rewrite the script in real time. Your subconscious believes in what you tell yourself. Change ‘you are so dumb!’ to ‘each day I’m learning something new and developing myself.’ Say it loud and often. Trade self-condemnation for self-compassion. As Pia Mellody says, no human is perfect. ‘We are all perfectly imperfect.’ Try a little self-praise for a change and watch yourself bloom.
- Appreciate Other’s Uniqueness. People who are preoccupied with criticizing others, either struggle with too many insecurities or have too much time on their hands. Don’t join that tribe. It’s a time and energy black hole. Instead, gather your precious currencies and direct them towards developing yourself. Read, explore, travel, learn new skills, create. The more you cultivate and appreciate your own unique interests, talents and strengths, the more you will recognize and appreciate them in others. As a result, positive, creative people will flock into your life, attracted by your confidence, openness and kindness.
- Set Healthy Boundaries. Being open is good, but there is a point at which being too open can become a problem. Tolerating abusive people, excusing mistreatment and letting others take advantage of you does not make you a better human. If you identify yourself as a person with porous boundaries, it will greatly benefit you to learn assertiveness and make ‘no’ one of your new favorite words. On the flip side, if you perceive the world as too threatening and have a tendency to hide and close yourself off, your boundaries might be too rigid, preventing you from enjoying healthy connections and intimacy. The key is to find your ‘goldilocks’ zone where you feel safe and protected but also remain connected.
- Take Up Space. When you think critically of yourself, your tendency will be to want to shut down, clam up or hide. This becomes an automated, subconscious trauma response that works to solidify the old pattern. Instead, learn to take up more space. I know, this will run counter to how you feel. But get this: since the critical narrative you’ve been telling yourself is rooted in internalized abuse, it is not yours! As a child, you absorbed what others told you and how they treated you into your developing identity. And what they told you and did to you had very little, if anything, to do with you. It was a projection of their own identity onto you. The emotions you feel as a result of years of self-loathing are also rooted in perception distortion. They are made of echoes of the past that keep surfacing when triggered by something. They are not facts. Knowing this, you can begin the process of detaching yourself from your feelings and turning them into objects of study. See them as past trauma knocking at your door. Instead of letting your emotions sweep your precious attention away, take a deep breath, stretch wide and do what you would do if you were insanely confident. You have that power.
- Express Yourself. Perfectionism stalls creativity. It is one of the main sources of procrastination. It can be so paralyzing, that you will find a million distractions before you sit down and do your work. It is the demise of inspiration and best excuse for not even trying. It repels Muses, as rigid expectations leave no room for expanded thinking. But some of the best art and innovation has its source in imperfection. Better yet, it arises when we turn off the logical brain and just play. Steven Spielberg had said that his best movie ideas come on the freeway when he drives to his studio. For other people it is showering or walking in nature. The key is to not let your ideas stay inside you. They don’t need to ‘perfect’ in order to merit an expression. You don’t need to be a music producer to write a song. Or a published author to write a poem. Just do it. Let it out. Take the first step and the next will follow.
- Embrace Failure. The most successful people will tell you that failure was their biggest teacher. Failing a lot and often was a key theme in Steve Job’s commencement speech at Stanford. Why is it important to fail? Besides the obvious — learning what doesn't work and stirring innovation — failure will help bring to surface the things that truly matter. It will free you to explore your edges and keep fear in check. Sure, it will be there as fear is a safety mechanism that’s hardwired into our brain. But it will no longer prevent you from living a fuller life and growing. If you allow it, failure will help you cultivate compassion, courage and wisdom.
- Practice Imperfection. This one might be hard to do but it is quite effective at quelling perfectionism. It’s like therapy in action. What you want to do is practice leaving some things unrefined and a bit unfinished. Leave the room a little messy. On purpose. And then watch the anxiety this might generate. It may reveal some interesting insights about your character. Leaving things incomplete will help you step out of black and white thinking that plagues perfectionists — the all or nothing, as in your work is either flawless or worthless. If I followed that unreasonable reasoning, I’d never hit the ‘publish’ button. So instead, I try not to sweat over the sentence that clearly lacks rhythm and polish, and instead keep moving into the next one. There.
- Laugh More. Trying to be perfect is a destructive habit and can be a major source of stress and suffering. You can end up isolating yourself, taking yourself too seriously and tormenting yourself by worrying about what others think of you. It’s a form of self-imprisonment. The reality is that while you walk around hiding your pain, others are doing exactly the same thing — hiding while worrying about what you think of them. It’s a bit of a joke how similar we are and how much time and energy we spend on this. This is why when you name the elephant in the room and poke fun at yourself, the entire room discharges tension. In that moment, the burden leaves you and you feel so much more connected to others and yourself.
“If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.”
— Marcus Aurelius, Emperor of Rome and Stoic philosopher, author of Meditations
I hope this post was helpful to you and look forward to meeting you in the comments. Your 👏🏻 are much appreciated!
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If you are suffering from the shock of being subjected to narcissistic abuse, have a look into my FREE three-step SOS program available on my website.