Is perfectionism a trauma response?

There is some evidence within the research community to suggest that perfectionism is a response to trauma, particularly from the psychological wounds arising from childhood trauma.

Emotional trauma

Perfectionism is especially prevalent in those who experienced childhood trauma, particularly if a child’s parents or caregivers withheld love or affection.

In the above instance, children are likely to develop the belief that they must work hard by ‘proving themselves’ or their self-worth to gain love and approval.

Perfectionism is a coping mechanism

In many cases, people exposed to prolonged trauma often use perfectionism as a coping mechanism.

Repeated exposure to trauma often involves a person living in an environment where their every action is monitored, scrutinized, and observed by an abuser; thus, trauma survivors engage in perfectionism to take control over at least one element of their lives.

Do defense mechanisms get considered a trauma response?

Studies show that perfectionism might also be a defence mechanism that trauma survivors use to protect themselves against the agony of being perceived as a failure or being wrong.
Traumatic experiences can negatively alter an individual’s self-perception, often leading to self-judgment (and the judgment of others) as well as social isolation, stress, anxiety, and negative self-talk.

Does childhood trauma/abuse cause perfectionism?

A considerable aspect for those experiencing trauma is the guilt and self-blame that goes with it.

Many children who have gotten abused usually experience self-blaming for a perpetrator’s actions – thus, to regain agency or control, children will seek perfection or engage in perfectionism behaviours.

Emotional trauma

Children adopt such behaviours to avoid the pain, low self-esteem, and posttraumatic stress disorder symptoms, which are synonymous with being blamed for something entirely out of their control.

Unrealistic expectations

If they can do everything right, then maybe the child won’t get blamed for anything else in the future.

Additionally, research shows that childhood trauma and abuse can create a compulsion for perfectionism in a large cohort of children.

Is perfectionism a mental health disorder?

Is perfectionism a mental health disorder - Camino Recovery

Perfectionism is not considered a mental illness but rather a response to adverse life events and traumatic stress.
However, although perfectionism is not a diagnosed mental disorder, it is a common component in many mental disorders, such as obsessive-compulsive personality disorder (OCPD) and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

Is a person’s upbringing or parents responsible for Perfectionism?

Perfectionism perfectionistic traits are learned behaviours, meaning that children who grew up with driven, goal-oriented parents or caregivers who excessively praise children for achievements rather than for any progress or efforts are likely to model this behaviour themselves.

Does perfectionism cause anxiety?

People with perfectionist tendencies are more likely to experience anxiety than others who don’t.

Traumatic stressors

Since perfectionism is essentially the result of a person trying to live up to unrealistic expectations and internal ideals, such responses are often motivated by fear, uncertainty, low self-esteem, and excessive worry over how others perceive them.

The above can cause intense anxiety, disparagement, and difficulty coping with symptoms.

What are the primary trauma responses?

Trauma experts have identified four primary trauma responses:

  • Fight
  • Flight
  • Freeze
  • Fawn

Such responses get followed by emotional stages of trauma or posttraumatic reactions:

  • Depression
  • Anger and bargaining
  • Shock and guilt
  • Depressive rumination
  • Numbness and disbelief
  • Anxiety
  • Self-blame

Human resilience

After the initial shock of trauma subsides, the initial stress processes begin to resolve or ease up, with many people turning to hope and acceptance after they experience emotional trauma.

However, some trauma survivors may have a profound need to achieve perfection since perfectionism stems from exposure to traumatic stress.

Posttraumatic stress disorder symptoms

The above may also be a symptom of posttraumatic stress disorder, a stress-related condition that mainly affects those who have endured prolonged trauma or traumatic stress.

PTSD symptoms

  • Flashbacks
  • Intrusive memories or thoughts related to a traumatic experience
  • Avoidance behaviors
  • Substance abuse
  • Dissociation
  • The destructive use of coping mechanisms such as perfectionism, self-doubt, etc.

Treatment for those who experience traumatic events

EMDR therapy - Camino Recovery

Those who experience PTSD symptoms are likely to benefit from mental health treatments (depending on the PTSD severity).

Such treatments may involve:

  • Cognitive psychotherapy (and other cognitive therapy, such as CBT)
  • EMDR (eye movement desensitization reprocessing)
  • Talk therapy
  • Exposure therapy
  • Behavioral and cognitive psychotherapy

Are certain personality types more prone to perfectionism than others?

Sometimes referred to as the ‘Reformer’, this type of perfectionist is moral and logical.

Other traits associated with the Reformer type perfectionist are self-containment and being purpose-driven, such individuals are often overly critical of themselves and others.

Ultimately, the core of perfectionism stems from believing that self-worth is based on success and achievement.

Perfectionism traits

Perfectionism traits - Camino Recovery

Some of the traits associated with perfectionism include:

  • Having rigid, high-expectations
  • Being highly critical of yourself and other people
  • Experiencing anger and shame when you think you are not living up to internal ideals
  • Working excessively long hours to prove yourself and your self-worth
  • Never feeling good enough.
  • Constantly engaging in negative self-talk.
  • Disordered eating
  • Anxiety and depression
  • Becoming very controlling in personal and professional relationships
  • Being obsessed with rules, to-do lists, or the reverse, becoming profoundly apathetic

Negative outcomes

According to research, there are some emotional effects associated with perfectionism, they include:

  • Neuroticism
  • Emotional exhaustion
  • High-stress levels

The two types of perfectionism

Perfectionism has gotten identified as:

”Obsessive or extreme striving for perfection, for example, in one’s work”.

Experts describe two types of perfectionism:

  • Positive perfectionists get associated with those whose cognition or behaviors allow them to achieve success or high-level goals through willingness and positive reinforcement.
  • Negative perfectionists – people with negative perfectionism tend to possess rigid ideals and often have unrealistic goals or expectations that include a fear of failure and negative reinforcement.

Traumatized perfectionist

Either way, whether positive or negative, perfectionism tends to cause significant distress and anxiety for the sufferer.

Studies show that negative perfectionism can create neurotic, unhealthy, and maladaptive thoughts and behaviours due to its nature.

Looking towards the future

Although there are some individual differences in perfectionism, researchers found significant positive correlations between perfectionism and PTSD which stem from traumatic events.

Traumatic experiences

Those who have experienced trauma will likely benefit from trauma therapy and self-education around perfectionism to improve well-being.

If you think you might be suffering from the impact of trauma, we have a range of trauma treatments that can help. Please get in touch with one of our specialists today who can help.

David Scourfield

David Scourfield is a Camino Recovery team member since 2017, focused on facilitating communication with Clinical and other professionals to ensure a comprehensive understanding of Camino's program.

Combining his marketing skills and lived experiences, he joined Camino in 2017, contributing to external publications and the Camino website. With a strong belief in solidarity during the recovery process, David helps clients build support networks by connecting them with others in recovery.

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