“What the f*ck is wrong with you?”
As an Adult Child of an Alcoholic (ACA), no words could be more threatening or hurtful, and I never handled it well.
My partner would see anger and defensiveness as my go-to reaction to criticism because on the inside, I was a wounded child panicking at the thought that I’d been found out—that I am far from a perfect partner.
I’m a fraud—a flawed, damaged man unworthy of the love I’ve always craved.
For ACAs, perfectionism in our relationships is our way of life, a way to recreate ourselves as self-motivated, well-adjusted, and seemingly unaffected by our dysfunctional childhoods. We create our sense of self-worth and value by meeting all of the needs of our partner.
We constantly measure our worthiness against others, becoming everything our partner needs, to stay ahead of the harsh criticism we fear from our partners, and from ourselves.
Growing up in out-of-control environments, full of isolation and not-good-enough, set the stage for our perfectionism. We never consistently received the emotional nurturing and support that would have allowed us to feel perfectly imperfect and comfortable with ourselves.
Instead, our imperfections were often met with disappointment and judgment, sending our flawed, not-good-enough selves into isolation and despair. From these struggles with our dysfunctional childhoods came the unrelenting chase for worthiness and acceptance that we carried into adulthood.
As adults, perfectionism gives us a sense of control over our environment and feeling of self-worth. In our professional lives, we’re often rewarded for perfectionism, but in our intimate relationships, it’s a different story. We learn to manipulate others for our sense of love and belonging, by focusing on the needs of our significant other. We strive to become the perfect partner even if it means sacrificing our own needs and completely losing ourselves in the process.
This way of operating works for us, as long as our measuring stick is our ability to avoid having our flaws exposed. We do relationships on our own terms, but the price we pay is a chance at the deep, meaningful relationships we truly desire.
But the reality is, it doesn’t work at all.
While perfectionism can appear as the desire to be all-you-can-be, for Adult Children of Alcoholics, it is the desire to be everything we wish we were but are not. And this desire comes with a huge amount of pressure as our feelings of self-worth are on the line.
I want to see myself through your eyes—as the attractive, desirable, worthy person you think I am. I’m in love with the way you love me. I’m also terrified because I’m afraid that if you really knew me, you wouldn’t love me at all. And one day, I’ll slip up and make a mistake, and have to see the disappointment in your eyes at learning what I’ve always known—that the person you love is unlovable.
As ACAs we chase perfection, not because we are running toward lofty goals, but because we are running for our lives, trying to stay ahead of the shame and fear of unworthiness that relentlessly hunts us down without mercy.
We’re desperate to hide away the parts of ourselves that are undesirable and unattractive. We burden ourselves with the unrealistic expectation of being the perfect partner, never allowing ourselves the space to make mistakes or disappoint people we love.
We conceal this significant red flag from our partners, keeping it well-hidden by shaping it into a cape and wearing it into our relationships.
As long as things are going well, we feel safe and secure. This is one reason we do so much better at the beginnings of relationships when it’s easier to show only our best sides and keep the rest out of view.
But as the relationship progresses, this becomes harder to maintain. As ACAs, what we know is dysfunction and chaos; we have very little experience with healthy relationships, or the vulnerability necessary to achieve them. Expecting ourselves and our partners to perform perfectly is too much to ask.
As our facade of perfection begins to crack, we hold on even tighter. We feel intense anxiety and pressure because we’ve tied our emotional well-being and self-worth to not messing up, and we begin to feel fearful and insecure when we do.
Criticism is intolerable—we can’t admit mistakes or imperfections. They are serious threats to our ability to function in the relationship as they appear to be clear signs that we are no longer meeting all of our partner’s needs. These are immature feelings from our unhealed childhood traumas, which we match by reacting with defensiveness and anger.
This conflict within ourselves continues to grow with the relationship. We no longer feel as secure as we did early on, and we struggle mightily with the same issues that plagued us during childhood: low self-esteem, isolation, anxiety, depression, and intimacy issues.
As we are revealed to be flawed and fallible partners, we’re forced to let go of the fantasy of our perfect relationship.
Many of us don’t realize why we suffer so much, and why the deep, intimate relationships we desire are always beyond our reach. Without knowing, we continue to repeat the unhealthy patterns we learned as children which now permeate our adult relationships.
We’ve spent so much of our lives battling shame and imperfection that we never learned the value of vulnerability, that it’s the key to the fulfilling relationships we want. Learning to communicate openly and honestly about our struggles, fears, and mistakes allows us to develop trust not only with ourselves but also in our relationships.
The time has come to set down our fears and learn to appreciate our flaws and imperfections—they make us unique and authentic. Instead of denying our mistakes in relationships, we can accept the gifts they give us—the opportunities to learn and grow, becoming better partners over time.
If we can find the courage to face our lifelong issues and accept ourselves as we are, we’ll have the chance to be loved and accepted, not in spite of our imperfections, but because of them.