Idaho, Iowa, Des Moines
March 16, 2024

‘Why Am I a Perfectionist?’: 8 Hidden Reasons for Your Pursuit of Perfection

If you’re a perfectionist, chances are you know it. You might have even tried to do something about it in the past. Maybe it’s straining your relationships, causing burnout at work, or creating cycles of anxiety you don’t know what to do with.

Even if you want to find solutions to perfectionism in your life, the root causes of it may still feel like a mystery to you. Figuring out what causes your perfectionism can give you insights on how to overcome it.

what causes perfectionism

What causes perfectionism?

If you’re asking yourself “why am I a perfectionist?” you’re not alone. According to the American Psychological Association, perfectionism has increased drastically in recent years. However, many people still don’t fully understand what drives their perfectionistic tendencies.

Here are 8 potential causes of your perfectionism. 

  1. Anxiety

Anxiety and perfectionism often overlap. In fact, anxiety is the #1 cause of perfectionism. People with anxiety tend to struggle with things like excessive worry about potential mistakes or imperfections in their work, dread about meeting high standards, and rigid thinking patterns (ie constantly exceeding expectations is the only acceptable outcome, and anything less means they’re a failure.) Anxiety tells you that the only way to avoid all the potentially scary outcomes is to be perfect.

  1. Your upbringing

If you grew up in a family or environment with sky-high expectations, harsh criticism, or minimal room for mistakes, you may have developed perfectionism in order to be loved and accepted. Think: the parent who screams until they’re red in the face at their kid’s soccer games or punishes their child for getting a B on an exam. When you learn at a young age that failure or weakness is not tolerated, you’re much more likely to develop perfectionism as a coping mechanism.

  1. Traumatic experiences

A history or trauma, including events that have led to PTSD or c-PTSD, can contribute to perfectionism. When you experience trauma, your brain begins to perceive everything as a threat. Unresolved or untreated trauma can morph into a state of constant nervous system mayhem. Perfectionism is sometimes a coping mechanism people use to regain a felt sense of control and safety in an otherwise chaotic lived experience.

  1. Fear of failure

Nobody wants to be judged or humiliated. However, perfectionists in particular are deeply afraid of failing, being rejected, or being seen in a negative light.

Perfectionism is a mask that you use to protect you from having difficult feelings or facing difficult consequences. By setting unrealistically high standards for yourself, you may be attempting to avoid criticism or judgment.

  1. Lack of self-trust

Perfectionism often boils down to a desire to avoid negative emotions. I’ve written about this same desire to avoid tough emotions impacting people-pleasing behaviors. It’s the same thing with perfectionism. This fear is rooted in a lack of self-trust: you ultimately don’t believe you’ll be able to handle or survive hard situations or emotions that may arise when people see you aren’t perfect.

  1. High levels of self-criticism

If you find yourself regularly locked in internal self-critical battles, you likely have low self-esteem. It may be difficult to give yourself needed validation and confirmation that you’re a good or valuable person. You may strive for perfectionism as a way to outsource validation and affirmation that you matter. You may believe that if you’re perfect (or close to it), you’ll be accepted and valued by others, and therefore by yourself. 

Root causes of perfectionism
  1. Learned beliefs about your worth 

Our culture defines “success” as the ability to constantly hustle and achieve. The “go go go” attitude in America and western civilization rewards people for stretching themselves to a breaking point in order to achieve more. So it makes sense if you’ve learned that you need to be high-functioning, productive, and perfect in order to be worthwhile. This is especially true for people in cutthroat or fast-paced jobs, whose managers and environment often encourage this overly ambitious mentality.

  1. Desire for status or power

There’s a (often false) narrative in our society about who gets to be happy and secure in the world. Usually, it’s high-functioning people with privilege. So if you’re naturally ambitious or want status or power, you may have picked up perfectionism as a way to achieve your goals.

I want to note there’s nothing wrong with wanting status or power. Our culture highly emphasizes the moral superiority of those who have status and power, and it’s natural to want to be liked and respected. However, this messaging can sometimes muddle your true desires and values. It’s easy to get caught up trying to live the life you’re told you should be living instead of living a life that feels aligned with your core values. 

Therapy or coaching can offer further insight and guidance into the causes of perfectionism.

If you’re interested in delving into the root causes of your perfectionism, I’m here to help. As a coach and therapist for anxious millennials, I specialize in ways to understand and break free from the grip of perfectionism.

I’m here to help you:

  • Address old narratives about yourself and your worth
  • Challenge beliefs that are keeping you stuck 
  • Process underlying or hidden trauma
  • Redirect and reframe cognitive errors such as black-and-white thinking
  • Replace unhelpful coping mechanisms with better, more helpful ones
  • Implement healthy stress management techniques
  • Find peace in showing up exactly as you are, even when it’s less than perfect

Learn more about my therapy services (including EMDR and talk therapy) if you’re located in Idaho or Iowa. For all other locations, check out my coaching services. My coaching program offers all the same expertise, tools, and guidance as therapy in a more direct and goal-oriented approach that you can benefit from anywhere. 

Reach out today to schedule a complimentary consultation and see if we’re a good fit. Let’s start building a better future together. 

Meet the author

Danielle Wayne

Danielle is an anxiety therapist and perfectionism coach. She specializes in helping busy millennials dial down their anxiety and ADHD, so they can perform at their best. Danielle has been featured on Apartment Therapy, SparkPeople, Lifewire, and Now Art World. When Danielle isn't helping her clients, she's playing video games or spending time with her partner and step children.

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