How toxic parents create perfectionism in children

Have you seen the movie, ‘Mommy Dearest’ with Faye Dunaway in the leading role? It recounts the upbringing of Christina Crawford, the daughter of Hollywood starlet, Joan Crawford.

Watching that movie brought a lot of tears in me and stirred negative emotions in my body. I’m not saying that my mom was like Joan Crawford, but the diva’s behavior reminded me of how strict my mom was with me when it came to cleaning duties. For example, we see Joan on her knees scrubbing the floors like a mad woman.

The floors are very clean, the house is luxurious, so there’s no need for such a hard work. I recall how strict my mom was at home. And how determined she was to clean floors until she could see her reflection in them.

It was normal for me and my brothers to clean cupboards, the doors in the house, windows and every corner of our room before Christmas and Easter. When we would drop food on the floor or make a mess in our rooms, we had to hide from her. We knew she’d either hit us or yell at us for a long time. Both options were hard to accept so, in order not to provoke her, we had to make sure we’d never give her a reason to get mad.

It took me many years to understand that being messy, having a dirty room, getting sick or even gaining some weight is acceptable. I’m still sensitive when it comes to talking about my weight or cringe at the thought of sitting on a weighing scale. However, nowadays I’m not exercising daily or obsessing about the size of my stomach each time I pass a mirror. My stomach is fine however it is.

How perfectionism is modeled in children?

Ever since the children of narcissists are small, they start to believe that they’re loved only if they prove they’re perfect. They are given the message that they need to do great things to be accepted or tolerated by the parent.

If they fail to meet a certain standard of behavior, they’re made to feel worthless. The message they get from the narcissist is, ‘Your worth is in your performance and not in your personality. I don’t care who you are but how you make me look in front of others’.

I recall how my mother would tell me stories of her friends’ children and their high achievements in school. She’d talk about them so often as if she knew them intimately. And, in the end, she’d add, ‘Why can’t you get similar grades like her? You’re smart enough to do it.’ Or ‘Why can’t you work harder? They’re so many bright students out there. What do they have that you don’t?’

By asking me all these questions, my mom sent me the message that I am unworthy of love because I wasn’t the way other kids were.

It is funny how I remember these discussions so clearly, as if she drilled each hurtful word into my skull.

‘Many people think of perfectionism as striving to be your best, but it is not about self-improvement; it’s about earning approval and acceptance.’
                                                                                 Brene Brown

Do you suffer from perfectionism?

If you grew up with unrealistic parents who set absurd standards of behavior for you, then you might struggle with perfectionism. You don’t have to think too much about this question. Realize if you believe you are worthy of unconditional love no matter what you have done in life. Is unconditional love something that needs to be earned? Or is it just a gift given to us freely? You’ll know the answer to these questions.

There are other questions to consider: do you believe you are worthy of living a happy life? Are you worthy of a fulfilling relationship or are you having a hard time letting someone close to you? Write down in a journal what you discovered about yourself.

How to heal perfectionism ?

Firstly, you need to realize that no matter what you’ll do, you can never change your parents. I know that you want them to love you for who you are and not for what they wanted you to be.

However, if they are narcissists (or toxic), nothing that you will do will make them accept who you are. They will always try to find ways to bring your confidence down in order for you to change. They’ll criticize your lifestyle and your choices to make you give in into their demands. But you need to understand that they act like this because they don’t love themselves.

They are constantly telling themselves they are bad to the core and the way to change this ‘badness’ is by changing other people. See, by changing their kids or others in their life, they prove themselves that they too can change. They prove that they are good people. ‘I changed someone so I must be a great person. I am worthy of love.’

This is only an illusion and I hope you don’t fall for it. They can’t reach self-love by putting others down or changing their personalities. They can only change the reality within themselves. Until they understand this and take action to do some changes within, they won’t be able to have a healthy relationship with you.

But what should I do? How can I change this perfectionism? It destroyed my life and continues to do so, you might say. Yes, perfectionism is a self-destructive trait and nothing good can come out of living a life under the extreme burden of wanting to be perfect.

  • First, you need to understand that you struggle with the need to be perfect or act perfect to get validation, love or support from others. If you manage to stop yourself in those moments when you let yourself fall prey to perfectionist thinking (ex. ‘I can only get that job if I wear an Armani suit during the interview’ or ‘He can only love me if I am perfectly confident, independent and never make any mistakes with him’), then little by little you can detach yourself from this toxic trait.

Remember that, to change an unhealthy habit, one needs to recognize the faulty thinking and the behavior behind it.

  • Then, I’d advice you to seek therapy, maybe cognitive therapy that changes the thinking and then, the behavior. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy goes deep into your mind and releases the limiting beliefs that you grew up with.
  • Lastly, you need to say ‘no’ to the toxic relationship you have with your parents. Cut the contact with such people if they keep hurting you! Remember that, by giving yourself a good, peaceful life without any toxic relationships, you pave the way to a better future for you and your children. You won’t do good only for yourself but for the future generations, too.

The way you act now will have a great impact over your future. So, start with the most important relationship of your life-that with your parents. Decide if they are toxic, narcissistic or dysfunctional. And, if you can have a relationship with them. Then, either cut the ties with them or limit the contact you have with them. If you find yourself unable to do that, get counseling from a therapist specialized in narcissism or narcissistic family relationships.

All in all, toxic parents set absurd expectations for their children. These expectations make the kids feel unworthy of the parents’ love. Thus, they will grow into insecure adults who’ll be terrified of letting people down.

But things can change and you can become the happy adult you were meant to become, if your parents were not as demanding or toxic. And this can happen only if you take action.

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Recommended reading for tackling perfectionism:

‘Too perfect: when being in control gets out of control’, Allan E. Mallinger

‘Overcoming perfectionism: finding the key to balance and self-acceptance’, Ann Smith