Addicted, dysfunctional and chaotic families are a breeding ground for perfectionism.

Therapists and addiction counselors often talk about alcoholism (or any addiction) as a family disease because it affects everyone in the family. As I’m sure you’re aware, an addict’s behavior has far-reaching consequences for his/her family, especially thechildren.

Alcoholic homes are unpredictable and harsh. Some children learn that the best way to cope is to become an overly compliant pleaser. We keep the peace by trying to keep everyone happy all of the time.Adult Children of Alcoholicsstates “…we became people-pleasers, even though we lost our own identities in the process. All the same we would mistake any personal criticism as a threat.”

This people-pleasing creates weak boundaries. We tend to overextend ourselves in order to please others. And we overextend ourselves to pursue goals and achievement at any cost. Throwing ourselves into work or school can become an escape and a way to bury our feelings. It also becomes an essential way to prove our worth and get validation.

Children in alcoholic families also become overly responsible out of necessity. Weoften have to take care of ouraddicted or codependent parents and/or siblings. Welearn early on that others are untrustworthy and to rely on ourselves.

Many children in alcoholic or dysfunctional families cope by being “good girls” or “good boys”. The idea was that if we could be perfect, follow all the rules, get the best grades, make the basketball team, or win a spelling bee, we might be able to please our parents and get some positive attention. More likely, however, our perfectionism served as a way to avoid harsh criticism and unwanted attention. We wanted to fly under the radar and perfectionism served this goal.

Because we were blamed and criticized as children we came to internalize these beliefs and now we’re overly harsh with ourselves. We expect perfection from ourselves and since this isn’t possible we berate ourselves, feel intense guilt, shame, and hopelessness.

Perfectionism erodes our self-esteem. Because we can’t possibly be perfect and achieve our unrealistic goals, we always feel inadequate, unlovable, or worthless. Perfectionism is like a hamster wheel that we can’t get off — we feel lousy about ourselves, so we seek external validation, which leads to overworking, proving, and perfecting, which creates stress and ultimately leads us back to feelings of shame and failure because we couldn’t live up to our perfectionist standards.

ACA traits include:

  • people-pleasing
  • perfectionism
  • fear of abandonment or rejection
  • taking care of others to feelworthy
  • all or nothing thinking
  • not know who you are
  • trying to control others
  • poor boundaries
  • difficulty trusting
  • no feeling “good enough”
  • tending to “stuff” or numb feelings
  • being self-critical
  • being passive or feeling guilty when you assertive yourself
  • difficulty relaxing and having fun
  • being sensitive to criticism from others

If you’re a perfectionist who grew up in an alcoholic family, remember that perfectionism was a coping strategy. It was helpful when you were a child. It was the best strategy you could come up with. In other words, it was an understandable and normal response to a chaotic and confusing upbringing.

Now, it’s time to ask yourself if your perfectionism still serves you well. Or is it time to let go of perfectionism and find new coping strategies? Hopefully, you are no longer living with an addict (but if you are, realize you have more choices as an adult). Your perfectionist coping strategies became habits. With work, you can change your habits and perfectionist thinking if they’re no longer helpful. You can begin to invite fun and self-compassion into your life. You can accept mistakes and not be so harsh with yourself.

The first step in any change is acknowledging that you have a problem: Perfectionism is causing you pain and suffering. From here you start to set goals and take action. There is hope!

Helpful Resources for ACAs:

The CBT Workbook for Perfectionism

Adult Children of Alcoholics

Co-Dependents Anonymous

National Association for Children of Alcoholics (UK)


2015 Sharon Martin, LCSW. All rights reserved. Image courtesy of holohololand at