The need to excel, prove oneself, and be “perfect” is entrenched in the mindset of Asians struggling with the shame of perfectionism. When I work with clients grappling with this issue, it manifests as extreme insecurity often associated with fears of abandonment, rejection, or loss of relationships if others found them wanting in any areas.
Sheila, a second-generation Taiwanese-American confides to me she started striving to become “perfect” during her middle school years as a means to ward off social ridicule from peers and classmates. In other words, getting straight A’s was one means for her to protect herself from the incessant teasing and bullying in childhood. While the teasing didn’t stop during that time, what it did was give her a sense of adequacy amidst all the pain and hurt from her peers.
Fast-forward to current day, Sheila describes an unending need to always be “right” whether at work or in relationships (i.e. never saying the “wrong” thing, doing the wrong thing, appearing the wrong way, etc.). In her hypervigilance, her relationships and interactions with co-workers, acquaintances, and men became stilted to the point of having a number of scripted dialogues from which to draw from. Spontaneous interactions were rarely attempted due to the risk of possibly being judged as “awkward” or “insecure”.
In therapy, she shared of the pain of inadequacy when she’s not “at the top of her game”. If she ever was seen with doubt or hesitation at work, she would be plagued with the fear that her co-workers felt she was “less than”. In her dating life, the fear of rejection was exacerbated as she spent her time on dating apps obsessing over what she texted to the men (i.e. “Did I say the wrong thing?!”).
While aspiring to perfection is not a bad trait, what does become pathological is this feeling that you must be perfect (i.e. perfect child, perfect grades, perfect behaviors). The healing ironically is learning self-compassion and finding authentic and meaningful relationships that accept you regardless of your imperfections.