Research shows a link between perfectionist parents and constant criticism, which is logical. Many in our results-driven society will argue that these parents are simply cultivating high standards of achievement in their children. They’d rather see a child harassed for minor mistakes than parents ignoring a substandard performance. Constant criticism, though, isn’t about quality, however much the parents believe it is. It’s really about parents using the child to fill their emotional needs and is therefore abusive.
When Perfectionism Is Destructive
Perfectionism isn’t, in itself, destructive. Setting high standards and showing care in what we do can be a blueprint for quality and growth. However, like most things in life, balance is the key. A desire for quality and growth needs to be balanced with adaptability. There’s no reason why we can’t set high standards and still know when to let go and move on.
In an article called “Pitfalls of Perfectionism” for Psychology Today, Hara Estroff Marano tells us
[w]hat turns life into the punishing pursuit of perfection is the extent to which people are worried about mistakes.
Perfectionists equate how they do with who they are, and the non-stop barrage of critiques in their head generate constant uncertainty. Consequently, they rarely gain satisfaction from their achievements because they’re never sure they got it “just right.”
The seeds of perfectionism are sown in childhood. When left to our own devices, I think we intuitively understand that the world is an imperfect place. Kids have a natural ability to be satisfied with imperfect results. They take pleasure in what comes of their efforts, no matter how goofy those results might be. A picture may be disproportionate, a structure may be lopsided, but whatever. There’s always next time, right? Perfectionist parents with their constant criticism squash that natural wisdom.
Reasons Behind Constant Criticism
John and Linda Friel write about perfectionist parents and constant criticism in their book Adult Children: The Secrets of Dysfunctional Families. They think that these parents are essentially trying to keep the dissatisfaction that they feel with themselves and their lives under control by molding their children into perfect beings. Because their children are dependent on them for more than just their physical needs, they gain a sense of empowerment in directing their children’s behavior, thoughts, beliefs, and feelings. Marano adds
[i]n the grand scheme of things, perfectionism is an intrusive form of parenting that attempts to control the psychological world of the child.
Marano further reports on studies conducted by Belgian researchers that perfectionism and constant criticism can reflect abusive parents’ fears over watching their kids get more and more independent. This kind of hanging on is actually reflected in multiple different types of emotionally abusive behavior, such as smothering and offering constant unsolicited advice.
Part of this may have to do with the abuser’s identity as the all-knowing, all-able parent. This identity gets harder to maintain as their children get older. Watching that essential part of their identity deteriorating creates a deep feeling of loss in the abusive parents that’s extremely painful to cope with. By constantly criticizing us, they can cling to that identity by inserting their authority over us, even when we’re adults.
Effects of Constant Criticism
One price for this is an unpleasant relationship between parents and child. Constant criticism leads to feelings of harassment from those who should be understanding and supportive. The Friels say constant criticism creates a distance between the criticizer and the one being criticized. We’re uncomfortable sharing things with our abusive parents because we know they’re going to make us feel inadequate by finding something wrong with what we’re doing.
Marano also discusses the link between conditional love and performance. It doesn’t have to be stated explicitly for us to understand that unless we perform up to our critical parents’ standards, we won’t receive encouragement, support, or approval from them. When we’re living under their roof, this is really tough to deal with, but even when we’re independent adults, it’s painful that people who have such a major influence on our lives can’t support us unless we do things to their satisfaction (which is a rare feat anyway).
The Friels also make a link between constant criticism and shame. If we can never measure up to our parents’ tremendous expectations in childhood then we’re left with a constant uncomfortable feeling that there’s something fundamentally wrong with us. As we grow up, we link self-worth to actions, equating success with worth and failure with worthlessness.
We also learn to be perfectionists like them and to constantly criticize ourselves. We may try to explain it away by telling ourselves that we’re just setting high standards, but this goes beyond what’s healthy. If healthy people have high standards and don’t meet them, they don’t feel like they’re bad people or worthless. They accept that and move on. But our perfectionism isn’t about high standards; it’s really about getting the acceptance and support of people who had trouble giving it under any circumstances. So when we don’t meet our standards of perfection, we feel like we failed, and that’s hard to let go of.
What goes on inside of us has an effect on what we eventually do. Marano notes that perfectionism inhibits creativity and flexibility. Perfectionists
don’t get to discover what they truly like or to create their own identities.
I would also argue that perfectionist parents who are constantly criticizing their children are inhibiting their creativity and flexibility. We become afraid to explore because we’re terrified of making mistakes. This becomes a real problem in adulthood. We’ll eventually reach a point in our lives where we’ll realize how much we could have done if we’d only been willing to take more chances. We blame ourselves, but our constantly criticizing parents are at least as much to blame. They taught us that making a mistake is the end of the world, so when a situation came up that presented that possibility, we usually reacted on autopilot by avoiding it.
Predictably, growing up with these kinds of parents can make us sensitive to all criticism. Our brain has learned that criticism equals worthlessness. A supervisor’s gentle explanation of why our report needs to be redone can cause us agony for days. Or we get angry over what feels to us like an emotional attack from our partner and attack back, later realizing that our partner was justified in what they told us.
Constant criticism from an abusive parent leaves us feeling like Sisyphus, the king who had to endure the eternal process of rolling a boulder up a hill, watching it roll back down, and rolling it back up the hill again. Even in adulthood, it’s difficult to remember that our abusive parents’ constant criticism is all about their issues and has nothing to do with what we do or who we are. We may not be able to stop them from doing it, but we can at least work on the constant critic within and on recognizing that others in our lives are not our abusers so that we learn not to resent all criticism.