NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Friday, November 18, 2022

Understanding How Parental Conditional Love is Connected to Perfectionism and Shame

If you struggle with perfectionism, you might not understand why.  This article is about growing up with parents who give conditional love, and the connection between conditional love, perfection, and shame.

What Causes Perfectionism and Shame?
The feeling that you need to be perfect and the shame that comes with that are often linked to conditional love based on your accomplishments or being gratifying to your parents (see my article: The Connection Between Perfectionism and Shame).

Conditional Love, Perfection, Shame

Since there is no such thing as a perfect human being, these individuals grow up feeling ashamed whenever they're not perfect.

The roots of perfectionism and shame often include some of the following factors:
  • The parents' excessive demands for high achievements with conditional love based on those achievements
  • The parents' criticism as well as shame-inducing and controlling behavior when the child doesn't live up to the parents' perfectionistic standards
  • The child's feelings of inadequacy, low self esteem, shame and guilt for falling short of the parents' expectations
  • The parents' excessive praise for achievements which they believe reflect well on them (conversely, if the child doesn't meet the parents' expectations, the parents feel this reflects poorly on them, which is why they often become angry and withhold love from the child).
This dynamic sets up an ongoing negative cycle of:
  • Parents making demands of the child for perfection
  • The child trying to be perfect for the parents but usually falling short (no one can be perfect)
  • Parents withholding their love because the child hasn't met their demands
  • The child feeling unlovable and ashamed
  • Then cycle begins again
During those times when the child meets the parents' expectations (e.g, the child gets all A's on their report card), the parents are excessive in their praise, which sets up the child, who wants to be loved, to try to meet those standards every time to get the praise.

The demand for perfection can occur in many areas of a child's life:
  • Perfect grades in school
  • Perfect performance in sports
  • Perfect eating habits
  • Looking perfect, as defined by the parents' standards
  • Getting the highest grades in the class
  • Being chosen as the valedictorian
  • And so on
Perfectionism and Shame in Adult Romantic Relationships
Children who grow up with parents who demand perfection as a condition for love will usually go above and beyond to try to meet their parents' expectations.  

Later on, as adults, they often choose emotionally unavailable partners who reinforce that they're only lovable or, more often unlovable. This is because these partners provide conditional love--like the parents did.  Usually the conditional love includes gratifying the partner's narcissistic needs.

More often than not, people who are perfectionists have internalized their parents' conditional love at such a deep level that they might not see the emotional abuse they endured with their parents or, as adults, with their romantic partners.

You might wonder why someone who was raised under these circumstances would choose a partner who was so like their parents. The answer is that these choices are made on an unconscious level as these individuals gravitate to partners who are familiar to them.

Clinical Vignette
The following clinical vignette illustrates the long term consequences of growing up in a home where parents demanded perfection.  This vignette is a composite of many cases with all identifying information removed. It is typical of many clinical cases where a person grew up with conditional love based on his achievements.

When Ron was a child, he often heard his father say things like, "If you can't do it right, don't do it at all," which made Ron anxious when he tried to do something new.  If Ron didn't understand it immediately, his father became impatient with Ron and yell.  

During those times, Ron's mother would withdraw because she was intimidated by the father. So, she wasn't able to defend Ron or provide him with emotional support.

Ron's father was the Little League coach for Ron's team.  Whenever Ron was at bat, he would be so nervous because he knew his father would yell at him in front of the other children if he missed the ball.  

After several incidents where Ron felt humiliated in front of his friends, he quit the team.  Then his father criticized him for being "a quitter," but Ron preferred that to having to deal his father's anger and disappointment every time he was at bat.

By the time Ron was in his mid-teens, his friends began dating girls. Ron felt too self conscious and ashamed to talk to any of the girls at school.  He acted like he didn't care about dating.  He pretended to be so busy with schoolwork that he didn't have time for girls. But, inwardly, he felt ashamed and annoyed with himself for not being able to talk to the girl he liked.

The following year there was another girl he had a crush on.  She liked him too. She was assertive so she asked him out and they became boyfriend and girlfriend until they each left for different colleges.  

By the time Ron sought help in therapy, he was in his early 30s and he had been in two serious relationships.  He was a little more confident than when he was a teenager, but most of the time the women he liked were the ones who pursued him.

