7 minute read
Narcissistic abuse and perfectionism often go hand in hand. As a common legacy issue understanding how this works is key to narcissistic abuse recovery. I bet you’re super keen to silence that nagging, stifling inner critic, right?
Current research encompasses a bunch of different types of perfectionism. From negative, or maladaptive perfectionism to positive, adaptive perfectionism. The latter yields healthy and productive effects, with the converse applying for maladaptive perfectionism. In short, ‘adaptive’ perfectionism relates to realizing positive outcomes, whereas maladaptive perfectionism is about avoiding negative outcomes.
If you’ve landed on this article, happy perfectionism is unlikely to be the way you swing, the dark side is probably more your thing.
So why is it that you flagellate yourself when others appear to be free of this curse of horrors?
In this piece, we look at where perfectionism comes from for codependents and/or those who have experienced narcissistic abuse. We do this by focusing on the links between three types of perfectionism: self-oriented, socially-oriented, and other-oriented.
As with other Narc Wise articles, the purpose of starting out with answering ‘why am I this way’ is to build knowledge to foster compassion for yourself in understanding why you might struggle with perfectionism; and pave the way for overcoming this legacy of abuse.
‘I gotta be better’ syndrome
When I think of a perfectionist, a worn-out soul comes to mind. The fatigue stems from being plagued with self-doubt; and an inner critic that relentlessly drives meeting unreasonably high standards and who punishes with fury.
The chase can relate to any area of life. It could be about career, or maintaining a spotless home, or presenting an attractive physical appearance etc. The goal doesn’t matter so much, what does is the mindset: the endless push to be better, overlaid with that voice telling you, you will never be good enough irrespective of achievements. In pursuing perfection, you seek to quell that voice by finding proof for yourself, that you are good enough.
Pursuit of exacting goal, after goal, after goal, ad infinitum, which is internally propelled is known as the self-oriented perfectionist. Is this your thing?
If so, you are undoubtedly a machine in getting things done and done well…but you never see it that way. In your eyes, your failures are disastrous, and even your wins are opportunities for ruthless post mortems replete with ‘beat yourself up moments’. “I should have done it this way”, “I could have done so much better”, “It just wasn’t good enough” etc. In your reality, you never can win. You won’t allow yourself to.
A variation on this is socially-oriented perfectionism. Similar in most facets to self-oriented perfectionism, the difference lies in believing that others hold these impossible expectations of you. You perceive that meeting their standards is paramount to avoid rejection and abandonment. Acceptance and love, can only be awarded to you, if you are perfect.
Motivating both types of perfectionism is increasing self-worth, confidence, and esteem, by securing external validation through meeting high standards. Validation is sought externally in the absence of being able to provide it internally for the self. Attaching self-worth to meeting standards is a consequence of believing that you matter because of what you do, rather than who you are.
The nightmare of chasing unattainable perfection is a heavy burden to bear marking the sufferer with depression, anxiety, shame, indecisiveness, constant feelings of failure, and inability to experience satisfaction.
Soul sucking, life stifling stuff.
Time for happy news. You can escape this cage. You can redefine your internal landscape by accepting and celebrating who you are, rather than what you do.
Let’s start the recovery process by understanding where perfectionism may come from for you.
‘You gotta be better’ syndrome
A combination of both types of perfectionism are common in codependents and/or those who have experienced narcissistic abuse. This has struck me as curious, and has had me asking myself why? My curiosity was further engaged when researching the third type of perfectionism labelled ‘other-oriented’. Here’s what I found.
For the other-oriented perfectionist (OOPer), rather than reciting a mantra of ‘I’m not good enough unless I achieve perfectly xyz’, their chant is ‘you’re not good enough…. specifically, not good enough for me, unless you are perfect’.
The bar of perfection is not set for the self, it is set for others. The OOPer considers they are the very specimen others should model themselves on, possessed with an inflated sense of self-worth and their superiority over others. They rise each morning thinking how very lucky the world is to be blessed with their dazzling brilliance, beauty, and brawn. They are the antithesis of the self-oriented and socially-oriented perfectionist.
OOPers value others only in so far as their needs are being satisfied. This is realised initially through directives, control mechanisms, threats, and manipulation to coerce the mere mortal in striving for the perfection demanded by the OOPer.
Of course, perfection is nonsense, and when requirements of perfection are inevitably not met, punishment ensues. You become worthless, and discard occurs. ‘Well of course I delete when they serve no purpose for me!’ considers the OOPer who has an exaggerated sense of grandiosity, entitlement, need for attention, and a penchant for exploiting others.
By now, I suspect you must be thinking…hang on a minute, these OOPers sound very much like abusive narcs! If so, you are very much correct. The profile of the OOPer overlaps with that of abusive narcs because they are the same. Herein lies the link in the triad of negative perfectionism. A causal relationship exists. Once the OOPers messaging is internalized, self and socially-oriented perfectionism is born.
