It is difficult to deal with a narcissist when you are a grown, independent, fully functioning adult. The children of narcissists have an especially difficult burden, for they lack the knowledge, power, and resources to deal with their narcissistic parents without becoming their victims. Whether cast into the role of Scapegoat or Golden Child, the Narcissist's Child never truly receives that to which all children are entitled: a parent's unconditional love. Start by reading the 46 memories--it all began there.

Friday, July 4, 2014

The Perfection Trap

How good is “good enough”? Isn’t this a question that plagues us all?

If you grew up with a narcissistic parent, this is probably something that has crossed your mind numerous times, but have you ever tried to really answer it?

Have you ever tried to define perfection? “That which is without flaw,” seems to fill the bill but for one thing…without flaw in whose eyes? That makes perfection a very subjective thing and, because it is so subjective, virtually unattainable.

Perfection is a pernicious, amorphous, unachievable goal that locks you into a struggle that is impossible to win. Seeking perfection can be your entire life, with no feeling achievement whatsoever. Pursuing perfection (as opposed to excellence) is a guaranteed way to live your life feeling like a failure.

My NM was a fault finder…really a fault finder…so much so, if she couldn’t see a flaw in something, she would invent one. But that was seldom necessary because she set standards (always for others, not for herself) that were impossible to achieve. It took me years to figure it out, but the reality was, nobody was supposed to succeed…if you succeeded, the bar was too low, so she simply raised it and discounted the previous achievement in light of the new bar. It wasn’t enough to get some As on the report card, they had to be all As…and when they were all As, then it was discounted because not all of the subjects were difficult and academic…what value is an A in PE, even if PE is a required course and a kid can’t get out of it and take astrophysics in its place? Of course, advanced academic courses or subjects she didn’t know anything about were discounted as useless, so an A in French…even awards for French…were of no consequence. There was always…always…a way to discount an achievement and make it fall short of perfection.

When your parent is a perfectionist, mistakes are never allowed. Never mind that mistakes are the most valuable learning tool you can ever have, the perfectionist parent pooh-poohs that and expects perfect performance from you the first time, every time, whether it is hitting a baseball, mopping a floor, or learning the multiplication tables. If you don’t have it and have it 100% by the time that parent expects it, regardless of such things as eyesight, inexperience, physical strength, or intellectual affinity, then you are deficient in some way: lazy, inattentive, stupid, wilful, obstinate, careless…there are a whole litany of adjectives to describe the NParent’s perception of a child as inadequate and disappointing because the child failed to measure up to that parent’s expectation…and that is what it is all about: expectation.

When you grow up with the idea that nothing is acceptable but perfection and you have never been able to achieve that perfection, you grow up with a perception of yourself as being fatally flawed: you can never do anything right, no matter how hard you try. Perfectionists think that is supposed to be an incentive to you to try even harder…approval is out there, dangling just out of reach, just waiting for you to achieve that perfection. But for a lot of people, it just doesn’t work that way.

If I walked you to the edge of a steep cliff and said to you “Fly!” you would look at me like I was crazy. If I then started calling you names and berated you for being cowardly, unwilling to make an honest effort, and a shirker, you would be certain I was crazy because you would know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that what I was expecting of you was not possible. You not only wouldn’t try it, you wouldn’t even feel bad about not trying it, would you?

And yet when our parents set impossible tasks before us, we tried and, rather than be rewarded for our efforts, we were castigated for our failures. As a child, I was afraid to put my face in the water, which severely inhibited my ability to learn how to swim. The moment the littlest bit of water got in my nose, I totally panicked, complete with screaming and windmill arms. It wasn’t pretty.

When my grandmother learned why I failed Red Cross swimming lessons at the age of 12, she went out and bought me a nose clip type of nose plug…and when I took the lessons again, the problem was solved and I learned to swim. My mother, by contrast, derided my need for the nose clip, saying she would never have bought me one, and then derided me further by jibing that it took me until 12 years of age and taking the swimming lessons twice to learn how to “dog paddle.” My sainted little brother had taught himself to swim in a bay near our house, without a nose clip, and he could swim underwater better than I could swim on top.

