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Healing From Asian Perfectionism

Updated: May 12

Perfetionism is Hurting You...And the People You Love

Imagine this scenario: You got a stomach ache, and rush to your washroom. When you get there, you realize there’s not toilet paper on the rack. So you quickly scramble to put a new toilet paper roll on the rack. Do you:

a) Set the toilet paper coming out from the top

b) Set the toilet paper coming out from the bottom

c) Who cares, you gotta go

I’ll come back to this scenario. In light of Asian Heritage Month, let me first talk about Asian perfectionism. Then I’ll try my best to convince you why we should celebrate this month with imperfection.

Why You Get a B…You’re an A-sian, Not a B-sian

Meme for Asian academic excellence, Asian perfectionism, and Tiger parenting

We’ve all heard the jokes and memes before. There’s an Asian excellence that’s expected of us immigrant kids. On the surface, it is funny. But when we dig deeper into it, there are many layers of trauma associated with our perfectionism. Let's explore these layers.

Cultural-Historic Level

On a cultural-historic level, some Asian cultures has historically emphasized on the virtues of education, but often only accessible to those with wealth. In the past century or so, education has become more accessible than ever. And education has linked to greater class mobility. Meaning education has become a means for the recent generations before us to access greater amounts of wealth. So, more than ever, academic success can make or break families. Hence, the intense competition and emphasis on getting perfect grades.

Institutional Level

When our parents immigrated to Canada a few things also happened. Due to racism and xenophobia, they had to be extra competent in their jobs. And the hardships of surviving in a new country also means their daily lifestyle needs to be highly efficient and effective. There never seems to be enough time and money, so both these resources need to be used efficiently and effectively.

On top of that, the model minority myth tells us that our worth as Asians is our competency and our achievements. This often leads to internalized racism. We measure our worth by our grades, what university we went to, how much money we make, what job we hold, and who we’re married to. And there’s a never-ending comparison to our peers that leave us feeling really crappy…because there’s always someone doing better than us, that we compare ourselves to.

Family Level

In the family level, us immigrant children are impacted by all these things. We see our parents struggling. We’re often tasked to help out. It might be caring for our younger siblings. Or it might be helping out in the family business, or getting a job to help out financially. Our parents may also be very critical of us, because survival requires being perfect.

With all the stressors of being an immigrant, it is not uncommon for immigrant parents to have marital problems. Many of my clients grew up in homes where their parents are often arguing, yelling at each other, and giving each other the silent treatment. Physical and emotional abuse may occur. And for many of my clients, they are also dragged into the arguments by their parents as secret keepers, as confidants, as their protectors, as punching bags for their anger/frustration, or as a tool to weaponize against the other parent.

We know that children who grow up in such environments often develop perfectionist behaviours and people-pleasing tendencies. For many of my clients, the combination of cultural history, racism, xenophobia, immigrant stressors, and family trauma has impacted the development of their perfectionism and people-pleasing behaviours.

Back to the Toilet Paper

I don’t really remember which direction my toilet paper was put onto the rack. Because I don’t really care anymore. But a few years back, I would have had an aneurysm if the toilet paper was coming out from the bottom. And I would have felt really upset at whoever racked it “wrong.”

And this anger is common with some of my clients, and for many perfectionists. A seemingly harmless thing that triggers an out-of-proportion anger. Believe it or not, this anger actually makes a lot of sense. But before I can explain why, we need to understand how perfectionism is developed.

How Your Perfectionism Might Have Been Developed

Let’s start with critical and perfectionist parents. When a child’s regular experience is being told how to do things better (criticism), the child is implicitly sent the message that they aren’t good enough. The constant criticism means we start to develop a strong Inner Critic that mimics the criticism of our parents. It berates out flaws, as an attempt to make us “more perfect,” so we can avoid the damning criticism that our parents throw our way. “Being perfect” has become the survival strategy to the onslaught of parental criticism.

And we know that for some children who grow up witnessing family conflict, they often blame themselves for it, or feel that they are responsible to fix their parents’ relationship. Parental conflict can, at times, detract from the loving care that they provide for their children. As a result, children often internalize this as “my parents don’t love me, therefore, I must not be loveable.” This can lead to developing people-pleasing behaviours in an attempt to gain their parents’ love and attention. It can also lead to children believing that if they can be the perfect little child, then it would help their parents to stop arguing and become a loving family.

But as the perfectionist child grows up, the Inner Critic and perfectionism can become more and more extreme. We have a tendency to double down on our perfectionism, because…well, being perfect had garnered us attention from our parents and other people. So anything that hinders our perfectionism is interpreted as a threat to us being worthy of being loved. This is a threat to our worth as a person. This can explain why we can sometimes feel an inner rage towards anything and anyone who we perceive as hindering our perfectionism.

The problem is, this inner rage needs to come out somehow. And when we can’t hold in the rage anymore, then what do we do? Well, we tend to direct it at the people closest to us, because they tend to be around us a lot, and because they are the safest people to direct our rage at. The perfectionist will blame those around them for doing things “wrong,” for not helping them out more, for being inconsiderate, etc.

In this externalizing of their rage, perfectionists will project all of their anger, fears, and insecurities onto other people. Instead of addressing and healing the deep wounds that the perfectionist has, the perfectionist will focus all of their rage, fears, and insecurities on the imperfections of the people around them. And this rage is actually a way for perfectionists to continue to avoid the actual root causes of their perfectionism – trauma.

What sucks the most is that the target of the anger is often those closest to us. Our partners, spouses, family members, etc. And this actually hinders our ability to get what we truly want…love and connection.

Anger Isn’t A Bad Thing

Feeling angry isn’t a bad thing. And I often congratulate my clients who feel angry, because it is a protective emotion that some of us was taught that we weren’t allowed to feel. But what is important is how we process the emotion. We want to find safe ways to understand our emotions. And no, we probably shouldn’t take it out on our partners, even if they rack the toilet paper wrong.

I talk about a simple 5-minute CBT journal exercise here that you can use to help you process. Using breathing techniques can also help with helping calm the anger. After having calmed down a bit, a good question to ask ourselves is whether this imperfect thing happening will threaten my life, my livelihood, or severely impact my life in a negative way? Often times, we will find that what we previously felt was catastrophic, may not actually be catastrophic.

Appreciating Those Around You

As a recovering perfectionist, I can admit that I had let my perfectionist rage hurt many people around me. And I am super grateful to have a partner who is incredibly understanding. Nowadays, I don’t really lash out anymore, but that doesn’t mean my anger stops showing up. And let me tell you, my partner can definitely tell when there is an angry shitstorm brewing inside of me. I am grateful for the love and compassion she shows towards that angry part of me. She has taught me a lot about self-compassion and self-forgiveness.

And ya, who cares about the toilet paper. Life is too short and precious to worry about such small things.

So for Asian Heritage Month, let’s commit to healing from the cultural-historic, institutional, and family traumas, by embracing our imperfect selves. You deserve love, compassion, and understanding without having to be perfect.

Hey there, my name is Harry, and I’m an Asian therapist here to support your search for health and authenticity. If you are open to weekly self-care FUN-ctivities, subscribe to my “Happy Chemicals Club.” If you enjoy podcasts, you can check these out.

Harry Au

Therapy for Asians

MSW, RSW | he/him

I help Asians go from feeling trapped to becoming self-liberated.

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