The OOPers legacy
How does this relate to you and your history? Let’s look at a couple of examples that might be relevant.
Formative years within a dysfunctional family-of-origin that contains narcissism and/or other forms of abuse, is likely to include stringent expectations of the child set by the primary caretakers/parents/OOPers.
Failure to meet exacting standards, leads to a range of punishments including withholding of love and acceptance. Deprivation of love and acceptance leaves a void the child will continue to try and fill in some way.
The child learns to equate meeting expectations may be rewarded with some modicum of attention, despite this incorporating in most cases high levels of criticism as to how they should have done better. Heartbreakingly, to the love starved child, this is better than nothing. The child also learns that reaching standards reduces punitive measures of physical, mental, and emotional abuse. Straining to be perfect becomes, essentially, a survival tactic.
And so, the deal is done. If this is part of your history, messaging clearly articulates that to be valuable to yourself and to others, you must prove your worth by meeting impossible standards. Abusive consequences when you fall short of standards, reinforces this messaging.
Hence self-value and worth becomes fused with what you do, rather than who you are. This translates into both self and socially oriented perfectionism – ‘I am only good enough if I can achieve this or that’ & ‘they will only give me love and acceptance if I do the things they need me to do be proud of me’.
Sadly, if you have experienced a childhood such as this, chances are these patterns have been carried into adulthood and you have found yourself in similar, unhealthy relationships with abusive narcs/OOPers who play the same game.
We tend to gravitate to the familiar, particularly when wounds are as deep as those established in childhood where acceptance and love of our true selves has been withheld. In seeking to heal ourselves we repeat the blueprint of our childhoods based on the false premise that if we can earn our abuser’s acceptance and love by ‘being good enough’, then finally we can believe we are worthy and our pain will dissolve.
Silencing the OOPer
So, how does this info help?
Gaining understanding of your challenges with perfectionism highlights its pitfalls and enables you to be mindful when you are stuck in its trap.
Mapping your history, understanding your wounds, and how they have contributed in your journey, fosters compassion for yourself which as a perfectionist you could do with cultivating somewhat don’t you think!
Laying this groundwork prepares you for change and overcoming the albatross of perfection (more on this in upcoming posts).
A ‘quick n’ dirty recovery tip’ before signing off.
You can now start to recognize who that internal voice that tells you ‘you are not good enough’ actually belongs to: your abuser. It’s not your voice, not really.
Silence their voice so yours gets a chance to be heard.
Silence their voice so your true self can step forward.
Silence their voice and be free.
Finally, if revenge is your thing*, silence their voice, because when you do this, you win. There is nothing worse to the abusive narc/OOPer than being inconsequential.
More importantly, when the scars of their words become powerless over you, you finally know, in a deep-down in your bones kinda way ‘I am perfectly me and this is the only litmus test for good enough I need…I am indeed fabulous’. You win.
Read Anti-perfectionism hacks: Overcoming legacy of abuse and narcissism for more tips on silencing your inner critic.
*Note – To be clear. I’m definitely not an advocate of revenge…but I am an advocate of you reclaiming your power!
As with all Brene Brown’s work, the Gifts of Imperfection, is life changing, a true revelation. She has the unusual gift of having the mind of both the scientist and the story teller. Absolutely captivating, speaking right to the heart of what it means to be human. This one explains the tie between shame and perfectionism with the key to freedom being about unpacking/accepting what drives the shame. It’s not often I come across a take on ‘letting go’ that is based in science and data. If you also struggle with perfectionism, love a bit of logic, and rare insight, read this now!
Family of origin dysfunction and perfectionism
For anyone who has suffered abuse as children, there are two books you absolutely must read. They are seminal works that resonate deeply. For me, they validated a lifetime of wounds that had been left raw and suppressed, despite therapy, enabling massive growth in recovery. The first is Alice Miller’s The Drama of the Gifted Child, and the second is Karyl McBride’s Will I Ever Be Good Enough (specifically on narcissistic parenting). I cannot overstate how transformational these two titles are.
(Note – if using link/s provided to purchase, you’ll receive free shipping and title heavily discounted. You’ll also be supporting my work in providing you free resources on this site, by earning a very small commission, at no extra cost to you – thank you 😊)
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- McBryde, K. (2008). Will I ever be good enough? Healing the daughters of narcissistic mothers. New York, US: Atria.
- Nealis, L. J., Sherry, S.B., Sherry, D.L., Sherry, H.S., & Macneil, M.A. (2015). Toward a better understanding of narcissistic perfectionism: Evidence of factorial validity, incremental validity, and mediating mechanisms. Journal of Research in Personality, 57, 11-25.
- Smith, M.M., Sherry, S.B., Chen, S., Saklofske, D.H., Flett, G.L. & Hewitt, P.L. (2016). Perfectionism and narcissism: A meta-analytic review. Journal of Research in Personality, 64, 90-101.