In retrospect, I realize that if I had made the Olympic swimming team, my mother would have found a way to minimize it, to find fault with me or my performance, and cloak the whole thing in the guise of it being for my own good because if I don’t know where the faults in my performance are, I cannot fix them and be perfect.

Sounds rational and logical right up to the point that you acknowledge that, by and large, perfection is not an attainable goal for humans and aspiring to perfection is a guaranteed way to make yourself neurotic…or worse.

The absolute worst part of this is, if we were raised by a parent like this, we internalize it and take it into adulthood with us and we become the insatiable beast expecting perfection of ourselves. It affects different people different ways, but I have seen a lot of people who respond to it with paralysis…and I am sure you know some who have done the same thing: bright, talented, capable people who don’t even come close to their potential because they are afraid of failing…and they avoid failing by not really trying. Some self-sabotage, others simply never set their sights above easily attainable goals, and other simply don’t make any effort at all and just drift through life.

How different might their lives have been if their parents viewed mistakes as learning tools, expected them, and focussed on the effort and what was achieved rather than that which was not? There are an awful lot of us who would rather not try than risk failure or even partial success: it is guaranteed success or nothing at all.

Harbouring the belief that you must succeed wildly on your first effort can paralyze a person. It can put you in the perpetual planning stage or it can put you into a kind of limbo where you procrastinate until you forget, and when you are reminded, you punish yourself with guilt until you can forget again. (I am sure you can guess how I know this…) Writing this blog has helped me to silence the voice of my NM, that internalized voice that doesn’t want me to write drafts or proof read or change anything because it “should have been done perfectly the first damned time.” (And fast, too…taking time for research is proof, to that perfectionist ghost in my head, that I don’t know what I am talking about…if I need to research it, I must not know it already.)

Some of us, instead of succumbing to the nagging voice of doom in our psyches, rebel. To hell with perfection, I’ll do it my way. Ok…maybe good in concept, but if your way turns out to be truly slap-dash and half-assed, you’ve accomplished nothing of value except, perhaps, a rather childish bit of rebellion and acting out. There is a right way to do some things (generally measured by the outcome) and nobody wants to eat off inadequately washed dishes or sleep on sheets that haven’t been changed since the end of Desert Storm. Not trying, not making a sincere effort to do a good job of something is a form of rebellion and it doesn’t serve you any better than paralysis.

To get out of being stuck between paralysis and rebellion, I had to completely re-think my attitudes and beliefs about achievement, effort, accomplishment and come to some real-world assessments of my skills, abilities, interests and talents. I had to learn to create realistic expectations of myself because that, when you drill down to the core of the issue, is what it is all about: expectations. The Ns in your life have expectations of you and you did not meet them…and once you have internalized their voices, you have expectations of yourself that you will never, ever be able to meet, expectations of perfection, the definition of which get adjusted with every success so that it does not include that success.

I had to remind myself that being good at something doesn’t happen overnight. It took me time and many failures to learn to ride a bicycle, roller skate, swim, and do a whole host of other things…I didn’t just get up and do them perfectly the first time. It also took me an entire winter of bruised tail bones and sore ankles to come to the realization that, pretty as it looked when others did it, pirouetting on the ice in pretty little ice skating dresses was probably not going to be a part of my future. You also have to know your limits…and when to quit.

It was not easy to look at my mistakes as learning experiences. Due to my conditioning as a child, I felt humiliated by them, believed others were secretly snickering behind my back, and saw failure in my future. But for some odd reason, I was able to help others to not see their errors as harbingers of doom but as clues to heed in fine tuning whatever it was they were trying to achieve “Ok, you now know that that doesn’t work, so next time, don’t do that, try something different…” And somewhere along the line, I began hearing that voice in my head, overlaying the one that kept haranguing me for my ineptitude.

