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Perfectionism: A Common Result of Childhood Trauma

Shame from trauma can cause us to overcompensate for perceived imperfections.

Key points

  • Perfectionism often stems from inner shame, especially in the aftermath of childhood trauma.
  • Survivors use perfection as a way to counteract or conceal their perceived flaws and vulnerabilities.
  • Cultivating self-awareness and self-compassion and adopting healthier perspectives can help.

Omar grew up one of ten siblings in a crowded Milwaukee apartment complex. He remembers having to fight, sometimes literally, for attention from his parents, both of whom were often stressed and overwhelmed. He learned quickly to minimize emotional struggles or needs, as these seemed to annoy his parents. Instead, good grades, making varsity letters at school, and being the first in his family to master English earned him the praise that his developing soul craved.

In adulthood, Omar was known as a "workaholic" among his friends and coworkers, and his wife jokes that "I never have to pick up his socks because he's never home anyway!"

His work had become his identity, and the accolades that came from that were the sustenance that sustained him. He did not know how to feel OK with himself unless he was achieving—and achieving perfectly. Any mistake was met with ridicule and self-loathing. This was unrealistic for anyone, but to someone who grew up without the message that they are worthy just for being themselves, it's a common result.

Despite so many professional and personal achievements, Omar always felt incomplete and defective. "I will feel OK for a little bit after finishing a project or getting an award, but then I'm back to just feeling, it's hard to explain, like I am not good enough. I know that sounds weird coming from me."

Source: Steve DiMatteo / Pixabay
Source: Steve DiMatteo / Pixabay

In truth, it doesn't. In fact, some of the highest-achieving and perfectionistic individuals are hiding their inner shame. While this does not mean all perfectionism comes from inner shame, there is a common link (Howard et al., 2023).

Perfectionism often emerges as a coping mechanism in response to the shame that comes from childhood trauma, as individuals strive to gain a sense of control and security in their environment. Rooted in fear of failure or abandonment, perfectionism becomes a way to avoid criticism, rejection, or further trauma by striving for flawlessness in every aspect of life. However, this relentless pursuit of perfection can lead to high levels of stress, anxiety, and self-criticism, ultimately hindering emotional well-being and preventing individuals from experiencing genuine satisfaction or fulfillment. Recognizing and addressing that perfectionism is often a response to childhood trauma can help in fostering self-compassion, resilience, and developing healthier coping strategies.

Perfectionism often stems from inner shame, especially in the aftermath of childhood trauma (Maté & Maté, 2022). Driven by a deep-seated belief of unworthiness or inadequacy, individuals may strive for perfection as a way to counteract or conceal their perceived flaws and vulnerabilities. This relentless pursuit of flawlessness becomes a coping mechanism to manage feelings of shame and self-doubt, as individuals seek external validation and acceptance to quell their inner turmoil. However, perfectionism ultimately perpetuates a cycle of self-criticism and anxiety, reinforcing the underlying shame and preventing authentic self-acceptance. Recognizing perfectionism as a response to inner shame is crucial in fostering self-compassion and healing from past traumas.

Healing from perfectionism involves cultivating self-awareness and self-compassion and adopting healthier perspectives on success and failure. Here are several strategies to support this process:

  • Start by considering whether you have realistic goals: We often compare ourselves to others, and then, when we fall short, assume we are inadequate. But this is not only unrealistic, it is unfair. Although it can feel very uncomfortable at first, slowly start to allow yourself to embrace vulnerability and authenticity. Admitting shortcomings is not only a normal part of being human but can also be seen as a sign of maturity.
  • Practice self-compassion: Cultivate kindness and understanding toward yourself, recognizing that imperfection is a natural part of being human. Treat yourself with the same empathy and compassion you would offer to a friend facing similar challenges.
  • Start small: Slowly start to become OK with recognizing that you make mistakes occasionally and that this is OK. By shifting your perspective, you can start to become more comfortable with the idea of making occasional mistakes and recognize that it does not diminish your worth or value as a person.

Reach out to trusted friends, family members, or mental health professionals for support and guidance. Therapy can provide valuable tools and strategies for navigating perfectionism and healing from underlying emotional wounds, but it is not for everyone. There are many tools along the path to healing.

By implementing these strategies, individuals can gradually shift away from perfectionism and toward a healthier and more compassionate relationship with themselves and others.


Howard TLM, Williams MO, Woodward D, Fox JRE. The relationship between shame, perfectionism and Anorexia Nervosa: A grounded theory study. Psychol Psychother. 2023;96(1):40–55. doi:10.1111/papt.12425

Maté, G., & Maté, D. (2022). The Myth of Normal: Trauma, Illness, and Healing in a Toxic Culture. New York: Avery

Marici M, Clipa O, Runcan R, Pîrghie L. (2023) Is Rejection, Parental Abandonment or Neglect a Trigger for Higher Perceived Shame and Guilt in Adolescents?. Healthcare (Basel). 11(12):1724. Published 2023 Jun 12. doi:10.3390/healthcare11121724

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