Tuesday, March 22, 2016

perfection in abusive relationships: parents and partners who expect perfectionism, and punish if they are not receiving it

name of cartoon: perfection in abusive relationships 
(an off-shoot of "Erroneous Blaming")
image is © Lise Winne
(for questions regarding use of images or contract an image for your next article
contact: LilacGroveGraphics (att) yahoo.com) 

(Note: a similar post to this one is erroneous blaming and erroneous punishments, with a cartoon that is almost identical. This post repeats a lot of the same subject matter as that post, so if you have read that post, there will be some repeated information -- "perfectionism" is just one of the facets of erroneous blaming)

Usually these kinds of abusers are very demanding. They want what they want, when they want it, and they expect you to perform perfectly for them (and all with accompanying "perfect attitudes").

They make a determination that if you are not performing to their specifications, you will have to pay the consequences: either silent treatments, withdrawing love, withdrawing consideration and kindness, withdrawing money or food, being isolated from your family, or being put through some sort of torture: physical, emotional, sexual, environmental, threats, neglect, it could be anything.

Often the point of their abuse and torture is to instill in you that you are not worthwhile (or only as good as they say you are), that they can live without you, and if they are to be kind to you at all, you will have to perform for them: to prove that you can do what they expect of you, "perfectly" and without complaint. You are to regard them as "perfect" as well: often hard to do because most abusers are liars, shams, cheaters, backstabbers, blackmailers, ruthlessly punishing (abusive), and many abusers put you through "love triangles" too. But you are expected to "pretend" to view them as infallible nonetheless, to turn a blind eye, and especially for their audience of superficial friends and "followers" (yes, they believe they have followers who adore them and hang on to every word). If you don't say "perfect" things about them, there is often a severe punishment (i.e. abuse), where they torture you. How they torture you depends on the abuser. They might give you the silent treatment for days, weeks, months or years, they might isolate you and/or try to ruin your reputation, they might withdraw money suddenly, they might poison you, or sexually abuse you, or batter you, or, if you are a child, neglect you (throw you in a basement without food, expect you to live in outside conditions in freezing weather, expect you to be locked in a room for weeks without basic necessities, ration your food, demand endless apologies that they deem to not be "good enough"; again it could be anything!). Most abusers are flattery addicts, unempathetic, lack integrity, which is to say that they are, by and large, hypocrites. 

And almost all of them think that their victims will be learning how to treat them better through these cruel kinds of acts.

In all abusive relationships, an expectation to perform "perfectly" and to speak "perfectly" is always present. "Perfectionism" can, and often means "perfect tone of voice", "perfect words with no complaining or criticism in them", "perfect execution of their demands", "perfect phrasing of words and emotions -- usually they want you to be emotionally flat and always polite" (even though they rarely are), "perfect altruistic motives towards them", and so on.

Abusers are known to punish if they interpret your attitudes, actions and looks as less than perfect. Even if you are doing everything to please them, they are known to say you aren't "perfect enough" as their way to justify more punishments, as abusing is how they feel important and in control. They also see it as their way to get what they need. Abusers even take command of telling you what you are feeling, thinking, and doing and why it is, or is not, good enough (or "a punishable offense"). It is their way of saying that they are in charge of everything: your feelings, your thoughts, your actions, and their interpretations of all of your feelings, thoughts and actions.

This is a part of erroneous blaming, which always goes hand in hand with perfectionism in abusive relationships. Other kinds of abuses including mocking, vilifying, smear campaigns, verbal abuse and gaslighting usually are also part of the arsenal of weapons perpetrators use when expecting perfectionism from their victims.

One of the first signs of an abusive family is that the authority figures tell you what you are thinking and feeling. If you are having an argument with them, they make it known that they don't care what you feel, that your job is to only care what they feel. That is why they usually say "No, you hurt me!" when you tell them that they egregiously hurt you. Abusive people don't care about how they hurt you; if anything they will try to endlessly excuse and justify it.

Abusive parents expect you to perform duties to perfection, even when you are no longer a child, and sometimes even when you are 60. Child abuse is a campaign that is leveraged upon their child for a lifetime unless the family gets help along the way (counseling).