At one point it dawned on me that I was judging myself by the standards of another person, not by my own. I was ok with other people making mistakes and learning from them, but I wasn’t ok with me doing the same, which finally struck me as absurd. From then on, I began a conscious dialog with myself, even sometimes saying aloud “ok, that didn’t work…wonder if this will…” so that I could consciously imprint the idea of mistakes, errors, failures, as learning tools. When I first moved to Johannesburg I couldn’t understand why I had suddenly become so inept in the kitchen. At first I suspected it was a subconscious rebellion on my part because I had come to Joburg kicking and screaming in protest (my husband was transferred and I did not want to leave Cape Town). There were some problems with the stovetop and the oven, but even after those were fixed, the food problems continued, mostly the food being undercooked…there was more than once that a roast had to be plunked, raw in the middle, into the microwave to be finished and the potatoes came off the stove hard as little rocks. This went on for months…gradually I increased the cooking time of everything except microwaved foods, using the errors—the degree of unacceptable rawness—as a guideline to fine tuning the cooking and finally, after about a year of continual adjustments, the food started coming to the table properly. The failures were the clues that helped me get it right. (And a couple of years later I discovered that Johannesburg is higher above sea level than Denver, Colorado, which was the underlying problem: high altitudes require longer cooking times!)

The human psyche is an amazing thing. My NexH was also inculcated with the expectation of perfection but how he dealt with that was like my NM…the problem was never, ever him. He learned to drive a manual in the military and the shift point on those old trucks was 2000 rpm; his first car with a manual was a Ford Pinto, and the shift point on that thing was also 2000 rpm. But I had a Triumph TR-6…and eventually I had to take the spare set of keys away from him because he was ruining my clutch and transmission…in insisted that cars had to be shifted at 2000 rpm, even though the TR required 3000 rpm for a smooth shift. HE was perfect, it was the car that was at fault. Since he believed he was making no mistake, he could not learn from the ones he was making. When I had the stove replaced (it really was defective…it shut down just as water reached the boiling point) but the food didn’t improve, the only thing I could look to was myself…what was I doing wrong and how do I use my mistakes as a way to guide me to getting it right? The Ex, unfortunately, ended up losing access to my car because he would not acknowledge that the car worked fine for me, so there must be something wrong in the way he was driving it, seek out and acknowledge his errors, then adjust.

While my learning to accept mistakes as learning tools rather than devastating pronouncements on my competence was a useful, healthy thing, it got me to thinking about the whole subject of mistakes and expectations. And one morning, while reading an article about people who whose adult lives were negatively affected by their narcissistic parents, a thought came to me…what about our expectations of our parents?

It was a bit of an earth shaker for me because I have long operated on the premise that my mother was a poor parent and her poor parenting had set me up for a lot a difficulty in my life, both as a child and as an adult. And while I still do not step back from that assessment, I now had a new insight: a lot of the suffering I endured as a result of her parenting came from within…it came from my expectations of her!

ACoNs may have expectations of their parents that, because they did not have functional childhoods, they have no idea if those expectations are reasonable or not. Their expectations, in fact, are based on what they wanted in a parent and actually have nothing to do with the reality of who and what their parents are. For each of us there is an individual definition of “perfect,” and each of us wanted a perfect parent, based on our own definition of the word. Our parents did not meet up with our expectations. Whether or not the expectations were reasonable, whether or not the level of our parents’ dysfunction was mild or severe, we set the expectations…sometimes in retrospect…and our parents did not measure up.

Are we, then, then guilty of the same sin our dysfunctional parents perpetrated upon us? They set up expectations of perfection that had nothing to do with the reality of us, our abilities, talents, interests…they set up expectations of perfection for us that were based on their desires, not ours. But are we not doing the same in having expectations of our parents that are based on our desires rather than the reality of their abilities, talents, interests? You can say, on the one hand, that people should not have children if they aren’t willing to sacrifice all to be a good parent, but it just isn’t as simple as that…and we all, deep in our hearts, know that.

I had a heated discussion with my daughter once, a discussion in which she called me out on some of the things I did to discipline and control her when she was acting out in her teens. She was angry, she was blaming…and I was listening. When she took a breath I asked her “If what I did was wrong, then tell me what I should have done? What would have worked? What would have gotten you to stop cutting school and sneaking out of the house? You tell me…if I was wrong, then what was the right thing to do?” She had no answer.

