Oh, perfectionism. It’s so easy to overlook, so easy to accept as “just the way we are”. And
anyway, what’s the problem with wanting to get things right? What’s wrong with having high
standards and striving for excellence?

Perfectionism, like all protective strategies, arises out of a need to adapt to the environment we
find ourselves in. Our families, schools, cultures, and workplaces shape our behaviour based on
what happens there.

Some environments highly reward us for getting things right, doing what’s expected, consistently
performing at a high level, and reaching mastery as quickly as possible. Some environments will
punish or shame us for learning more slowly, making mistakes, doing things our own way, or
being a beginner. Some environments will both push us to perform and punish or shame our
performance, even when we thought it was good, creating an impossible and bewildering
double-bind.

And so, we learn how to be as perfect as possible. It can be great at first. We might be praised
for our high grades, our work ethic, our outcomes, and our products. We might earn a lot of money.
But it can quickly feel empty and unsatisfying, and we set our sights on the next achievement.
Over and over again. Until we’re addicted to work, exhausted, and burned out.

On the other hand, under-employment or avoiding the pursuit of our true goals can also be an
outcome of perfectionism. This often happens if we have found ourselves in a punishing or
double-bind environment in the past, or if having what you wanted blew up in your face
somehow. If you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t, perfectionism can turn into a kind
of protective paralysis, even as there is an inner voice telling you you’re not doing or achieving
enough. We’ve got one foot on the gas and the other on the brake, which ends up in a different
kind of burnout that often looks and feels more like anxiety and depression.

As human beings, we all want to matter, to belong, and to be safe with others. Striving for
perfection can be a noble strategy to try to earn our place and avoid harm. When we
acknowledge our perfectionist parts, we can honour them for how hard they’ve been working
while also acknowledging any other parts that might be upset about having to be perfect. And we
can begin to be curious – how will they know when they’ve worked enough? How do they know
when it’s perfect?

I remember a session I had with my own therapist where we were working with one of my
perfectionist parts. It turned out that this part had no idea when I had worked enough, or when
something was good enough. This part was oriented only to other people’s reactions, and if
there was any hint of displeasure from others this part believed she had to keep working even
harder. As I stayed with this part and got to know the vulnerability behind her, she transformed into a tree. The tree wasn’t good or bad, perfect or imperfect. It was no longer a problem to solve or a strategy to stay safe. These questions didn’t even really make sense to it anymore. It was just part of me, alive and growing.