If your parents punish you when you are an adult it is always abuse. The only person who has a right to punish another adult is a court appointed judge or jury in a legal system, or authorities if you are incarcerated, or an officer in a military situation. Sometimes bosses punish workers by firing them, but that can be abusive too if they don't follow legal procedures.

One way to tell if a child may be part of an abusive family is how parents react to their child. For instance, if the child got bullied in school (and yes, victims of child abuse are often the primary targets of school bullying) do they say to their child, "What did you do to get yourself in that mess?" or "What did you do to deserve it?". Note this is a "sign", not a definitive conclusion that they are abusive parents. The point is that non-abusive parents generally say, "I'm concerned," or "Are you okay?" or "How are you doing and how are you feeling about what happened?" or "What can I do to help my child?" They aren't trying to referee the bullying or trying to decide who is at fault right away, or what kind of "less than perfect thoughts, feelings and actions" brought on the bullying. Some abusive parents even argue with their child about how the child is thinking and feeling right in front of school authorities.  

In a post entitled The Perfectionist Tyrant, Sallie Culbreth, M.S. states that many survivors of abuse suffer from self esteem issues from pressures over perfection. Here is an excerpt: 

Perfectionism takes on many forms – from being an over-achiever to being an under-achiever. Perfectionism is a common malady among survivors of abuse, exploitation, and sexual trauma. At its core, it is the relentless drive to avoid powerlessness, but that drive is a tyrant. The tyrant sends you into a panic every time you feel the threat of being exposed as “less than.”

It is vital for you to remember that the experience of abuse educated you about your value. The problem is that those lessons are built around lies and manipulation. Nonetheless, they feel true and, over time, they become enmeshed with how you define your worth.

What do you believe about your worth based on the lessons of abuse? That you have no value. That you’re not good enough. That you’re disposable. That there’s something wrong with you. That you’re only good for one thing. These are the lies that feel very true, but please note: THEY ARE STILL LIES.

Now here’s where it gets dicey: perfectionism is your response to these lies, but it is so extreme that it can impair how you approach life and your ability to function in a healthy way. As I stated at the beginning, perfectionism can manifest in two seemingly opposite behaviors: over-achievement and under-achievement.

Over-achiever perfectionism screams at you that if you don’t work day and night to accomplish everything you do without any mistakes, then you’ll sink into those wretched definitions of the lies and feel completely exposed as a disposable, valueless idiot ...

... Under-achiever perfectionism screams at you that you’ll never be able to attain the goals you’ve set – that you’ll never be good enough – so why bother? You believe that everyone already knows your worth, so why risk failure and face that horrific moment when you’re reminded one more time that you’re “less than” and always will be. You find it easier to never take risks than to risk being less than perfect.


Both of these expressions are based on distorted ideas about self that come from the experience of being abused. It is one of the most insidious and stubborn beliefs that survivors must confront ...

If your parents punish you because of a complaint or a look, it is abuse. It is also about "perfectionism" at its core. Perfectionism is usually abusive because there is an implied threat of a "punishment" behind it: for instance, "If you give me that look I don't like, I'll hurt you!" or "If you complain about me one bit, I'll reject you!" Look to see if they are putting labels on your motives (and remember that these are ALWAYS their ways of perceiving you).

Abusers often interpret your look or speech the way they want to see you, not as who you are. They might see a look and interpret it as something they don't like or as impertinence. All abusers hate even the possibility of impertinence, so they are known to do pre-emptive strikes. Other things they don't like include what they perceive as a look of autonomy from their victims, a look of ingratitude, a look of rebellion, a look of disbelief, a look of appearing superior to them when they expect you to perceive yourself as inferior to them, a critical look, a quizzical look, a look that portrays to them that you might abandon them, a look of rolling your eyes, a look of smirking (which they might interpret as you laughing at them and thinking of them as inferior), and a look of disgust at what they are saying. Victims who have these kinds of thoughts about them are terrifying to them, so they punish over the possibilities first and escalate wildly if they actually become realities (most abusers are personality-disordered). It is because they, themselves want to know their victims look at them at all times as "perfect" and as "superiors" and the only way they know how to keep their victims from growing out of idealizing them is to punish.

Malignant narcissists and sociopaths (who make up the most dangerous abusers) especially have absolutely zero tolerance for anyone who might be slightly or fleetingly feeling in ways they find threatening. They want so badly your childlike gullibility or they feel absolutely threatened by you to the point where they can become either scary or dangerous.