So what could your parents have done differently and would those things be true to their inner selves. Oscar Wilde once said “Selfishness is not living your life as you wish, it is asking others to live their lives as you wish.” So how many of us are finding fault in our parents not because they lived their lives as they wished, but because they failed to live their lives as WE wished? They were not the kinds of parents we wanted…or even needed…but is our continued angst based on that fact or on the fact that they failed to live up to the ideal we have each constructed in our minds as the “perfect” parent. Just how much of our pain comes from our expectations of our parents rather than those parents themselves?

At this point, someone is bound to think “but we have a right to expect certain things of our parents!” Do we? What do we have a right to expect? Food, shelter, clothing…certainly. We have a right to have our human rights respected, although many people (and even whole cultures) deny that children have human rights. Do we have a right to expect fairness? Do we even have a right to expect love? Do we have a right to expect any person to give us that which they do not have or even that which they do not wish to give? How righteous is our anger and pain if it is based on unrealistic expectations? When you expect a snake to dance a jig, is your disappointment caused by your expectation or the snake’s failure to perform?

Lest you think otherwise, this is not about letting your Ns off the hook. This is about examining your expectations, particularly your expectations of perfection, and determining what is unreasonable and letting that go. Whether it is an expectation of yourself, your parent(s), your spouse, your kids, boss, friends, government…your disappointments are all rooted in your expectations, both reasonable and unreasonable. And you can reduce the amount of pain and disappointment in your life by the simple expedient of examining what you are expecting, what you have expected, and letting go of the expectations that were unreasonable in the first place and the disappointments the caused.

The easiest way to determine if a disappointment is reasonable or not is to simply ask if it is attainable, taking into consideration the limitations of the person(s) involved. Would you be disappointed if your toddler couldn’t hit a home run in regulation baseball? Would you be disappointed in your teen, who is more interested in chess than baseball, couldn’t do it? Is the toddler or the teen at the root of your disappointment? Or are your expectations out-of-whack with reality? Can you command love? Can you tell yourself “I should love this person” and then, magically, you do? You can’t? Whose fault is that? Are you defective because you can’t? Is everybody else on the planet defective because you can’t make yourself love them? Of course not…so why do you believe someone who does not love you is defective and your expectation of being loved by them is therefore a reasonable expectation?

We live in a society in which we tend to think that there is an answer for everything. If science can’t give us an answer, rather than simply say “we don’t know that yet,” we feel we must have an answer so we subscribe it to God or the supernatural or aliens or even conspiracy theories. Somebody has to be at fault, somewhere there has to be an answer, somehow there has to be an explanation. But the truth is, there isn’t always an answer, we don’t always have an explanation, and there isn’t always any blame to place. Sometimes things just are what they are, with no malice or failure or conspiracy behind them. Sometimes, when we let go of expectations, there is just nothing to put in their place.

And so it is with perfection…you can’t achieve it, no matter how you try, because you are human. My father once told me that no matter how good you are at something, no matter how smart or accomplished, eventually somebody is going to come along and be better, smarter, more accomplished…and you have to live with that knowledge, that you are not and cannot be ever perfect (and therefore unbeatable), and keep on doing the best you can anyway.

Perfection is not a goal, it is a trap, a trap that you set for yourself and you spring on yourself, and you then set on yourself again. It is a trap you set for others, when you have expectations of them that do not take into account anything of them and everything of you. The pursuit of perfection is to dedicate your life to futility and disappointment, it requires that you have impossible expectations (of yourself and/or others), it guarantees disappointment and pain. It profits you not.


  1. When I worked in a jewellery store some pieces were so old or so badly damaged that the goldsmiths simply not repair them so that they were returned to their original condition. These pieces came back with "best can do" scrawled across the repair bag. These days, a "best can do" philosophy has allowed me to achieve things I would have never even attempted in the past.

    As for my parents, I've learned to accept them exactly as they are and have stopped expecting them to change. Why should they change? They're "perfect" just the way they are and I'm sure they're quite happy without their less than perfect daughter in their lives.

