Why Perfectionism Ruins Relationships

Statue of David as a symbol of perfectionism

Many people love being perfectionists. They brag about it. Wear it like a badge of honor. Sometimes they admit it in a self-deprecating way, however accompanied by “that’s why I’m so awesome” undertones. It’s a compulsive addiction that most people 1) have no desire to give up, 2) cannot see the harmful effects of, 3) truly believe is beneficial and 4) are unwilling to admit powerlessness over. Unfortunately, perfectionism is a symptom of some deep, underlying “I’m not good enough” shit that does a real number on relationships if left untreated.

Where Perfectionism Comes From

Perfectionism, like most neuroses, is a coping mechanism that children develop in order to get their needs met or to protect themselves. 

If your parents were workaholics, alcoholics, narcissistic, promiscuous, authoritarian, depressed, badly injured, mentally ill, addicted, sociopathic or otherwise dysfunctional in some way, you may have felt invisible as a child. Being seen and heard aren’t “nice to haves.” These are biological human needs like food and water. Being exceptionally good and perfect is one way to get noticed – if not from your parents, at least from teachers, coaches and other adults. Note that being exceptionally terrible is an equally viable solution. Either way, children find creative ways to get their needs met 100% of the time.

If people picked on, criticized, bullied or micromanaged you as a kid, being perfect may have been the best protection from that verbal, emotional and/or physical abuse as well. If a parent slapped the dog shit out of you for making an honest mistake, well, not making mistakes became the only way to keep your primary caregiver from inflicting physical violence on your face. Can you imagine what happens to a developing psyche when the person who’s love you crave most in life attacks you? Disassociation, perhaps? Self-loathing, toxic shame and confusion?

Children instinctually know that it’s a parent’s job to be nurturing, loving and caring. When a child doesn’t receive these things from the person who’s job it is to give them, the only logical conclusions are “I’m not good enough” and “I’m not lovable.” And that shit burns into your soul with a red-hot branding iron. 

Where Perfectionism Goes

While perfectionism helps people get their needs met as children, and they may have a deep sense that it literally saved their lives (which may be true), it becomes the proverbial turd in the punchbowl of adulthood. A core belief of not being good enough is what drives perfectionism. It is therefore a glaring indication of a dysfunctional and unhealthy relationship with oneself. Classic example of an adult problem that was once a childhood solution.

Many perfectionists focus outward. They compulsively excel in school, sports, career, fitness and anything that can prove to the world that they’re good enough. The problem is, if you’re trying to “prove your worth,” you probably have serious doubts about your own value and your whole operational belief system is based in deep unworthiness. Perfectionists are the shiniest, prettiest and most successful hollow, sad, chronically discontented people around. By outward appearance, they “have it all together” and usually don’t ever find a reason to go to therapy or deal with the childhood issues now dominating their lives. They die with the lie. Ouch.

Sorry, not sorry if I just pierced a veil of denial and called into question all of your life choices, relationships and your very identity. Healing often feels like you’re dying before it gets better. Many a breakthrough started as a breakdown. And, to be frank, a large piece of you will have to die if you wanna live an authentic life, free from the bondage of unrelenting angst and self-doubt. The truth that hurts is the same truth that sets you free.

Why Perfectionism Is So Damn Sneaky

Perfectionists are very… VERY attractive. Not just physically beautiful, but charismatic, high-achieving, talented, smart, dedicated, powerful and often kind and gracious. Wow. Knock my socks off! I think I fell in love just thinking about it. Mmm!

However, while these people were busy dominating life, collecting gold stars and taking selfies with their trophies they were constantly reenacting and reinforcing the emotional abandonment that began when they were ignored or abused as children. Trying to make satisfying human connection through achievement and self-neglect becomes a way of life. Understandably so – they were literally trained, conditioned and indoctrinated to be this way for decades while their brains and identities were forming.

Now do you understand why so many perfectionists are emotionally unavailable? They’re not in a relationship with you. They’re fighting a war inside themselves and losing desperately while thousands of people give them a standing ovation and shower them with praise. Oh, for fuck’s sake, what a diabolical personal hell that is! You ever hear about super successful people committing suicide and being completely baffled by it? Yeah, that shit doesn’t baffle me at all. I get it.

Why Dating A Perfectionist Is Challenging

If the above paragraphs haven’t yet convinced you of the tragic plight of the perfectionist, please consider the following:

If you date a perfectionist, there’s a good chance they’re gonna hold you to the same unrealistic, perfect standards that they had to maintain in an effort to get noticed (or avoid ass-beatings) by unavailable parents. As their partner, you are an extension of them in some sense. And if you’re not perfect, then that reflects poorly on them. It threatens their flawlessly manicured identity and you’ll have to shape up or ship out. Their emotional pain is often so deeply-rooted that 1) it drives all their thoughts and actions and 2) they’re usually oblivious to this fact. Imagine asking a fish about water. It may reply, “What’s water?”

If someone identifies as a perfectionist on a first date, you can ask, “What are you actively doing to recover from that?” If they don’t have an answer, don’t go on a second date. You don’t need a project; you need a whole ass human being with enough self-awareness to know if they’re profoundly wounded or not.

If you are the perfectionist in the relationship, well, maybe it’s time to take a look at that.

Hope For The Perfectionist

So far I’ve described perfectionism in stark relief, which may be offensive to some or paint a picture of it as a fatal flaw. This was not my intention. Perfectionism, like most things, can be very gray and fall on a spectrum. I’m using a dramatic writing style to convey quintessential truths about the nature of perfectionism in hopes that the reader will find a piece of themselves in between the lines.

Perfectionism, like anything else, is something you can heal and recover from. But it takes work. It most certainly doesn’t just go away on it’s own. Remember, perfectionism as a behavior is not the problem. It is merely a symptom of unrest at the core of your being. And it is there where you must go to heal.

If you think that your perfectionism is sabotaging your relationships; if you seem to be chronically attracted to perfectionists (see Why People Stay Stuck or You Don’t Deserve Better), there’s absolutely something you can do about it! And, for better or worse, you are the only person who can do something about it. Here are some actions you can take today to heal yourself, create better relationships and improve your life:

If you have questions, please comment below or contact me directly. I’d love to help.

Published by Adam

Mentor, coach, speaker and educator for over 12 years. I have recovered from and triumphed over many obstacles and afflictions. It brings me tremendous joy to help others overcome similar circumstances so they can live their best lives.

2 thoughts on “Why Perfectionism Ruins Relationships

  1. Reading your articles is a little like taking abnormal psych in college….. I think I see at least a little, and sometimes a lot, of me in every single dysfunction you describe. Some I am recovering from, some are on the “to-do” list, some are on the “to-don’t” list, and the rest I’m probably oblivious to. Recovery doesn’t seem to be a destination….. it’s a way of life. I guess the idea is to at least get to some joy while you’re hacking your way through all this shit.

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