Complex PTSD and Perfectionism

March 7, 2018 Tia Hollowood

PTSD can drive you to perfectionism; the kind of perfectionism that causes problems in your life. Learn about PTSD and perfectionism at HealthyPlace. You may not even notice it because you've lived with PTSD for so long. Take a look.

Complex posttraumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD) and perfectionism often occur together. What drives someone with C-PTSD towards clinically significant perfectionism? Generally speaking, perfectionism becomes clinically significant when it results in an excessive or unrealistic need to perform to exceedingly high, self-imposed standards. The drive for perfection is so strong that it can interfere with work, education or relationships. For individuals with C-PTSD, the need for absolute excellence can become a means of dealing with fear and anxiety created by ongoing trauma. Let's examine how trauma drives these unrealistic expectations, and how to set more realistic goals.

C-PTSD with Perfectionism as a Coping Mechanism

When PTSD stems from prolonged trauma, perfectionism often becomes a coping mechanism. For some, having lived in an environment where every action was monitored and dictated by an abuser, perfectionism stems from the need to take control of at least one aspect of life. Likewise, when one's every moved is watched and criticized, a fear of failure can develop. Perfectionism then becomes a response to avoid criticism and punishment. Finally, the same abusive environment can be so demanding and unpredictable that perfectionism grows out of a fear of abandonment from doing or saying the wrong thing. For many, the need to be perfect becomes deeply ingrained, reflexive, and difficult to recognize.

Identifying Perfectionism in C-PTSD

Clinically significant perfectionism goes hand-in-hand with poor self-esteem. It is often unrecognized because an individual driven to perfectionism typically believes they can never be good enough to live up to the expectations of others. They see themselves as far from perfect. Here are some indicators that your PTSD and perfectionism has become problematic:

  • You set expectations for yourself that you would not expect of anyone else in your position.
  • You consistently put off self-care and recreational activities to make your work flawless.
  • You check and recheck your work for mistakes even when you can no longer find anything to correct.
  • You expect negative feedback even when you have exceeded the expectations of others.
  • You overperform, often realizing later that you did not need to do as much work as you did.
  • You stress over the quality of even routine tasks.

Managing Perfectionism with PTSD

So how can you moderate this inner drive for over-the-top excellence? The first hurdle is recognizing that you have unrealistic expectations for yourself. If you see yourself in any of the indicators above, you might find it helpful to dialog with a friend or counselor about the expectations you place on yourself.

Once you identify the areas where you are overly demanding on yourself, try looking at your expectations as if you were assigning them to someone else. What would you consider to be an acceptable, quality outcome from someone else? I usually find myself defining a more straightforward plan to achieve respectable results when I envision judging someone else's performance of my tasks.

At the workplace, consider discussing expectations with your supervisor or a valued coworker. Whether you choose to be open about your PTSD or not, you can still explain your desire to set reasonable, quality goals.

Finally, be kind to yourself. It takes time to put aside a habit that served to keep you feeling safer or more in control. Try to identify your positive accomplishments on a daily basis, and know that you are capable and productive.

Managing Perfectionism Can Assist in PTSD Recovery

Perfectionism often goes unaddressed when other symptoms of PTSD such as flashbacks, anxiety, and depression are predominant. Often, perfectionism is one of the last difficulties to be identified and addressed in PTSD recovery. However, understanding and managing perfectionism earlier in treatment can reduce some of the stress and negative self-esteem that feeds the more predominant symptoms, helping speed the process of overall recovery.

Do you have issues with perfectionism and PTSD? Do you hold yourself to higher standards than you expect from others? Please share your thoughts and comments; I'd love to read them.

Shrinking the Inner Critic
Perfection and Rumination in Posttraumatic Stress Disorder
When Striving for Excellence Gets You Down

APA Reference
Hollowood, T. (2018, March 7). Complex PTSD and Perfectionism, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 23 from

Author: Tia Hollowood

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May, 15 2022 at 12:22 pm

I was perfectionist until I couldn’t be perfect couldn’t anymore. My body completely crashed-frozen, paralyzed in fear of failure. And so, in my darkest night of the Soul. I’m finally learning to love myself, set boundaries, speak my truth, slow down ( no choice) breathe properly, meditate & listen to my internal guidance system. I pray everyday for my walking ease & flow to return, I know precisely how I got here & I’m loving myself to wellness. With conscious awareness of my thoughts-I know we are supernatural-we can heal ourselves from this most terrible form of self-abuse. Let’s entrain our minds to new health & well-being for our highest good. Let us pray….

