You can find plenty of articles and blogs on the internet with titles like “Perfectionism is the enemy of the good” , “Perfectionism is the enemy of progress”, and even more extreme ones like “Perfectionism is the enemy of everything” or “Perfectionism is the enemy of self.”
Yes, it’s true that perfectionism can be an exhausting, painful, nerve-wracking, and isolating experience.
It can wreak havoc in our relationships and sabotage our careers.
And often, despite our consistent efforts to fight it, reframe it with mindset work, silence it with mindfulness, or soothe it with self-compassion it seems to always come back, refusing to budge.
But what if we approached perfectionism in a totally new way? What if we saw it not as an enemy but as a friend trying to protect us? It might sound like a stretch, but exploring the reasons behind our relentless pursuit of flawlessness can offer a much easier, more effective, and sustainable path to release its grip on our lives.
Perfectionism’s Impact on Everyday Life:
Perfectionism can create a myriad of everyday challenges that impact our well-being and relationships. At work, it might lead us to procrastinate, avoid risks, or struggle to delegate tasks, fearing failure or criticism. In our personal lives, it can strain relationships, make us overly critical of ourselves and others, and cause anxiety in social situations.
Here is a list of 10 statements I would like to invite you to reflect on and answer honestly with a simple yes or no. This self-assessment will help you gain insight into how much the tendency to be perfect shows up in your own life:
- 1. Setting unrealistic standards and expectations for yourself.
- 2. Trying to be perfect in everything you do.
- 3. Constantly dwelling on your mistakes and feeling like a failure.
- 4. Being overly critical of yourself and never feeling good enough.
- 5. Judging others harshly and finding faults in them.
- 6. Feeling afraid to take risks or make mistakes.
- 7. Wanting to control everything to avoid criticism from others.
- 8. Getting defensive when someone gives you feedback.
- 9. Blaming yourself for things, even when it’s not your fault.
- 10. Focusing only on the end result and not enjoying the learning and growth process.
Even with one strong ‘yes’ the toll of perfectionism can be evident. However, it’s also essential to remember that things are not always what they seem and it might be a misunderstanding to see perfectionism as the main villain here.
Diving Beneath the Surface: What Perfectionism Does for You?
Let’s look at perfectionism from the point of view of the Internal Family Systems (IFS) psychotherapy model. IFS has the concept of the “protective part,” which can shed light on why perfectionism can become a dominant force in our lives. According to IFS, our mind is composed of various parts, each with its own distinct personality, emotions, and beliefs. These parts form an internal system and are in relationships with one another, all striving to keep us safe and well. In IFS, none of these parts are seen as negative or problematic in themselves. Instead, they are seen as having a protective function.
So, it really helps us to get curious about who is your perfectionist part protecting, and from what?
The perfectionist part most often emerges as a response to childhood emotional neglect or other early adverse experiences. It likely stepped in as a way to shield us from the pain of a young part whose essential emotional needs were not met. As a result, this younger part began to feel like they weren’t good enough or lovable. The perfectionist part is like an inner protector trying to keep us safe from the hurtful emotions of the past. It believes that if we can be flawless and make no mistakes, as well as avoid criticism, rejection, or any other threat to our self-worth, we will keep this young part’s pain and intense emotions at bay.
However, this pursuit of perfection often becomes counterproductive, leading to immense stress, anxiety, and a sense of never measuring up.
Real-Life Client Examples:
To better understand the connection between perfectionism and childhood emotional neglect, let’s explore some real-life client examples.
1: Alex’s Relationship with Perfectionism – Endless Pursuit of Success
Alex grew up in a family where academic achievements were highly valued, and any shortcomings were met with harsh criticism. This upbringing led Alex to believe that love and acceptance hinged on being the best in everything. As an adult, this translated into an intense drive for success in his career, but no matter how much he accomplished, the perfectionist part within him never allowed him to savour his achievements and always demanded more.
During our sessions, as Alex delved deeper into his perfectionist tendencies, he began to uncover the determined and relentless nature of this part. But as our work progressed and the perfectionist part eased up a bit, it allowed us to meet another part yearning for Alex’s attention.
This part took him back to a significant memory from his childhood, when he was 8 years old. A piano recital he had prepared for diligently, hoping to impress his parents and the audience at his school. Unfortunately, midway through the piece, he made a small mistake. Although it might have gone unnoticed by many, Alex knew his parents wouldn’t overlook it. As he completed the piece with skill and talent, he desperately hoped for words of comfort or praise from his parents but… there were none. Instead, they coldly remarked, “You should have been more careful not to make mistakes.”
In that moment, Alex’s heart sank, overwhelmed by a sense of failure and inadequacy.
As a young boy, Alex had a limited capacity to cope with such overwhelming emotions. To shield himself from the unbearable pain and shame of not being good enough, he had to cast these feelings away and place a powerful guard in place to make sure they will stay safely locked away and wouldn’t stop him from moving forward in life the best he could. And that was exactly how his perfectionist part was born.
