Are you a perfectionist or a people pleaser? How trauma can shape you - and what to do about it.

Traumatic experiences can have a lasting impact on our lives, shaping our beliefs, behaviours, and personalities. Two common ways that trauma can manifest itself are perfectionism and people-pleasing. Psychotherapist and trauma specialist Diane Young explores the differences between perfectionism and people-pleasing, how trauma can contribute to these behaviours, and some strategies for healing and moving forward.

Caitlin* had always been a high achiever. Dux of her school, state high jumping champion and law graduate. Yet, underneath all of her accolades and impressive achievements was a deeply insecure and unhappy young woman. "I never felt like I was good enough for my parents. My achievements or even just the effort I put in were rarely praised. It then became a voice from within - my inner critic," she says. 

It wasn't until Caitlin turned 25 that she decided to seek help for anxiety and depression, both of which she suffered from throughout her teenage years and early twenties.

Watch: How your childhood can cause people pleasing in your adulthood. Post continues after video.

Video via Psych2Go.

In treatment, Caitlin opened up to her therapist about her upbringing and childhood. It was then she discovered that because her parents withheld affection unless she achieved something incredibly important; she had evolved into a perfectionist to prove her self-worth. If she failed at anything or made a mistake, Caitlin was crippled with anxiety. By working with her therapist to set more realistic goals and learn tools to accept mistakes are part of life, Caitlin became more aware of how her childhood trauma underpinned her need for perfectionism. It was only then that she could start to heal and build up her self-worth - something that wasn’t based upon her achievements. 


How childhood trauma is linked to perfectionism and people-pleasing.

Perfectionism is the tendency to set impossibly high standards for oneself and to be extremely self-critical when those standards are not met. Perfectionists often strive for excellence in all aspects of their lives, including their work, relationships, and personal goals and can experience deep feelings of shame if they don't achieve this. People-pleasers, on the other hand, prioritise the needs and desires of others over their own, often at the expense of their own wellbeing. They may struggle to say no to requests or may feel a sense of guilt or anxiety when they do not meet the expectations of others.

Trauma can contribute to both perfectionism and people-pleasing in a number of ways. For example, someone who has experienced childhood trauma may have learned to cope by striving for perfection, as a way to regain control and create a sense of safety in their lives. Alternatively, they may have learned to prioritise the needs of others as a way to maintain their relationships and avoid conflict. Similarly, individuals who have experienced trauma later in life may develop perfectionistic or people-pleasing tendencies as a coping mechanism to deal with their trauma.


Regardless of the experiences that might have shaped these behaviours, it's important to recognise them and work towards healing and growth. Here are four simple strategies for overcoming perfectionism and people-pleasing:

1. Practice self-compassion.

This involves treating yourself with the same kindness and understanding that you would offer to a friend. If a good friend was in a stressful situation, would you blame them and be unkind? Try to challenge your negative self-talk and soothe yourself with a positive affirmation. This can help you to let go of the need for perfection and prioritise your own needs.

2. Set realistic goals.

Instead of striving for perfection in all aspects of your life, set achievable goals that align with your values and priorities. Become aware that perfectionism is an unattainable standard and shift your thinking to 'I did my best'. This can help to reduce stress and increase feelings of accomplishment.

3. Establish healthy boundaries.

This involves learning to say no without guilt to requests that are not aligned with your values or priorities. If we constantly say yes to things we don't want to do, resentment can build. Empower yourself by taking a mental pause to consider the demand through the lens of your needs, time and values. This can be challenging for people-pleasers, but it's an important step towards prioritising your wellbeing.


Listen to Fill My Cup where Allira shares how to set better boundaries and reminds us why we need to look out for our own needs. Post continues below.

4. Seek professional support.

Trauma can be complex and challenging to overcome on your own. An experienced therapist can help unearth the deep cause of your people-pleasing and perfectionist behaviours and help you understand how adverse childhood experiences may have altered your view of yourself and the world around you. Working with a therapist or other mental health professional can help you develop strategies for healing and growth.

Trauma can have a lasting impact on our lives, shaping our beliefs, behaviours, and personalities. By recognising our need for perfectionism and our people-pleasing tendencies, and working towards healing and growth, we can move towards greater self-acceptance, self-compassion, and fulfilment in life.

*Name is changed for privacy.

If you or someone you know is struggling, reach out for help via Lifeline 13 11 14, Beyond Blue 1300 22 4636 or South Pacific Private on 1800 063 332.

Diane Young is a psychotherapist and trauma specialist at South Pacific Private - a leading treatment centre for mental health, trauma and addiction.

Feature Image: Getty.

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