Nicki Paull
May, 23 2020 at 7:19 pm

Great article. Draws insightful causation links with prolonged Exposure to abusive controlling coercion. I totally relate. I found healing the low self-esteem and self-worth easier than dropping the perfectionism in recovery from narcissistic abuse. The biggest Problematic hangover for me (3 years into remission) is in holding other people to the high standards I set for myself. In early recovery, this was necessary to sort the toxic bystanders from the true allies. But these days, it’s the standards informed by latent CPTSD triggers that cause me trouble. Namely, around integrity. Because of the ghosting, stonewalling, lies and poor treatment of the abuser, I have triggers around people failing to do what they promise to do. So when someone says they’ll call and doesnt or when I pay for a service that isn’t delivered within a reasonable time frame, I become decidedly anxious! Poor customer service and failed interpersonal integrity in busy lives is now pretty normal behaviour, so I end up looking like the ‘difficult’ one if I complain! I try CBT reasoning when I’m triggered, but it doesn’t usually work. More often, acceptance of the modern dynamics above is a better coping tactic. I wonder if I’m the only one who is anally retentive in this way?

October, 28 2018 at 12:21 am

How does one, a perfectionist, over achiever, enabler, who was depressed, extremely over worked, sleep deprived, working 50-70hrs a wks, doing the work load of 6 full-time people, meticulously, denied help, told do it yourself, looked at with disgust for being irritable cuz you didn't put in 13hrs and only did 12, never slept more than 6 hrs, and was never uninterrupted due to caring for and burying the 3 most important loved ones that lived with you, being harassed for over a yr by male mgr/aka ex bf, attacked by him, reported and HR ignores it, you, anything that infers that there was any incident, change your supervisor to someone in another state leaving you unsupervised in hostile situation with all men, then ganged up on by cfo, hr mgr, gm, shop mtg, controller accused of anything everything, put under surveillance, lied, deceived, mocked, shamed, humiliated told I was psycho, unfit for the work force, I should check my self in, start having panic attacks, FFF, begged them to stop, they were hurting me, stop pressuring me, stop falsely accusing me, I needed my job, if I didn't have my job I wouldn't survive I need my job, I need a reason to get up, a place to go, to be around people/my peers/my closest friends, away from where my loved ones no longer lived, a distraction, my only coping mechanism, the kept going, they literally turned their backs (my mentor boss of 23 yrs) the others blamed me for Corp making changes that are negative to employees, shunned me, they put me on 30 days notice for nothing, then fired me on 30th day for nothing, at-will, with a police escort, at Xmas time, sent me home to an empty house....permanentlyand took all my closest friends/peers of 2 decades, those who said they cared, wanted to help, but refused, didn't haven't heard from one of them in 2Yrs. I ended up in psych ward, got out told that was a pathetic attempt, been publicly humiliated, accused of tut most heinous false things via group text, Facebook. Distant relative acquaintances have all abandoned me, told me get over it, shit happens, it's just life, it's just the way it is, all think I am a pathetic joke, tell me I push them away when really haven't showed up, tried to do anything, don't want to hear it, shut up, think I have made no attempt to move on, get better, 10 plus docotrs, therapist, work comp, eeoc, unemployment, city, county, lawyers and none of it worked. the eeoc did nothing, 14mos, told me they needed no evidence, I have tons, discriminated against me, put it back in my lap to find, pay for a lawyer to have them hold my employer accountable, 40+ lawyers refused, for unknown reasons, which is a cop out, meaning I didn't work for Big enough company therefore it stand to gain big bucks or be high profile case and the same reason the eeoc didn't plus the told me they do not have the resources to do anything and you can't sue hold the federal govt accountable. Now you tell me how long do I have to live with this stigma? I petrified, horrified, my mtg, my hr mtg, the employee handbook, company policies, the law, I have no rights, no protection, no recourse, no justice. I was on fmla, seeing 2 therapist, and nothing stopped these people, mind none of them thought twice, thought that what they were doing wad going to kill me and these people I refused trust trusted were my family/work family and no said or did anything. My employer lied to every place I sought help from and gotten me denied, refused benefits, compensation, justice, and no one sees anything wrong with this? Deemed acceptable? Yet I was deemed acting inappropriately which really wasn't, was a symptom of a condition they inflicted on me...I have PTSD, SEVERE DEPRESSION, panic disorder, no friends, no family, no money, no job, won't leave my house, about to go into foreclosure, lose my safe place.
STIGMA is going to kill me. I am so tired of trying to explain defend myself expected to act right or they won't help me, and don't regardless of what I do, blame me, block me, yell scream at me and those who this tell people I owe them an apology, they will give me Kerr recommendation that I deserved and earned when I get better. WHEN I GET BETTER???!! Who the f:$@ is he decide what I have or when I am better and refused to help in any way. Please help me, tell me how I will ever step near a place of employment, tell me, a perfectionist, how anyone thinks I will ever be able to do less than what I did and get away with it???