Why scary? Because they make threats. Their threats are NOT to be taken lightly. Even if they take their threats back, and promise not to use them after all, they have a propensity to be unstable, and cannot be counted on to do what they say. Also, if they have a history of severely abusing they are certainly not to be trusted. Severe abuses include silent treatments that last months, erroneous blaming sessions that never seem to end, only letting up on abuse after they see you begging and crying, physical abuse.

They are also dangerous because abuse usually escalates regardless, and abuse can also be deadly even if your abuser meant only to hurt you just so far without killing you. They also tend to get ever more sensitive to what your looks and feelings might be portraying as the relationship deepens: if they deem you to be resisting being perfect in the way they want, they can, and do, take abuse to another level. They can graduate from emotional abuse to physical abuse very, very quickly. Some signs to look out for include touch which is at all hostile, pushing, intimidating physical stances where they expect you to walk around them, breaking or smashing property, being rough with material things, destroying gifts you have given them (especially if it is your parents or partner who are destroying your gifts), yelling at you in your personal space (within 6 feet of you), leaning into you to command, lecture or stare you down, clenching their fists while talking to you. These are all the beginning danger signs in terms of physical violence.

Don't make the assumption that you will always be able to follow their demands (i.e. keep safe in that way). Many abusers expect you to eventually fulfill demands that are unethical, dangerous, self-sabotaging, self-sacrificing and self-harming. Almost all victims eventually come to the conclusion that they have to abandon abusive people because of these practices.

Be aware that their interpretation of your "imperfect looks" are really, underneath it all, them feeling threatened by you and afraid of you. What they are really saying is: "don't judge me, don't question me, don't disagree with me, don't investigate who I am or what my motives are, don't feel worthwhile, happy, successful and autonomous without my consent. Only look at me as perfect, please!" Alternatively they can be thinking "Only look at me as perfect, or else you will pay and pay and pay!" They are such utterly paranoid people that if you grimace, they are known to take it very personally, and put vilifying, dark interpretations on it with all kinds of erroneous guilt trips attached, just to scare you from even considering thoughts and feelings that they might not like. They don't ever want to be hurt by your thoughts or feelings and that is the purpose of all of their crazy-making guilt trips, which can often escalate to withdrawals and other punishments, just to make it known to you to keep your thoughts and feelings contained, in the dark recesses of your mind, to yourself, and even deny such feelings if you have them. To them it doesn't really matter whether you never meant to hurt them at all; what matters to them is that you never think to even entertain the possibility of having a thought or feeling that blames them for anything, that makes them culpable for anything, that is at all at odds with how they want to be perceived.

How you look at them, then, can become one huge problem that they feel they cannot ignore. This is the ultimate crux of their retaliations against you (and remember: retaliation in close personal relationships = always abuse).

See my post on erroneous blaming for more information.

Most abusers have personality disorders: Borderline Personality Disorder, Narcissistic Personality Disorder and Antisocial Personality Disorder. If they aren't making devious plans to physically disable you or to get rid of you, they may have Narcissistic Personality Disorder. If they want to cause you physical pain, or get rid of you, they are likely to have Antisocial Personality Disorder. In other words, narcissists usually emotionally abuse those closest to them (getting rid of you through silent treatments, disabling you socially) and antisocials usually physically abuse those closest to them (getting rid of you by planning your demise, disabling you physically and mentally). Unchecked and unchallenged narcissists can often join the ranks of the Antisocial Personality-disordered (sociopaths). Be aware that alcoholism in some people can mimic Narcissistic Personality Disorder, the difference being that when they give up the bottle entirely (rehab), they stop acting narcissistically.

What you can count on from narcissists and sociopaths is that there will be a lot of projection: they will see you as they are. They might see you as impertinent because they are impertinent; they might see you as someone who looks at their statements in disgust because they typically look at other people's statements in disgust; they might see you as disloyal and unfaithful because they are disloyal and unfaithful; they might see you as hyper-critical or condescending because they are hyper-critical and condescending; they might see you as evil because they are evil.