Ron knew his perfectionism and shame were holding him back and it was surfacing in all areas of his life--his relationships, his work and in his friendships.

Whenever he was given a new task to do at work, he would get anxious because he was afraid of making a mistake. He could almost hear his father's voice scolding him for not doing the task perfectly (see my article: Overcoming Your Fear of Making a Mistake).

His therapist recommended that they do Ego State Therapy, which is a type of Parts Work similar to Internal Family Systems (IFS).  Ego States Therapy was developed by John and Helen Watkins in the 1970s, '80s and '90s.  

She asked Ron to remember a recent time when he felt he had to do something perfectly and where this was accompanied by shame (see my article: Shame is at the Root of Most Emotional Problems).

Ron remembered something that came up at work when he was attempting to solve a technical problem for the first time.  He remembered feeling that sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach and a heaviness in his chest as if his father was watching him and being critical.

When Ron was immersed in the memory along with the emotions and related bodily sensations, his therapist asked him to go back in time to the earliest time when he felt this way (this technique is called the Affect Bridge).

Experiential Trauma Therapy 

Ron's earliest memory of feeling this way was when he was four years old. His father was teaching him to play a board game for the first time and Ron wasn't understanding it.  He had the same emotions, sinking feeling and sense of heaviness.

Then, his therapist asked Ron to imagine someone who could have been there for him and who would have been an ally.  She added that it was clear there had been no one there for him at the time, but she wanted him to use his imagination.

After thinking for a bit, Ron said he would have wanted his first grade teacher, Ms. Simms to be there. This technique of imagining a nurturing figure who would have been helpful is called an imaginal interweave (for an explanation of imaginal interweaves and other forms of internal resources see this article I wrote).

His therapist asked what Ms. Simms would have done if she had been there and saw his father criticizing him and making Ron feel ashamed.  Ron said she would told his father in a polite, tactful way that this was not the way to talk to a child.  He also said he knew his father had a lot of respect for Ms. Simms so he would have listened to her.

Experiential Trauma Therapy

Ron and his therapist continued to work this way and, over time, Ron was able to work through his shame and his need to be perfect.  

Along the way, he also realized his paternal grandfather behaved in the same way with his father, so it was no surprise that Ron's father internalized this way of being and perpetuated it with Ron (see my article: Intergenerational Trauma).

Gradually, Ron overcame his traumatic experiences with experiential trauma therapy.

The vignette above is an abbreviated summary of one way an experiential trauma therapist would work with trauma (see my article: Why Experiential Therapy is More Effective Than Talk Therapy to Overcome Trauma).

The effect of perfectionism and shame show up in many different ways.  The vignette above is just one way.  

As mentioned before, many people, who grow up under these circumstances, often pick romantic partners who are similar to their parents, who demanded perfection.  These partners usually have narcissistic qualities that they have no insight into.

A person, who grew up being shamed for not being perfect, has a blind spot with regard to picking narcissistic partners.  

These narcissistic partners usually withhold their love if the individual isn't gratifying enough or doesn't make them look good in some way.  And, typical of people with narcissistic traits, they lack empathy for the partner they are shaming. This is because they don't relate to their partner as if the partner was a separate individual--as opposed to an extension of themself.

The Affect Bridge allows clients to connect emotional experiences they are having in the here-and-now with their origins from the past.  

The imaginal interweave, like was the first grade teacher, Ms. Simms in the vignette, gives clients a new healing experience that gets internalized (see my article: Developing Internal Resources and Coping Skills).

Imaginal interweaves are used throughout the course of experiential trauma therapy to counteract the effects of growing up with messages about perfection and shame. 

When to Get Help in Trauma Therapy
If you feel held back in your life by unresolved traumatic experiences, you could benefit from working with an experiential therapist who does trauma work (see my article: What is a Trauma Therapist?).

Once you're free from your traumatic history, you can lead a more fulfilling life.

About Me
I am a licensed New York City psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR, AEDP, EFT, Somatic Experiencing and Sex Therapist.

am an experiential trauma therapist who works with individual adults and couples. I have helped clients to overcome trauma.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.