Perfectionism can feel like a never-ending loop of pressure and stress to get it right and to present the best version of yourself or your work. You want to be seen as in control, doing it “right” and with as much grace and grit as possible. Oh, and you’re grateful and never need help or support.
You may also feel like you’re falling short and feel like a failure.
This pattern can put you in a state of fight or flight, leaving you exhausted, anxious, and disconnected from your own self and from others.
But where does perfectionism come from? And how can you heal the wounds that keep you trapped in this cycle?
The Roots of Perfectionism
Perfectionism can be traced back to a variety of sources; If you experienced early childhood trauma or neglect or have attachment injuries, your brain may have adapted to view perfectionism as a way to feel in control and safe.
A common phrase we hear back from women with perfectionist Type-A tendencies is, “I had a great childhood and I haven’t experienced trauma!” However, when we get into the details, we often find the definition of trauma a little skewed.
So, let’s explore together some possible roots, and then we’ll offer some tips for using Internal Family Systems, somatic healing, and brain retraining to break free from this exhausting pattern.
Perfectionism from Attachment Injuries
Attachment injuries refer to emotional wounds that can occur within close relationships, particularly those between a parent or caregiver and a child. These injuries happen when there is a breach of trust, abandonment, betrayal, or neglect during critical moments of need.
As a child you relied on your caregivers for safety, protection, support, how to interpret the world, and for love. In development terms, humans don’t develop logic until between the ages of seven to nine, so until then you experienced the world in absolutes. Your thinking was entirely emotionally based between birth and about seven years old. Your parents were the sun, moon and stars—the entire world was filtered through their eyes and the care they gave to you.
If a caregiver consistently fails to meet a child’s emotional needs, is unpredictable, or even acts in ways that cause harm—yelling, tantrum throwing, blaming, or shaming—it can lead to what have been dubbed as attachment injuries. That is your ability to “attach” to others through trust is “injured.”
This is because your trust for people who are meant to love you is confused as you twist and turn yourself and your behaviors to please your caregivers so that they continue to care for you.
These injuries can have long-lasting effects on an individual’s emotional well-being and their ability to form healthy, secure relationships later in life. It can impact how they view themselves, others, and the world around them.
Attachment injuries can manifest as difficulties in trusting others, fear of abandonment, self-doubt, and challenges with emotional regulation.
Attachment injuries can occur in various types of relationships, not just parent-child bonds. They can happen in romantic partnerships, friendships, and other significant connections. The concept of attachment injuries helps us understand the profound impact of relational experiences on our emotional well-being.
Is it possible to heal from attachment injuries?
Healing from attachment injuries involves recognizing and understanding the impact of these wounds, and rebuilding safety and trust within yourself, something we call reparenting.
By finding safety within yourself and nurturing supportive relationships, you can develop healthier attachment patterns, rebuild trust, and find healing and resilience by retraining your instinctive reactions.
Perfectionism and attachment injuries can present themselves in several ways:
- Insecure Attachment: Children who grow up with caregivers who are inconsistent, unpredictable, or dismissive may develop an insecure attachment style. These children may learn that they need to be perfect to earn love and attention. This can lead to a mindset of perfectionism in adulthood.
- Fear of Abandonment: Individuals with attachment injuries often fear abandonment. They might think that if they make a mistake or fail at something, people will leave them. This fear can lead to perfectionism, as they constantly strive to be perfect to prevent others from leaving.
- Black-and-White Thinking: Attachment injuries can also lead to black-and-white (or all-or-nothing) thinking. This type of thinking can be a defense mechanism to protect oneself from the pain of rejection or abandonment. If someone is either ‘all good’ or ‘all bad’, it becomes easier to manage expectations and potential disappointments.
- Need for Control: Both perfectionism and black-and-white thinking can be ways to exert control over one’s environment or relationships. If someone has experienced attachment injuries, they may feel a heightened need for control to prevent further harm.
- Self-Worth Issues: Perfectionism and black-and-white thinking can also be tied to self-worth issues. People with attachment injuries often struggle with feelings of worthlessness or inadequacy. They may believe that they must be perfect or achieve certain things to be worthy of love and acceptance.
- Over Achieving: If you grew up in an environment where your worth was tied to your achievements or external validation, you may have learned to view perfectionism as a way to prove your value and avoid rejection.
Regardless of the root cause, perfectionism often manifests as a sense of heightened self-criticism and a constant need to avoid mistakes or failure.
When your brain is constantly focused on avoiding failure and criticism, it can be difficult to relax and feel at ease. Unfortunately, this pattern of perfectionism can keep you in a state of fight or flight, triggering the release of stress hormones that can lead to chronic stress, anxiety, and even physical health problems.
But the good news is that there are tools you can use to break free from this cycle.
Stopping Perfectionism with Internal Family Systems
One powerful approach is Internal Family Systems (IFS), which is a therapeutic model that helps you get in touch with the different “parts” of yourself.
When it comes to perfectionism, you may have an “inner critic” part of you that is driving your perfectionistic tendencies. By learning to connect with this part of you, and understand its motivations, you can begin to offer it compassion and understanding. This can help to ease the pressure you feel to be perfect and reduce the sense of fight or flight.
Stopping Perfectionism with Brain Retraining
Another tool that can be helpful for healing perfectionism is brain retraining. This involves using techniques like mindfulness to rewire your brain’s response to triggers as they happen in real time. The key is to be aware of when you’re being triggered and pause before responding, this way you can respond not from an automatic response, but from a place where you get to reframe your perception and perspective of the situation and respond in a way that’s both new, and supportive of a healthier expression.
This retrains the brain to calm itself when triggered at the same time offering new solutions and possibilities to what could have been a familiar and automatic outcome.
Stopping Perfectionism with Nervous System Regulation
When you’re in fight or flight, logic goes offline and you’re flying by old, ingrained habits, or from your emotional center (instant rage anyone?) Relaxation and stress reduction techniques let the nervous system move out of fight or flight, allowing you to think more clearly and appropriately.
By practicing techniques and tools like somatic exercises, journaling, mediations, and breathwork when you aren’t keyed up or triggered, you can start to create more space and unwinding in the body and mind. (You can find all a free library of these nervous system regulation tools in the Your Daily™ app.)
It also trains the nervous system to find relaxation instinctively. This can help you feel more connected and present rather than living in the past or the future, reducing the sense of disconnection that can come from being trapped in a perfectionism loop.
By understanding where your habits come from and trying out new ways to handle your triggers, you can overcome perfectionism. This will help you escape the exhausting cycle of constant tension and instead, bring more relaxation, peace, and happiness into your life.
Healing from perfectionism is a journey, and there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Whether you choose to work on these practices on your own, in a course like our RESET Program, or with a coach or therapist—be gentle with yourself.
Approach yourself like you would a friend and loved one, with compassion and understanding that you’re learning a new habit and those take time and love.
Sent with love from a recovering perfectionist.
- Attachment Injuries: Definition, Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment – Psychology Today
- Attachment Theory – Simply Psychology
- Overcome attachment injury and move forward stronger – HPRC
- Attachment Trauma: Effects, Examples, and How to Heal – PsychCentral
- Relational Hurt or Attachment Injury? How to Tell the Difference – GoodTherapy
- Attachment Trauma in Adults – Sequoia Behavioral Health
- What’s Your Attachment Style Quiz