by Jay Earley, PhD
The Perfectionist is a part of you that tries to get you to do things perfectly. It has very high standards for your behavior and especially for products you create or performances you make. This often comes up around written reports. Often the Perfectionist says that something you have produced isn’t good enough and must be improved before anyone sees it. You feel anxious or agitated when you might consider turning it a project. The Perfectionist makes you doubt the quality of what you have produced by focusing only on its shortcomings. The result is that you end up working much longer on a project than is really necessary. People with Perfectionist parts often are unable to turn anything in until there is an absolute deadline, and some may consistently turn in work late.
The Perfectionist is afraid to stamp something as finished and your best work. It is afraid that if you turn in something that isn’t perfect, you will be judged, rejected, dismissed, or even ridiculed. It may be afraid that you will be seen as mediocre, because it feels that excellence is required for you to be OK. The Perfectionist believes that you have a Sloppy part that would be willing to turn in inferior work, and its job is to make sure that doesn’t happen. The Perfectionist often does this in a harsh, judgmental way. It doesn’t just tell you to improve your work, it castigates you. It may call you stupid, lazy, sloppy, etc. This can make a part of you feel inadequate or ashamed or perhaps depressed. We call this part the Criticized Child.
Most Perfectionist parts learned this approach by modeling themselves after one or both of your parents or a guardian or teacher, someone who was a perfectionist, who was never satisfied with what you produced and only focused on what needed correction.
Some Perfectionist parts are so frightened that they won’t let you produce anything. The first few rounds of work on anything will be preliminary and require more work. However, some Perfectionists can’t stand to produce anything that is less than perfect even if you aren’t going to show it to anyone. A part like this may interfere with your ability to even get started on a project. For example, it can cause writers block.
Some Perfectionist parts are impossible to please. No matter how hard you work or how good your final product is, they always find something to criticize. They never allow you to feel good about your work. Other Perfectionists can be satisfied. If your work finally attains the high standards the part requires, they will praise you for being perfect.
Perfectionist parts can also have high standards about your appearance, your behavior, or your performance. You must be perfectly groomed and behave impeccably. And any performance must be flawless. They usually focus entirely on what isn’t perfect and fail to give you appreciation for what you have done well.
Since your Perfectionist is trying to help you, it is possible to connect with it using IFS and get it to cooperate with you. Once it realizes that you understand what it is trying to do for you, it will often relax and being to trust you. You can discover what it is trying to protect you from, which is often a vulnerable part of you that was judged, rejected, or dismissed. You can then access that part and heal it. Then the Perfectionist is even more likely to let go of its extreme stance.
For help in overcoming Perfectionism:
Self-Therapy Journey is an interactive online tool for psychological healing and personal growth that has a module on Perfectionism.