When discussing Perfectionism with clients, I usually ask them something like "What do you think started this pattern of beliefs and expectations in your life." Of course I'm not expecting them to always know the reason why, but it's interesting to hear the brainstorming that occurs. Some people talk for a few minutes with a lot of "i don't knows" thrown in, while others immediately can list a series of expectations put on them by parents that they believe have led to the perfectionism in their life.
Perfectionism can't always be pinpointed to one person or one moment in time. It can be complex, with a number of factors, experiences, and people involved. One of the prominent ways people seem to develop perfectionism is through other-imposed standards and expectations.
A child learns that by following the expectations and standards of those around her, she is able to avoid an argument, beating, or "make the parent happy" when she is perfect (or perfectly meets the expectations). "Implicit in the social expectations model is the notion that children who are not capable of meeting parental expectations will experience a chronic sense of helplessness and hopelessness as a result of their inability to meet the standards imposed on them...a sense of contingent self-worth is a central aspect of socially prescribed perfectionism" (Elliot & Hewitt, 2002, p. 90). Parents, or others close to us in life, can create a way of life where our self-worth is contingent on our achievement or looks. In this sort of system, we quickly learn that when we fail to achieve, we don't have worth and aren't "ok". Not only are we "not ok", but depression, anxiety, and stress, along with feeling unloved, can result.
Social learning basically suggests that we learn in a social context, through the words and actions (the modeling) of those around us. Even if parents don't put perfectionistic expectations on their children, they can model the "importance" of perfectionistic standards to their children in how they speak about themselves. Children tend to think and speak like their parents do, and when it comes to things that are unhealthy, this modeling is obviously a little dangerous.
Also, interestingly enough, "perfectionism was associated with guilt, psychological distress, and a maladjusted family of origin...correlations that reflected a lack of intimacy and autonomy" (Elliot & Hewitt, 2002, p. 97). I found that interesting. The more controlling and stifling the family is, the more likely perfectionism will develop.
*you can find the rest of my series on perfectionism here.
I will leave it at that for the day.
So what do you think? Did your own family of origin lead to perfectionistic standards in your own life?
Elliot, G.L., & Hewitt, P.L. (2002). Perfectionism: Theory, Research, and Treatment. american psychological association.