November, 17 2020 at 9:00 am

Hi Dawn, what a nightmare you have been living. How are you doing now?

May, 28 2018 at 12:33 am

This is so true for me. I'm in grad school and feel I must get A's, but it's very difficult. I'm also a mom to three, and a partner. I stress over school so much. I feel I'm not capable and should just drop out, but then I get an A, and honestly it just feeds my desire to work harder. Even my therapist is telling me to go for a B. I feel sick inside when things are messy. I didn't know this piece about C-PTSD. Thanks for the info.

May, 18 2018 at 9:09 am

Another article that nicely outlines the issues and ways forward. Thanks!

Memory Mejia
April, 14 2018 at 11:04 pm

I feel like I have to stay on my toes to prevent something bad happening or going wrong.Because I made a bad decision 7yrs ago for my son and I to stay temporarily with my mother.She threw him out at age16 and we were homeless.We had to separate and I haven't seen him since March 26 2010.He was placed in foster care the day I was to pick him up.I was accused of abandoning my son.??

April, 11 2018 at 3:22 pm

It doesn't feel like a coping mechanism but a chokehold I never feel anything is good enough and I'm sure I must seem like a negative arse sometimes. It annoys other people who claim to struggle to achieve anything without placing much emphasis on trying to get anywhere. I have no idea how to define what is good enough in practice I'm pretty critical of other people as well to my shame I keep it to myself though. I don't know how to tackle this part it's been a problem for what feels like forever and still some would point out that I could do better. My tolerance fluctuates between give 110% then mostly 25% when I've taken on too much meaning I always technically achieve but I know I could always of done better because I refuse to concentrate on one thing at a time.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

May, 27 2018 at 2:18 pm

Hi Amy. Your comment is a perfect example of how overwhelming perfectionism can become. The fact that you understand it can be a "chokehold" is a huge step forward. You (like myself) may always find that you set high standards for yourself. One thing that has helped me is to seek out a more objective view of what a "good job" looks like. It is about that nasty little word "perfect." You can strive for that forever, but you will be placing the idea of perfection in front of the need for happiness. You deserve to learn what is expected and acceptable for a task and set the bar at a more realistic height for yourself. I wish you well in your quest to be less than perfect!

April, 1 2018 at 1:29 am

This is so spot on for me. I have PTSD from an abusive relationship. I put SO much pressure on myself in my job, in my recovery, in school etc. I haven’t thought about perfectionism being a coping mechanism before. It makes so much sense. Thank you for this.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

April, 5 2018 at 12:42 pm

Thanks so much for commenting. I'm very glad you found this helpful. Taming perfectionism is a huge stress reducer!

March, 15 2018 at 2:36 pm

Absolutely yes. This was like looking in a mirror and something I’ve struggled to discuss in therapy so thank you. I can print this off and take it.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

April, 5 2018 at 12:39 pm

I'm so glad you find this useful. Thank you for taking the time to let me know. T

Karen Keating
March, 15 2018 at 9:10 am

Wow! Another spot on explanation of the way I run my life. Thanks. I recognize this and today my goal is to remember that self care is key to my happiness!

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

April, 5 2018 at 12:38 pm

I'm glad you found it useful, thank you for sharing!

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