Is Perfectionism Responsible For Your Chronic Pain?

Imperfectly Perfect

“Does perfectionism cause chronic pain?” This might come as a surprise to many, but the answer is a resounding “YES!”. I could never have imagined that the perfectionism I cherished so much was at the root of my chronic pain.

The greatest breakthrough I made in my journey to heal my own pain came from the work of Dr. John Sarno, who is a pioneer in the field of Mind-Body Medicine. If you are not familiar with his work, I highly recommend that you read his bestseller titled, “Healing Back Pain: The Mind-Body Connection”. This book single-handedly kick-started my recovery.

In “Healing Back Pain”, Dr. Sarno introduces the theory that back pain is linked to a slight oxygen deprivation of the muscles and ligaments due to periodic or chronic restriction of the blood vessels carrying oxygen to the joints. This lack of oxygen is not drastic enough to cause cell damage and hence is not visible in MRIs, but it is excruciatingly painful. Dr. Sarno conducted brain imaging studies that verify the pain patients are reporting. He labels this condition “TMS: Tension Myositis Syndrome”. TMS impacts a wide-range of individuals regardless of age, gender, race, diet, fitness, or overall health. Sarno wanted to understand what was causing some individuals to experience TMS and some not, so he embarked on a quest to uncover the roots of TMS.

Through years of research and numerous studies, Dr. Sarno found a common link between individuals with TMS… Perfectionism! When I first read this, I found it outlandish. However, as I dove deeper into his detailed psychological profile of a TMS patient, it became clear to me that it described me to the letter! Sarno explains that perfectionist individuals are people-pleasers at the core. Their stride to be of service and to be loved is what makes them perfectionists. Often a result of strict upbringings, perfectionists consciously or unconsciously believe that they aren’t “good enough”, so they spend an exhausting amount of energy perfecting their behavior and manicuring their personalities. Even though they might be embracing their perfectionism or even celebrate it as I did, the subconscious mind is busy harboring a deep resentment over the pain of not being “good enough”. Sarno suggests that over the years, this deep emotional wound bubbles up and must come to the awareness of the conscious mind.

The ability of the subconscious mind to shield us from traumatic memories has been a subject of debate in the medical community in recent years. A recent study by Northwestern Medicine scientists “discovered for the first time the mechanism by which state-dependent learning renders stressful fear-related memories consciously inaccessible”. Sarno suggests that just as the subconscious mind is capable of shielding our conscious mind from traumatic memories, it also shields us from bringing the emotional trauma associated with maintaining a perfectionist personality into our awareness and it does so by seeking an alternate outlet to “distract” our conscious minds from this emotional wound. In patients with TMS, the subconscious mind chooses pain in muscles, joints, and ligaments as a “defense mechanism” to distract us from the larger underlying emotional wound. Anyone who has experienced chronic pain knows that it dominates and consumes one’s entire life and mind, leaving little to no emotional or physical bandwidth, making pain perhaps the most effective “defense mechanism” against bringing subconscious thoughts into awareness. In “Healing Back Pain”, Sarno does an incredible job decoding this defense mechanism by simply bringing it into the awareness of the conscious mind. In doing so, it can no longer be utilized as a defense mechanism as the cover is blown on what the TMS pain truly is. In many cases, the pain will decrease or completely stop upon such awareness but the underlying emotional wounds are often so great that they require professional help as they often stem from childhood experiences.

Discovering that my perfectionism was the root of my suffering was an incredible breakthrough, but little did I know that my entire life was about to experience a drastic shift as I embarked on a journey of self-love to heal those parts of me that held on to the belief that “I wasn’t good enough”. Stay with me as I share the eclectic beauty of what came next in my future posts.