    1. I like that..."best can do." That is, after all, the most we can realistically expect of ourselves. When we contemplate something with the belief that we must perform perfectly, we can paralyze ourselves into not even making an effort, but when we approach it with an expectation of "best can do," we build in permission to NOT be perfect...and that takes away the fear of failure that can paralyze us.

      I like it: "best can do."

  2. Exceptionally well said. Thank you for this post.

  3. After a couple of years of reading ACoN blogs like yours, I am recovering from an ACoN childhood. Last spring, after being called in to interview for a job that was ludicrously unsuited to my skills (which were accurately and clearly captured on my resume), I came to the realization that I am not broken, just because I can't be all things to all people, and that there's nothing wrong with me. What a freeing moment! Thanks to you and the other brave bloggers out there for educating me. --LuLoo

  4. This is a wonderfully written Buddhist sermon! Maybe that wasn't your intent, but Buddhism as I understand it is all about managing one's expectations. Non-attachment doesn't mean apathy, it means living without expectations and taking each moment as they come.

    You're saying a lot of awesome things and giving people hope. Keep up the great work and thank you for sharing your experience.

  5. So expectations are something that may not reflect reality, that we do not necessarily have right to. I would normally agree with that, but some expectations must be met...we must expect free access to oxygen in order to breathe. We must be validated as a person in order to develop from a helpless child into a woman (or man). They are needs, but are they rights? Do I have right to search for happiness? On my end, an expectation of my parents to allow me to find happiness is indeed unreasonable, they can do little more than snatch happiness from others. But it is still there, it still must be met by someone. That drew me to redefine my family, growing close to my in-laws who support me and distancing myself from my own family, much to my mother's disdain. Many times life is as simple as putting aside our expectations and acknowledging something we hoped for isn't there. Life didn't give us the money we wanted...get over it. But if it is an expectation that is also a need... do I say, "Well, it WAS unreasonable to expect oxygen here, live with it" or do I get off of Mars and go to Earth where oxygen is free? I'm not saying I have all the answers, but I do know whether I change my expectations of my mother or not, I still can't go too near, as she takes all emotional "oxygen" for herself while I suffocate. I guess that exposes my expectation to live. I ran to my mother in-law, Loreen (she has been WONDERFUL to me) who gives out her love and affirmation for free. I guess that reveals that I still have expectations. I fled reality.

    1. When I was a child I once made a remark to my father about a car taking my father's turn at a four way stop, telling my father that he should have gone first because he had the right of way. And my father said to me that I was right, he DID have the right of way, but if he insisted on exercising that right every time, he would eventually end up just as dead as if he were wrong.

      This article has nothing at all to do with rights. It has to do with setting ourselves up for disappointment by expecting to get blood out of a stone. It is unrealistic expectations that set us up for hurt and disappointment, for feelings of resentment and a desire for vengeance, none of which cause any distress to those who hurt us but can give us a great deal of unnecessary pain.

      The message you missed is that, regardless of your rights in any given matter, what you expect sets you up for disappointment. You have a right to have a loving mother but if your mother isn't one, to prevent creating an expectation that will inevitably be disappointed, the healthy response to that situation is to adjust your thinking, adjust your expectation to include the reality of that woman, and seek a loving, nurturing relationship elsewhere.

      Many years ago, when I was married to NexH, I went to the grocery store and saw English muffins on sale. Ordinarily we couldn't afford them, but they were on special so I grabbed a package. When they were gone, my husband was furious with me because I didn't buy more on my next shopping trip. He expected them and he was disappointed that I didn't buy them. He didn't want to know that we couldn't afford them every week, he didn't care about that. To his mind he was entitled to those muffins and I was deliberately withholding them from him. Mitigating circumstances, like not enough money or the store being out of stock were ignored because he, by God, had a RIGHT to have English muffins with his breakfast! It actually caused a lot of arguments because he was convinced I was spitefully denying them to him. He was hurt and angry and disappointed all because he had created an expectation that was incompatible with the reality of our financial situation.

      When you expect to get love from a block of wood, you will be inevitably disappointed. It doesn't matter if you have a right to that love, if you are entitled to that love, if you deserve that love: when you expect love from something incapable of giving it to you, you create your disappointment and your hurt by having an expectation that is incompatible with reality.


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