2: Sarah’s Relationship with Perfectionism – Fear of Confrontation
Sarah’s childhood was marked by a lot of conflicts and arguments between her parents, leaving her both scared and feeling unseen and unheard. As an adult, Sarah became a people-pleaser, always putting others’ needs before her own. She feared rejection and avoided conflict at all costs.
Her perfectionist part compelled her to maintain an impeccable image in all areas of her life, believing that only if she looked, spoke and behaved perfectly things would be ok.
After a few therapy sessions when Sarah’s perfectionist part was ready to show us who it was protecting, Sarah was able to discover a much younger part of herself.
She saw a 3-year-old girl, sitting in a high chair at a dinner table while her parents got into a heated argument with each other after her refusing to eat something on her plate. The tension in the room was palpable, and she felt her heart racing with fear. The argument escalated, and Sarah tried to disappear into the background, hoping that if she didn’t draw any more attention to herself, the conflict would end sooner.
But as the argument continued, Sarah’s anxiety grew. She desperately wanted the fighting to stop, and she felt the whole situation was her own fault. As the yelling continued, Sarah’s fear overwhelmed her, and she broke into tears.
That made her parents stop, but instead, they fell silent, refusing to speak to each other or to her as well. In the days that followed, the atmosphere at home remained tense. Sarah felt like she was walking on eggshells, scared that any wrong move would ignite the conflict again.
Fast forward years later, Sarah’s perfectionist part, which was called upon to help her with the overwhelming fear and sense of responsibility, is still making sure Sarah would not risk any confrontation or conflict, even though she is no longer a small, helpless girl stuck in her high chair at the dining table.
Understanding the Protective Function of Perfectionism
For both of my clients, the perfectionism part stepped in as a way of protecting them from the intense emotions carried by these young exile parts. Therapy offered them a chance to look at their perfectionism from a completely different perspective and gain a deeper understanding of the underlying dynamics of their inner systems. Once they have acknowledged its role they were able to develop a compassionate relationship with this part rather than engage in a constant battle against it. This approach allowed than to completely shift the focus from trying to eliminate or suppress their perfectionist traits to gently exploring their underlying intentions and fears. And as W. Dyer writes: “When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.’
Beyond Perfectionism: 3 Steps To Freedom
Reframing our relationship with perfectionism with Internal Family Systems (IFS) is a compassionate and transformative process. Here are three essential steps to begin this journey:
**1. Identify and Befriend the Perfectionist Part:**
The first step is to recognize the presence of the perfectionist part within you. This part might be the voice that pushes you relentlessly towards flawlessness, setting impossible standards or it might be the critic that is never happy with your successes and achievements. Instead of viewing it as an enemy, check in with yourself whether you can find curiosity and compassion. Remember that the perfectionist part emerged as a protective mechanism to shield you from feeling inadequate or unlovable. Acknowledging its intentions to keep you safe and well will help you start to get to know and befriend this part.
**2. Heal the Exiled Part:**
This step for most of us requires the assistance of a qualified therapist who can hold space and guide you through the process. As you delve into your inner system together, you may encounter your wounded and exiled parts buried beneath layers of perfectionism. These exiled parts hold the pain of feeling unworthy and unlovable due to emotional neglect, trauma or other adversity you experienced in childhood. Through the process of unburdening and embracing this wounded part with understanding and love, profound healing can take place. And once you integrate these exiled parts back into your inner world, your perfectionist part does not need to protect them any longer and gradually starts to relax.
**3. Facilitate Dialogue and Integration:**
You can further facilitate this process by being present and listening to your perfectionist part. Encourage it to share its beliefs and concerns but also show it that you are a capable adult now and the adverse circumstances of your childhood are a thing of the past. Listen with empathy and offer reassurance. Then, gently invite this part to explore alternative ways to achieve its goals that are more flexible and compassionate. Help it understand that it no longer needs to carry the burden of perfectionism to protect you. As this dialogue unfolds, you can begin to integrate the wisdom and qualities of the perfectionist part into your broader sense of self, fostering a harmonious and balanced inner system.
Psychotherapy can help you embrace the whole of you
With the guidance of IFS therapy, there is no need for battling, pushing through, or getting rid of any parts or aspects of yourself. Instead, you can gradually release the grip of perfectionism with understanding and compassion and thus create space for growth, self-acceptance, and authenticity.
Many techniques that claim to help you ‘break free’ from perfectionism overlook its root causes. So often I see clients whose recurrent and well-intended attempts to create more flexibility and ease fail because they don’t take into account the emotional wounds from their childhoods. Acknowledging that perfectionism often acts as a shield, protecting us from feelings of inadequacy stemming from childhood adversity, adds the missing piece of the puzzle. To make real progress and cultivate self-compassion, we need to first explore how perfectionism serves us. This is where psychotherapy shines. A skilled therapist can help you uncover the deeper layers, heal emotional wounds, and guide you towards a more authentic and self-loving life.
With the support of psychotherapy, you can finally allow yourself to be fully and unapologetically yourself and embrace all of your imperfections with compassion and courage.
Isn’t it what we all deeply long for?
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