Perfectionism is a Survival Mechanism

Perfectionism is a Survival Mechanism
Getting to Know Who We Truly Are at Our Core

As a child-survivor of an abusive environment, I discovered that my survival brain had created mechanisms of shyness, perfectionism, and obsessive compulsive disorder. Intense control and punishment cycles force our brains to figure out ways to manage the sensory overwhelm. Over the course of my journey, these patterns suppressed the most beautiful aspects of my emerging self and kept me from achieving my highest potential.

As a child, my own personal betrayal came naturally. I was a highly empathic child who loved everyone deeply. My mother was young, unsupported, and was dealing with addiction, rage, impulsivity, emotional imbalances, and dis-associative identity disorder due to childhood trauma. The uncertainty of my mother’s moods conditioned me to suppress my own emotional needs while focusing on the needs of others. Shyness was the language that spoke of my fear.

I never knew what mood my mother would arrive home in, so I cleaned the house meticulously every day for the chance at having a happy, peaceful evening. It was heartbreaking when it wasn’t good enough to save us. Everything in my closet was organized by color which cascaded like the colors of a rainbow, organized by length and type, the hangers all facing the same directions, perfectly spaced apart. My mother and my sister thought I was weird. They didn’t understand that this was my brain’s way of managing what was out of my control.

I developed Obsessive Compulsive Disorder but never told anyone. It was just one more thing I learned to manage quietly. OCD was my rational mind’s way of relating to an irrational experience. It was brought on by the intense pressure and control due to the emotional overwhelm of my nervous system.

My subconscious mind believed that perfectionism would make me acceptable, that other people would be able to see the beauty I create and finally know who I was on the inside. I believed that if pleased people really well and made everything perfect, I would somehow build a more stable life. Underneath it all, I just wanted to belong.

Alt text hereMy subconscious mind believed that perfectionism would make me acceptable. Image: Joshua Coleman

At school and at home, I was bullied almost every day. There was no protection so I hid the truth of my sad life. By the time I was seventeen, I found myself drugged and raped at a party. I was in shock and alone, trying to figure out how to manage such a traumatic experience. I had been so programmed to hide my own trauma, so conditioned by a lack of protection and care, that I never told my parents or the authorities. The methods of management I thought were serving me, were now victimizing me.

It wasn’t until my late thirties that I began recognizing that I had needs that deserved to be honored. I began to see how I had given other people power over me all along by performing and suppressing my truth for validation.

The world was perfectly fine with my shyness and usefulness, with my dependability and my need to be valued; it made for a better servant.

In the corporate world, perfectionism gave me intense focus to detail and made me the prize executive assistant to people who I deemed were much more intelligent than I. I had no awareness that by elevating other people’s aptitude above my own, I was betraying my own potential and intelligence.

Thankfully, a series of several life-crippling events destroyed my life a few times. Loss allowed me to discover who I was inside and allowed me to let go of behaviors and thinking which no longer served me. During my time as an intuitive healer, I connected to the intimate pain of many people suffering from performance and perfectionism anxiety. So many athletes, executives, and mothers and fathers are still caught on the “what is my life all about?” treadmill because they have not embraced and accepted themselves for who they are.

We do not need to perform to be valid; we were created and are alive and that is the highest validation anyone could gain. By letting go of the need for others to validate us, we feel more intimately connected to ourselves emotionally, physically, mentally, and spiritually. This helps us to feel compassion for our inner self and sets up limitations and boundaries which are healthy for us to grow in an imperfect and wild way. We need not worry about what others think, we need only to care if we have done to the best of our own metric. When we integrate the intelligence of our hearts with the architect of our mind, our child spirit can play with the intellectual and take you to places that are beyond limitations. Perfectionism deserves compassion, for it is driven by an intense fear of loss, fear of not being good enough, and controls the individual in painful ways. When we have the courage to release ourselves from it, we unlock the potential within.

Owning our story and loving ourselves through that process is the bravest thing that we’ll ever do. – Brené Brown

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3 years ago

this was really eye opening. i have always felt that i needed to do something “grand” due to always needing to be more mature than i was and always being my mother’s confidant. “we do not need to perform to be valid.” really struck the right chord – thank you.

3 years ago

Amazing piece, I really enjoyed where you said “In the corporate world, perfectionism gave me intense focus to detail and made me the prize executive assistant to people who I deemed were much more intelligent than I. I had no awareness that by elevating other people’s aptitude above my own, I was betraying my own potential and intelligence.” I believe that it’s all about mind set and the power of your thoughts. The easier you can focus, it just becomes a survival instinct/2nd nature.

4 years ago

4 years ago

Excellent article. Children required to be self-reliant use this as the main tool. It, along with a disconnected affect from ptsd, is often read as arrogant.

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