How perfectionism and people-pleasing traits develop
As with many personality traits, these may develop as adaptive coping mechanisms which allow us to better react to the conditions of our childhood, such as the values, beliefs, rules, or general tone in our family of origin.
Specifically, we are told directly or indirectly by our parents/caregivers that certain behaviours or qualities are acceptable (attention and other forms of rewards are provided) or unacceptable (attention or care is removed). Children are adept at noticing the often very subtle cues that our caretakers send, telling us how or who we ‘should’ be in the family.
Perfectionism may have been your secret weapon
Of course there are many positives to these qualities, for example you probably have worked very hard in your personal and professional life: to nurture relationships, learn skills, obtain knowledge and mastery, and advance your career. On paper, you may have many of the things that would be objectively considered as successful in adulthood.
But if you’re reading this, it’s likely that some form of perfectionism is also having some negative impacts in your life.
3 Types of perfectionism
Not all perfectionism arises for the same reasons, and it can be helpful to think of it as 3 distinct types: self-oriented, socially prescribed, and other-oriented perfectionism (Curran & Hill, 2019).
1. Self-oriented perfectionism refers to attaching irrational or out-of-proportion importance to being perfect, having unrealistic expectations of yourself, and holding punitive self-evaluations.
2. Socially-prescribed perfectionism exists when individuals believe that their social context is excessively demanding, others judge them harshly, and that they must be perfect to get approval from others. So this is where it can be helpful to really examine our social contexts, including our workplace culture, our groups of friends, or any context that we participate in by choice or not.
3. Other-oriented perfectionism happens when individuals have unrealistic standards for those around them, creating an overall outlook of negativity, harshness, and criticism.
Some everyday examples of perfectionism and people-pleasing in action
Can you relate to any of the following experiences? Do they sound familiar?
✅ you feel perpetually too busy, with little time for yourself
✅ you feel overwhelmed with the to-do list (which seems to just keep growing)
✅ you achieve the goals that you set, but afterward you don’t quite feel as happy as you thought that you might
✅ the bar for yourself is always high, and you feel chronically disappointed in yourself or others
✅ if you make a mistake or let someone down, it can be really upsetting or lead to lots of ruminating
✅ you find it hard to say “NO” or “I don’t have the time to take that on”
✅ you have lots of people in your life, but you are exhausted by certain draining relationships, or by the sheer number of friends that you feel you have to keep up with
✅ you’ve found success in your career, but the workload expectations have become too much, either because colleagues take advantage of your work ethic OR you are adding to your own pile
“Perfectionism is the belief that if we live perfect, look perfect, and act perfect, we can minimize or avoid the pain of blame, judgement, and shame. It’s a shield. It’s a twenty-ton shield that we lug around thinking it will protect us when, in fact, it’s the thing that’s really preventing us from flight.” ―
Perfectionism in new parents
If you’re a stay-at-home mum or dad, the same patterns typically still apply – you are no doubt an eager parent who works really hard to do it all, but maybe it’s hard to set boundaries or be ok with the idea of the “good enough parent”. The challenge of course in parenthood is that the nature of the role dooms us to fail, over and over. And yet you may have been able to convince yourself up until this point of becoming a parent, that perfectionism was actually possible. And now, you are no doubt having that bubble burst, which can feel like a bit of an existential identity crisis!
Long-term impacts of perfectionism and people-pleasing
These tendencies, as mentioned, certainly have their positive sides, but they also come with a cost. It can represent an overall high level of functioning in our personal and professional lives that is unsustainable. Especially when life throws extra challenges into the mix.
Some of the most common impacts of perfectionism and/or people-pleasing, especially over the long term, include:
- Obsessive thinking
- Panic attacks
- Decreased motivation
- Low mood/tearfulness
- Physical illness
- Chronic fatigue
- Strained relationships
- Reliance on alcohol or drugs to deal with the stress
- Feeling disengaged or numb
The list goes on and on and they can all compound each other! Which can make it hard to know where to start.
Remember that personality traits are learned within a social context
We touched on this above, but here’s another reminder: our society – with the focus on constant striving, competition, social comparison, and trying to do it all – breeds perfectionism, and therefore the consequences above. So in order to make strides towards more healthy imperfection and acceptance, it’s important to acknowledge the social influences on your own life. Here are a few questions to reflect upon:
- Would you describe your close friends mostly as high achievers – who set an impossible bar to reach?
- Is vulnerability, failure, and ‘process over product’ normalized within this group?
- What about social media – who do you follow, and what are their messages about success?
- Which accounts help and which ones make you feel more unworthy?
- What is the culture like at work with respect to achievement?
- In your extended family?
Self-compassion as healthy-striving
We use specific techniques, along with a few other modalities, to help our clients find a healthy relationship with being the best versions of themselves – that is moving towards growth while honouring the imperfection that makes us all human. It’s amazing how liberating it can feel to begin seeing yourself in a different way, and we find this is almost always more peaceful and fulfilling to our clients!
If you have found some grains of truth in this article, and are feeling a bit stuck in your perfectionism or people-pleasing, we encourage you to reach out for support. We know that it takes courage. Our therapists are here to help! You don’t need to feel alone in this.
“In a world where perfectionism, pleasing, and proving are used as armor to protect our egos and our feelings, it takes a lot of courage to show up and be all in when we can’t control the outcome. It also takes discipline and self-awareness to understand what to share and with whom. Vulnerability is not oversharing, it’s sharing with people who have earned the right to hear our stories and our experiences. Vulnerability is not weakness; it’s our greatest measure of courage.” ―