Unfortunately for victims, abuse for many narcissists and sociopaths is like a heroin fix: they get off on watching you suffer and "get punished" by them, and they get addicted to abuse because they get off on other people suffering. In order to get more satisfaction from abusing you, they escalate abuse. Most emotional and verbal abusers end up physically abusing. Abusers have also been known to make things up about you just to get their fix of abuse. It is just part of the escalation process no matter what you do or say.

When abusers graduate to more and more escalations of abuse, victims often realize there is a pattern and leave their abusers. Abusers then typically make promises to their victims not to abuse again. Unless they are doing an awful lot of therapy, and are treating you with the utmost respect, unless they are willing to respect every single last boundary that you put up, it is a ruse. It is just about them wanting to get their fix again.

Further reading:

In this post entitled Understanding the Trauma of Child Abuse by Richard Gold, he discusses how blame, victimization and the appearance of "perfectionism" often leads to severe trauma for the abused scapegoats of such families:
Excerpts (but the whole article is worth reading):
A child is blamed. It’s important to understand that abuse is not a “simple” hit or sex act. Abuse is coercive. The victim is blamed for the victimization. In the proc­ess, the abuser exerts control in ways that are torturous and terrifying.
A child feels ashamed. It’s important to understand that the failure of kindness and protection in the family is a profound wound to the child. The victim is deeply ashamed at this loss and carries the burden of feeling unlovable.
Beyond the circumstances of fragmentation and a sense of personal defective­ness, that reinforce one another and are further reinforced by blame and shame, there are powerful factors within abusive family systems that reinforce trauma.
Here are some of the factors in abusive family systems that reinforce trauma. Within a family, the abuser may not only be dominant, but idealized. And everyone in the family may measure themselves by the abuser’s moods ...
... Often there is an enforced isolation for the family, where the abuser passes judgment and controls outside contacts. This isolation limits the child victim’s opportunities for understanding and healing. Often in an abusive family there is a parent who is a passive enabler of the abuser, and this role is significant. The enabler makes it possible for the family to be a self-contained system. The en­abler may support or justify the abuser. The enabler may allow or even encour­age the child to serve as a target for abuse ...
... In the end, the abused child may carry the huge burden of preserving the family as an ideal – and therefore may carry a huge burden of guilt for failing in that impossible task ...
... In addition to messages from the parent that the child deserves blame for family problems, there are also significant messages that the parent doesn’t want the child to be happy or to succeed as a person beyond the abusive parent’s limited capabilities. So the child feels guilt and failure for its successes, as well for its victimizations ...

... One powerful theme throughout circumstances of abuse is the theme of secrecy. There are secrets that the child victim keeps from itself. There are secrets that the child victim keeps from the abuser, from the enabler, etc. – and vice versa. There are secrets that the abusive family keeps from society. The abusive family sus­tains itself with falsehoods ...

Sexual Abuse Takes Toll on Victims by Trish Kinney. Discusses that sexual abuse carries with it not only physical maladies (like cancer and IBS) that can show up years later, but many victims also develop "perfectionist personalities."

The Impact of Child Sexual Abuse on Adolescents by Sanford Health, includes withdrawing from the pain of abuse by trying to be perfectionist, people-pleasers, and overachievers.

Perfectionism plays a role in child abuse and spousal abuse from The Violence and Addiction Equation, Theoretical Conclusions in Sustance Abuse and Relationship Violence book by Christine Wekerle, Anne-Marie Wall   

Healing from Childhood Abuse: Understanding the Effects, Taking Control to Recover by John J. Lemoncelli -- it has a chapter on perfectionism and people-pleasing as being qualities of victims of abuse

Feeling you must be perfect, and perform perfectly can also be a form of self-abuse. This is just one post of many posts.

People obsessed with grammar aren't as nice as everybody else, study suggests by MJ Franklin

A forum topic is raised about "perfectionism" from a mental health provider, who still hasn't had time to heal from her own traumatic childhood ... many other people respond by telling of their experiences as well.

A cool quote by Rebecca Eanes
copyright to respectful owner:


I thought this video by Scott Bassett was worthwhile (narcissists can't love
and don't really know what to do with it):

Here is another video by Scott Bassett explaining why narcissists need you to feel
that they can live without you, that they are not dependent on anyone
(basically it is fear-based because admitting to themselves
that they need relationships makes them feel weak, inferior and out of command):

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